Upcoming Events, And a New Texas Field Notes

One way to help protect nature is by sharing what it is like to walk through Texas’ woodlands, prairies, wetlands, deserts, and mountains and teach people a little of the natural history of these places. Sometimes we try to do this through writing, and sometimes in more direct ways. Clint and I are participating in a couple of upcoming events we would like to tell you about.

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A Pond at Southwest Nature Preserve

On April 28, Nic Martinez (an expert on fish and aquatic ecosystems) will join us for a free event at the Southwest Nature Preserve. We plan three activities, starting at 4:00pm with exploring what’s below the ponds using nets and seines (this is an approved SW Nature Preserve activity – please don’t do this on your own). A variety of turtles, frogs, fish, and invertebrates live in the ponds, and we’ll find some of them and document them in the citizen science app “iNaturalist,” as part of the City Nature Challenge 2018. Next, at 6:00pm the two of us and Nic will lead a walk through the preserve, exploring this Eastern Cross Timbers ecosystem and the critters that live there. Then, at 8:00pm as night falls we will take another walk. We will pay particular attention to the edges of the ponds, where frogs may be calling and we might see a harmless snake or two swimming under a nearly full moon! Owls may be calling and spiders will be spinning their beautiful webs.

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LBJ National Grasslands

On May 26, the two of us will lead some hikes at the LBJ National Grasslands in Wise County. This is a place where both of us have spent a lot of time, and it offers a great deal to those who love the prairies and woods of the Cross Timbers. The event is sponsored by the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, and is offered for members of the Friends of Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. We are particularly focusing on the reptiles and amphibians of the LBJ National Grasslands, but you know that Clint will be showing us a lot about the invertebrates that we will find. Michael Perez, from the nature center, can contribute tons of expertise regarding birds and lots more. The event is available for a limited number of people on a first-come, first-served basis, and only to members of the Friends of FWNCR. The Friends would be very happy for you to become a member!

TX-Field-Notes-Jul12Among our past efforts to share nature and encourage conservation was the publication of Texas Field Notes (TFN). The first issue of TFN appeared in 2003 and a few others followed, but it was in April, 2010 that Clint joined Michael in writing an issue of TFN, beginning a long and productive partnership. Our goal was to share our travels across the state looking for herps and get readers “hooked” on the experience of being out there in those wonderful places and seeing amazing wildlife. Perhaps through our words and photos, readers would come to feel a connection to those places that was like home – a place where they felt at peace, where they belonged, and a place they would want to protect. Perhaps readers would have an even greater understanding that everything in the woods, prairies, wetlands, and deserts had an important role to play, even if it was not obvious to us. Even the lowly and misunderstood have value and would be missed if they were gone. Our goal has been this – get out there, experience all you can, and treasure the natural world like a beloved member of your family.

Now seems like a good time to revive that publication, as a companion to this blog. There is something to be said for a publication that you can print and hold in your hands, and one that can be downloaded and saved (or read at the Issuu website). We hope that readers will share it with others, and that schools might make use of it. We also want to include other voices, so if you are a naturalist with something you would like to write, please get in touch with us. We strive to make TFN engaging and accessible for readers, while making sure that its scientific accuracy is solid. And as it was before, it will be a free publication.

On top of all that, we are working on the page proofs for the forthcoming book, Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles and Amphibians, due out this fall. We are really excited about finally seeing this book come out, and hope you will be, too.

Mary’s Creek, Across the Generations

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The creek, 3/31/2018

It was a beautiful warm day, the last day of March, and perfect for introducing a couple of people to my favorite prairie creek in western Tarrant County. Flowing across the dark earth of the Fort Worth prairie, the water cuts down to the layers of limestone, clay, and shale, so that the creek bed is relatively wide and flat. I was introduced to Mary’s Creek in the 1960’s by museum buddies, and we walked and waded along its course finding plenty of the reptiles and amphibians that we loved. On this day, Clint and his nine-year-old son Zev would make its acquaintance, wading through clear water and walking over jumbled limestone rocks that the creek piles up like coarse sandbars. Zev is just a little younger than I was when I first explored this place.

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Plain-bellied or “blotched” watersnake – a harmless snake seen in 2009 at the creek

In the early days, it was almost a sure thing that you would find a ribbonsnake or two threading their way through the vegetation at the water’s edge, hunting for cricket frogs. Similarly, plain-bellied watersnakes (then called blotched watersnakes) were common, though the creek has gone through periods when diamond-backed watersnakes dominated. When I first wandered this creek, it was common to see Texas earless lizards darting between chunks of limestone and stopping to raise their tail and wave the exposed black-and-white bars underneath in a display meant to distract predators. These pale gray or slightly beige lizards are still found here and there in central and west Texas, but they are evidently gone from Tarrant County, at least.

A lizard that may still put in an appearance from time to time, especially in areas where sandy soil borders the creek bed, is the Texas spotted whiptail. These striped lizards burrow in sandy soil and easily live up to the speed implied by “whiptail” and “racerunner” (a closely related species). Red-eared slider turtles have always been there, and occasionally you find a Texas river cooter. Spiny soft-shelled turtles turn up here and there, as do snapping turtles.

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Texas river cooter seen at Mary’s Creek in 2015

When we started our walk, Clint went ahead in search of insects, while Zev and I spent quite a bit of time wading through broad, shallow pools and narrow places where the water surged along rapidly. We talked about how the exposed flat areas of limestone are quite slippery because of the algae growing there, and he quickly learned to use submerged patches of gravel for more sure footing. His curiosity is unquenchable, and he brought up a pebble of shale and marveled at the gooey surface of the rock. These “mudstones” are really just compressed silt and clay, and they easily deteriorate after being in the water. We probably both would have enjoyed wading on into the deeper areas and dunking below the water, had we been dressed for it. But we tried to stay upright in our trek across the slippery limestone and somehow we both succeeded.

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A section of ammonite from Mary’s Creek

It became largely a fossil-finding walk for Zev, as we looked for fragments of the late-Cretaceous ammonites that are fairly common in the limestone bed of the creek. “Lower” Cretaceous means late in that geologic period when dinosaurs were alive and a shallow sea covered a good portion of Texas. A little over 100 million years ago, the area around Fort Worth was at or near the shores of that sea, and to the southwest the dinosaur tracks around Glen Rose were evidently made in the mud around the water’s edge. The limestone of western Tarrant County contains fossils of many sea creatures, including oysters, gastropods whose shells made a spiral cone, rounded sea urchins, and ammonites. While the overall shape of an ammonite shell suggests that of a chambered nautilus, they are said to have been more closely related to today’s squids and cuttlefish. In my many walks and wades along this creek, I used to find intact ammonites up to about 18 inches across (which is not their maximum size). Whether because the creek has eroded down to layers with fewer fossils or for some other reason, a walk today will usually turn up no more than a segment of that ribbed spiral shell.

We each spotted several segments of ammonites, and I found an oyster or two while Clint picked up a couple of gastropods for Zev’s inspection. I think Zev is ready to return to the creek, and I would sure be happy if I have handed down a tradition that he can pick up and carry on. These prairie streams are magical, whether they are running with clear water after rains or drying in the summer sun into isolated pools where sunfish dart under submerged ledges and herons prowl the water’s edge for frogs and fish.

Spearing, D. 1991. Roadside geology of Texas. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Co.

Wikipedia: Ammonoidea. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonoidea (accessed 4/1/18)

Atrox, Antivenin, & Amputation Anniversary


Well, today marks the one-year anniversary of my snakebite, and I believe I had promised a first-hand account to you all, dear readers. A year seems like plenty of time and then some to get over the pain and bother of it, I suppose. Over the course of the last 365 days I have had to reteach myself to type, and I can no longer feel anything at the end of what is left of my ring finger (except, of course, when I bump it on something) but other than that I can’t complain. So without further ado, here is a memoir of my painful, educational encounter with Princess Atrox…

*DISCLAIMER: any insinuation of intentional sadistic ill-treatment, gross malpractice, or sociopathic barbarism in regards to the doctors or nurses that treated me is to be taken lightly; I experienced a high degree of kindness and professionalism at both hospitals, from the nurses, doctors, anesthesiologist, and yes, even the surgeon…*

BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH

(A HANDS-ON LESSON IN HEMO-TOXICOLOGY)

 

 with thy sharp teeth

this knot intrinsicate

of life at once untie;

poor venomous fool,

be angry, and despatch

 – Cleopatra

– Act V

 

​It is past midnight. A brisk, violent wind has blown in from the wild western plains, piloting the way for a slow-moving thunderstorm that is soon to come rolling across the cross timbers on this warm, early spring. I am writing by pen, as the current physical condition of my left hand has left me in a disabled state unsuitable for life behind the keyboard. Occasionally I glance over at my crippled, bandaged left, and my gaze is naturally directed toward that odd, inch-long space where my ring finger used to be but now is not. It is not because seven days ago, for the brief span of what had to be less than a second, a juvenile western diamondback was firmly fastened to it, her minute curved hypodermic dentition embedded to the hilt, swollen venom glands contracting and expanding as they delivered a full load of potent hemotoxic cocktail into the soft pad of my fingertip. As quickly as she had struck the snake released her hold. But the damage had been done. The complex combination of proteins and peptides went to work breaking down the absorbent subcutaneous tissue just north of my wedding ring, and my nerves sent a bolt of hot, searing pain into my brain exclaiming something like, “Thirty-five percent of venomous snakebites are dry! Congratulations! Welcome to the majority!” And shortly thereafter came the most painful part: informing my wife that her idiot husband had gotten that part of his hand adorned with his symbol of devotion to her a little too close to the homing range of a rattlesnake’s heat sensitive pits, those chemosensory red flags of danger ablaze on the flickering tips of a violet-black forked tongue, signaling its reptilian brain to strike out with mouth agape, elastic jaws stretched, fangs unfolded from their fleshy sheaths and pointed forward in that age-old, sinless self defense mechanism devoid of malice but damaging all the same. It is one that works superbly well, accomplishing its intended purpose with a speed of which few other things can compare. Touch a red-hot pan and you drop it without thinking. Take a bite from a crotalid and you stop messing with it instantly, I can guarantee you. ‘Don’t Tread On Me’, her whirring caudal appendage continued to resonate as I secured her quickly in the lock box. Yes ma’am. Message understood loud and clear, thank you very much, and further accentuated with every pulsing throb of my fiery fingertip, from which twin pinpricks of bright red blood had begun to escape from their normal vascular course and make their way on a redirected route across my bare skin. There was an instant shout of some unmentionable phrase that I can’t quite remember, a slang crude version of, “fiddly-dee, this is going to require a trip to the emergency room!” Whatever was said, my wife heard it, and by the time I could secure the snake and get to the kitchen and explain, she had the car keys in her hand. I removed the wedding ring in order to avoid blood flow restriction, then turned on the faucet and gave the now-searing wound a quick rinse, marveling at how the rapid onset of tissue degeneration, intended to dispatch and begin breaking down the snake’s prey even before it has been located and swallowed, had already caused the outer edges of the bite marks to become awash with the dull, faded purple hue of smudged ink. 


​It is a forty five minute drive to the nearest hospital that I trust (the local so-called hospital in nearby Decatur has killed more patients than Jack Kevorkian), but my wife turned on the flashers and transformed 380 into the Texas Motor Speedway, so we got there in about thirty. The Denton Presbyterian Hospital had been called and notified of the situation en route, and they confirmed they had the antivenin on hand. Meanwhile, I am keeping the hand elevated and trying my best to document the finger’s digression with the camera on my cell phone in order to keep myself from chewing my seatbelt off at the shoulder. Thanks largely to Amber’s uncanny ability to mask her concern behind a fortified steel wall of collected serious calm, we arrived safely with no dramatic curb-jumps or two-wheeled grand entrances, parked and headed for the doors of the ER.

​The venom of hemotoxic pit vipers is a thrilling, exquisite joyride of almost unbearable, indescribable pain that can best be described as having whatever extremity one so happens to have the ill fortune of being punctured by struck with a red-hot ball peen hammer. The fact that this particular bite was to the highly sensitive pad of my fingertip, where all the delicate nerve endings were gathered, made it all the more enjoyable. Remaining calm is the most important issue at hand ( pun intended), keeping the heart rate from going into hyperdrive and exploding in the chest cavity like a party balloon in a cactus patch. It is not the easiest thing in the world to do, mind you, but it is vitally necessary, and so I buckled down and did it. While Amber handed over my insurance information at the desk I took a seat in the waiting room among the broken-boned, accident prone cohorts who were likewise having a problematic weekend, checking my pulse by counting the painful throbs in my finger. ‘King!’, I soon heard the nurse call out, and I made my way to the back, where hopefully that sweet, sustaining bottle of polyvalent had already been shaken and stirred and was waiting for me in an IV bag…

 ACT II

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the ER

 

Surely life is not intended to be easy, because if it were it would cease to be interesting and we would atrophy

-CJP Ionides

 ​Of course it wasn’t. After answering the classic “twenty questions” ( I would become so sick of repeating these to each and every personnel I came into contact with that I would begin to feel like one of those pull-string toys)… I was finally led back into an ER bed, where I was assured antivenin was on its way. Michael showed up a short time later, which was a real relief, seeing as to how medical personnel is much more willing to accredit the statements and opinions of a professional-looking person in regards to proper snakebite protocol than they are a long-haired unshorn type with bug tattoos all over him. It was a good thing too, for the ER staff, while courteous, professional, and definitely a far, far cry from the primitive treatments of my hometown docs, which still prescribe whiskey for snakebite and dancing the tarantella for spider bites, was admittedly inexperienced in the matter. I met with a few nurses and doctors who were nice enough to begin administering an IV of morphine for my pain (which at this point had accelerated greatly, graduating from the burning needle-points of immediate envenomation to the feeling of having my entire hand squeezed in a vice, with the burning still present on top of this, of course). The discoloration around the pad of my fingertip had now spread to include the entire fingertip, and the ink-smudge purple hue had darkened to a most unsightly blue-black as the hemolytic juice dissolved the tissue. Pain from a hemotoxic snakebite has been described as one of the top ten most intense sensations that can occur to the human body, related to the feeling of a subcutaneous third degree burn, which is sort of what it is, with the venom working like acid as it dissolves flesh, muscle, and nerve tissue. To add to this already excruciating experience, sometime later (usually within a few hours) such euphoric and delightful symptoms as nausea, vomiting, skin tingling, hives, itching, muscle spasms, drowsiness, profuse sweating, chest constriction, breathing difficulty, and disorientation are thrown into the mix. The end result is the very definition of misery.  

​The morphine, while definitely helping to curb the burning and crushing sensations in my hand, was doing little more than taking the edge off. Michael kept asking about the Crofab, where was it and how soon could they get it out of the bottle and into my veins? Prompt administration of antivenin is the number one issue of importance when it comes to reversing the above mentioned symptoms of envenomation, and I had errantly assumed calling forty five minutes ahead of time would ensure they had it in an IV bag upon my arrival. Unfortunately, antivenin is such an expensive commodity with such a short shelf life that most hospitals cannot afford to just go breaking it open immediately, as many snakebite cases are either dry bites (where the snake injects no venom) or are bites from nonvenomous species. Of all the questions I had to answer, the “are you sure it was a rattlesnake” was the one that perturbed me the most. “Well, I’m pretty sure. Between the fact that the snake had rattles and my hand being swollen up like a plum I’d say very sure, in fact. While we’re on the topic of certainties, are you sure the antivenin is coming?” We kept being told that they were mixing it, and that I could be assured that it would get there when it did, and that in the meantime I was just going to have to be a gentleman and writhe in the agony of my ignorance in the manner of such.  

​I jest, but in reality the doctors and nurses were very caring and helpful; I was just giving in to my impatience due to the effects of the toxin flooding through my system, which was no one’s fault save my own, but I would like to think in such dire circumstances a man can be granted a little irritability.  

​At some point Michael deemed it wholesome to document a few minutes of my suffering on video. This he did in a series of snippets between 1 1/2 and 2 hours after the bite, somewhere between the morphine and the antivenin, whereupon I described the sensation as it escalated:

cold chill. intense cramping. severe burning. shaking. itching around base of middle finger. intense pressure. cold. like having my hand slammed in a door. no nausea. increased pain to entire arm.

​A short time later the blessed serum finally arrived, around the time the symptoms that accompany the spread of the venom throughout the body began to manifest. Again, Michael recorded a few of my comments:

hives. itching. swelling. tightness in face. pressure in ears.

​I had already informed the nurses that I was going to need something to throw up in, so luckily there was a bag present when it finally hit my stomach. Shortly after this the headache/glandular soreness/rash/profuse sweating/chest constriction/difficulty breathing reared its ugly head, which caused the doctor to become concerned about my possible allergic reaction to the antivenin. An administration of Benadryl was added to the IV just in case, which helped to alleviate some of those symptoms, but when my platelet count dropped from around 450,000 to 36, my blood pressure plummeted into the ‘DANGER’ zone, and my finger continued to swell, the doctor came in and made the decision to Careflight me to a hospital that had more antivenin as well as a hand surgeon on duty. They had already given me six vials of Crofab (the recommended beginning dose) and very wisely had decided to take no chances. By this point the mind-debilitating effects of the venom mixed with the morphine had put me in a state of delirium, and all I can remember about my chopper tour of the metroplex was looking out of the window of the helicopter thinking ‘this is one expensive express lane to bypass I-35 construction backup’ and ‘wouldn’t it be ironic if I rolled out and plummeted to my death in a state of venom-induced delirium…now that would be a news headline!’ ‘WORLD’S UNLUCKIEST MAN’…


 

ACT III

 RATTLESNAKE ETIQUETTE

 

Something was obviously wrong with my technique.

– -CJP Ionides, Mambas & Man-eaters

 

 ​I suppose this is the point in my story where I should attempt to explain the facts and opinions surrounding the nature of how I caused my skin to come into contact with the business end of a western diamondback rattlesnake in the first place. I will start with a word to the wise from the formerly ignorant. If you must keep venomous snakes (as some of us feel they must) you will do yourself a mighty favor to keep them one to a box. Perhaps even more importantly, make sure that box is not a Vision cage, or any other type of cage that contains an interior rim where the snake can hide itself. While the rattlesnake(s) I had were only temporary captives (being rescues from a friend of mine who comes across them frequently on his property and wishes to have them relocated rather than killed), I had them stored in a 24 x 24, x12” locked Vision. There were four of them in there, all juvenile specimens under 18” in length. I was well aware of the interior rim of the cage, as the snakes like to tuck themselves into this space to hide. I neglected, however, to think the snakes would ‘climb’ up onto the top part of the rim. This was my first lapse in judgment; as the great snake man of Africa, Ionides, wrote, “one can never be sure with snakes”.  

​I was in the process of transferring them from the Vision to a snake bucket so that my wife and I could go release them when the second lapse in judgment, the use of an improper handling tool, brought down the subsequent rain of misery on my head.  

I own a pair of cage tongs which are around 18” in length, as well as a small hook of same size, that I use for the transferral of any venomous snakes I happen to be working with. However, on this particular day I had misplaced them and opted to use a standard 48” field hook instead. I grabbed the hook about halfway down to make up for the excess length, as anyone working with small, often flighty juvenile diamondbacks can attest they do not usually ride a long hook very well. I looked through the glass and could see three snakes, so I assumed the fourth was beneath the bottom rim, where it typically liked to hide. Not placing my hand inside the actual cage itself, I was able to successfully ‘hook’ the first two snakes with no problem. The third, however, crawled to the back of the cage while I was moving the other two. Taking care to keep my hand as far away from the bottom rim as possible, I brought the hook in at an angle from the top instead, with my hand upside down. As I did, the tip of my fingers entered the cage beside the top rim, where the little female, unbeknownst to me, had been coiled (as opposed to her usual place on the bottom). I saw the chunky, triangular head launch down and out from above, sinking both fangs into the tender, fleshy pad of my ring finger for only an instant before she released and drew herself back up into the recess of the top rim of the cage’s interior. I put down the hook, slid the glass door back into place, locked the two remaining snakes back up, made sure the other two were secure in the transfer bucket, and then double locked the snake room and entered the house to tell my wife the wonderful news. That’s what happened. I’d swear on a stack of field guides.  

 ACT IV:

 PEEKABOO, ICU…
 “You will not surely die, the serpent said…

-Genesis 3:4

 I can only vaguely recall my transferral from Denton Presbyterian to Harris Methodist; only that the denomination of the hospital’s foundry did not concern me in the least, provided they had more Crofab they could pump into my system. There were hazy flashes of nervous apprehension in the emergency room…I heard a nurse exclaim “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached to my shoulders” and Michael’s voice sometime later “someone left a full vial of blood on the bed”. I kept expecting a booming voice to reverberate, ‘Don’t fear the reaper. Come towards the light, my son’, but instead woke up chained to a tangled procession of wires that seemed to grow out of two uncomfortable places on my right arm. There was an intense throbbing burn in my finger…oh, yes, the kiss of the snake…I was propped up in a tiny room, with a beeping, blipping machine behind me that, if I turned my head just right, revealed that my condition had significantly stabilized. Michael was there, as was my wife, and yet another group of nurses I knew I was going to have to repeat what happened to.  

​“Did I get the antivenin?” I managed to stammer in a groggy voice from between numb lips.  

​“Yes”, the nurse said. “Two more vials, which makes eight total. So how did you manage to get yourself bitten by a snake?”  

​“Well, it all started with a federal jury summons I received in the mail. I suppose there are better ways to get out of jury duty, although it seemed like a good idea at the time.”  

​One thing I learned from my hospital stay is that people who work in the intensive care unit cannot afford much time for comedy on the clock, and thus possess a very vestigial sarcasm radar. What they lack in comedic discernment they more than make up for, however, in concern and care for their patients. One of the worst parts of the full snakebite experience is the continuation of the pain; it never lets up, staying with you in varying forms and stages, throughout the day and night, whittling away your appetite, pulling you out of sleep about once an hour or so, and causing you general misery heaped on top of misery as the hospital staff goes about the seemingly never-ending routines of drawing blood, changing bags, monitoring your vitals, helping you exercise, measuring your rate of swelling, and asking you more questions than an income tax form. Thus I was very grateful for the ICU’s willingness to administer pain medication to thwart my writhing agony without raising an eyebrow as to my sincerity when I assured them that the pain scale rating should contain a number higher than ten. Using Fentanyl, one of the most efficient and powerful (and also addictive) painkillers known to man, they did an excellent job of managing my pain to the best of their ability without turning me into an opioid zombie.  

​In due time I was introduced to David C. Smith, the physician on the ICU wing. Conversing with him provided some much needed humorous relief, as he seems one who can appreciate as well as dole out a generous amount of humor into otherwise serious and dire situations. Laughter may not be the best medicine, but it definitely runs a close second to Fentanyl. The good doctor was baffled that someone who knew so much about snakes and the nature of their venom would be dumb enough to put himself in such close proximity to their fangs. The suggestion that perhaps I would be better off getting any further knowledge from toxicology handbooks rather than first hand experience was something I said I would try to remember to take to heart in the future.

​The days went by in the intensive care unit like one long, indistinguishable period. My platelet count dropped once again to an unsafe level and thus required an additional two vials of antivenin to stabilize. The swelling went down and stayed down. The pharmacist came in and we got to talk snake venom vs. polyvalent some more. The nutrition team seemed totally unable to grasp the definition of a vegan diet, forcing me to subsist on fruit breakfasts and lunches and mixed vegetable dinners, with my only source of protein coming in the form of soy milk and that advanced and complex form known as ‘hemotoxin’ (To their credit the meals I could pick around were superior fare as far as hospitals go). My mom watched my son the entire week without compensation, bringing him along with my aunt to visit me. My wife made daily hour-long drives to stand by my side for hours on end, on top of prior obligations to getting my son to school and going to school full time herself, and even stopped on the road once on one of her daily late-night trips home from the hospital to take a picture of a timber rattlesnake for me in an effort to lighten my spirits. And Michael showed up or called whenever he got a chance, monitoring and following my progress and putting up with my nonchalant references to death, amputation and gangrene while ignoring my insistence on his accomplice in ‘unhooking me from these infernal machines and busting me out of this joint so I could go herping.’ My cell phone virtually stayed abuzz with concerned checks from more friends and family members than I knew I had, offering much-needed and appreciated prayers, thoughts, well-wishes, support, and humor. This was often to the chagrin of my nurses in the fact that my ring-tone is the slow, menacing buzz of an angry diamondback rattlesnake, which always caused them to shake their heads at my assumed lack of sanity. And then the surgeon came in for debridement, and I only thought I had known what pain was.


 ACT V:  

 A TALE OF TWO SURGERIES

 

Buy the ticket, take the ride.

– -Hunter S. Thompson
Dr. Maxim Pekarev entered the room, sliding back the glass door and curtain in a single motion. He is a meek enough looking man, dark-haired, with smooth, gentle looking hands that beguile his real disposition as a merciless butcher of fingers devoid of empathy.  
​“Hello I’m Dr. Pekarev. I’m here to do the debridement”, he said casually. 

​“Hello”, I replied, extending my oversized purple hand, the affected digit of which had by this time swollen to the extent that it more closely resembled a grotesque black jumbo grape skewered on the end of a purple magic marker. “Forgive me for not shaking hands.”

​“Looks like you’re in need of some relief from that swelling”, he said, to which I quickly nodded in affirmation. Without further ado he seized me by the hand and proceeded to “debride” me.


​“All the tissue looks dead”, he commented as several onlooking nurses who were new to snakebite entered the room to observe the process and began passing out like cult members at a Kool-Aid party as he reenacted scenes from the movie Saw.

​“This shouldn’t hurt a bit”, he said, which to his credit was honest. It hurt a lot.

​He extracted a scalpel and quickly sliced into the swollen grape thing, causing a spurt of black blood to shoot out across the sterile towels on the wheelie cart he had laid my hand on. True to his word, I felt no pain. Not yet, at least. The finger immediately deflated like a bicycle tire with a broken valve stem. The doctor then replaced the scalpel with a pair of wicked curved tweezers, and began plucking at the thick layer of dead skin, ripping it off in sloughed sections. This didn’t hurt either, until he ripped backwards into live tissue, and I jerked back instinctively.  

​“That hurt”, I said.  

​“That’s just fear”, he said. “There can’t be any pain. It’s dead tissue.”  

​“It’s not fear!”, I retorted. “I was born without that gene! Check my record! It’s a recessive mutation! There’s live tissue under there.”  

​“Let’s see” he said, and brandished the scalpel once again, pressing it against the finger somewhere between the nail and knuckle. He pressed down, cutting beneath the skin, and again a burning bolt of pain raced up my arm.  

​“Yeah that hurts” I said.  

​“Okay. We’ll get you some anesthetic.”  

​A nurse came in with a needle that looked like a grossly oversized prop in a 1970s Mexican sitcom, and a few minutes later I was watching in painless interest as Dr. Pekarev finished the debridement of the finger, sliding the scalpel down a full half inch into the lateral tissue to see if the entire thing was indeed dead. No blood came out, and so he pronounced it deceased. I was a little concerned about that bright red patch of freely bleeding skin just north of the middle knuckle base, but at the time it didn’t hurt, so I shrugged it off. The shocked, horrified looks on the rookie nurses’ wincing faces, and the way that my wife had retreated into the furthest corner of the room, shrinking back like a frightened helpless rabbit while I gazed on with a sheepish grin and the Butcher continued to play Freddy Krueger on what remained of my finger should have served as an indication that this could not simply continue on in painless bliss. But he finished, applied a sterile wrap, then bandaged the whole thing up in gauze.  

​“The pad of the finger is definitely dead, and I don’t hold much prospect for the rest of it either”, he said. “The possibility of further necrosis is very likely. I will have to do a surgery that will at least require removal of the preexisting dead tissue and possibly half of the finger. The fastest thing to do with the quickest recovery time would be a simple amputation, although we can try to save as much tissue as possible, which would probably mean additional surgery involving skin grafts. But we’ll give it some time, do a reassessment, and save as much as we can.”

​“Sounds like a plan”, I said. “After all, what’s a little tissue loss between fingers? I’d probably be inclined to opt for the quickest route out of here if it were up to me. It is the beginning of snake season you know.”

​“You’re very brave”, he commented, and exited the room, the wide-eyed nurses, whom I suspected were at this point in no hurry to eat lunch, filing out behind him. Thirty minutes later, when the Lidocaine wore off, I doubt he would have accused me of such bravado had he still been present.

​At first it was just a slight prickle, a tingling sensation as the anesthetic dissolved. Tolerable enough.  

​“It’s beginning to hurt a little”, I commented to Kevin, the day nurse who was going on his second afternoon of caring for/contending with the poor sarcastic snake-bitten fool with the Tim Burtonesque macabre sense of humor in the room on the corner.  

​“Do you need something for it?” he asked.  

​“Nah, I’m going to try to tough it out”, I responded. “I need to begin trying to wean myself off of that glorified opium before I get out of here.”  

​Five minutes later I was hammering on my ‘call’ button, begging anyone and everyone within earshot to bring me as close to overdose as they could without jeopardizing my life, or else strike me in the head with the most readily available blunt object until I was rendered unconscious. Good old Kevin came to my immediate aide with a shot of Fentanyl. This time it did nothing, however. So they gave me the most they legally could for my body weight and then supplemented with Tramadol. Still I begged for something else.

​ “I can’t give you anything else until the Fentanyl wears off”, Kevin said. “Although I’ll administer some morphine as soon as I legally can. On a scale of one to ten, how much pain are you in?”  

​“Somewhere between ten and ripping that scale off the wall, twisting it into a cord and strangling myself to death with it!”, I yelled.  

​My finger literally felt like someone had skinned me alive and then doused the wound with gasoline and set a match to it. It was so intense that I could hardly concentrate, with the entirety of my left arm being engulfed in a single throbbing, agonizing sphere of indescribable torture. In what felt like a week another nurse came in and announced that she could give me a little morphine now. A short time later I passed out or went to sleep or something and the next thing I remember Michael was there and my wife was recounting my experience to him. Within the hour a nurse came in with a wheelchair and I said goodbye to the intensive care unit for good.


 ​I spent two additional days in a regular room in the inpatient care at Harris Methodist. My platelet count had finally gone down and stayed down, suggesting the venom had finally been neutralized by the antivenin, and there was nothing left to do but lie in bed with my arm elevated, awaiting what would either be the second half of my surgical debridement or an amputation. During this time I was kept on a steady diet of vegetables, ice water, Norco and Tramadol, and after my most unfortunate experience with the first debridement I had come to reassess that pain scale, as nothing I have ever felt before or since even came close. The throbbing, burning, hot-hammer pain that continued from the snakebite was thus quite tolerable by comparison, and I complained very little of it, sometimes going six to eight hours before requesting another pill, which my nurse Kathy insisted was only ‘glorified aspirin’. The day before the surgery Dr. Pekarev’s assistant came in to take photos of my hand so the surgeon could deem it keepable or tossable, and as soon as she unwrapped it I knew it was going to require at least a partial amputation. While the skinned part between the middle joint and the nail was still very much alive and blood-red, the distal tip was a dull, flat black, bloodless and lifeless. A short time later Dr. Smith appeared, announcing my surgery was scheduled for the morning some time before noon, with Dr. Pekarev presiding.  

​“Have you given any thought to whether or not you want to try to keep the finger or are you just going to have the whole thing removed?”  

​“I’m not sure”, I said. “What do you suggest? After all, I’m the one who went and put myself in harm’s way and got myself into this mess, albeit unintentionally. Obviously I’m not a champion decision maker.” “

​I think you need to be patient and let God work it out in His time”, he said. “Sounds like good advice”, I replied. “Que sera, sera, you know. After all, it’s just a finger.”

​The next morning they loaded me up with an extra dose of potassium and wheeled me down the hall to the surgical unit on my gurney. Dr. Pekarev met with me for a short time before surgery. He entered the room with that same humble look on his face, although this time I thought I could see the corners of his smile suppressing the anticipation of the drawing of blood.  

​“What’s up Doc?”, I said, doing my best to not let that twinge of recoil that was creeping up my spine show in my own face.  

​“Have you decided on what route you want to go concerning the finger?”

​“Just go in and do whatever you feel you have to do”, I said. “Save what you can and cut off the rest. Just make sure I’m out of it before you start cutting.”

​This broke the humility or ice or whatever you want to call it.  

​“Oh, I will, don’t worry about that. Had you rather have an anesthesiologist or more of that lidocaine like I gave you the other day?”  

​“I believe I’m going to have to go with the anesthesia this time. That way I’ll either wake up late with the worst of the pain past me or not at all.”  

​The anesthesiologist, Dr. Nathan Walters, came in shortly and proceeded to hook me up to the knock-out juice.  

​“Snakebite, eh?” he said. “I used to do a bit of cottonmouth catching in the swamps of Florida in my younger days.”  

​“A man after my own heart”, I replied.  

​“Ok, I’m going to give you a little whiskey in your IV now. You’ll be out like a light in a short while.”  

​There was a sharp, instant pulse in the crook of my right arm as the thick mixture of Propophol, Phenobarbital, and everything else went into my system. I managed to maintain consciousness up to the point where they wheeled me into the prep room under the bright dome, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in recovery with a groggy head, slurred speech, and a little less finger than I had going in.


 ACT VI:

 THE LONG ROAD OUT OF HEMOTOXI-CITY

(Giving the Hospital the Finger)

 

The man who can caress a snake can do anything.

– -Isak Dinesen, ‘Out of Africa’

 

 Today is April 4, 2017. Two full weeks have passed since that lovely little rattler sank her fangs into my finger. Yesterday was a full day back at Harris Methodist for my check-ups. As I walked through the doors I couldn’t help but feel like a small part of me had been left behind there. The plastic surgeon’s assistant unwrapped my finger, or what was left of it, and I got to see it for the first time in 11 days. It was severed just a fraction above the middle joint, a dog-eared, folded-over flap of skin stitched across the fleshy stump where the distal tip used to be, but the regrowth of tender pink flesh and the absence of any black, dead tissue looked wonderful. I was given some basic maintenance instructions and then off I went to get the lab work, which was faxed over to the doctor long before I could hoof it there on foot. In a short time I was brought in, and Dr. Smith came into the room.  

​“We meet again”, I said.  

​“Yes, how have you been?

​“Much better than the last time you saw me”, I assured him. “How’s the blood flowing?”

​“Excellent report”, he said. “Platelet counts have gone back up to 250,000. All levels returned to normal. I’d say you’re in the clear.”

​“That’s the best news I’ve heard in a while”, I said.

​“Yours was one of the worst cases of hemotoxic envenomation I have seen in ten years”, he then added. “It is rare to lose a finger these days due to a rattlesnake, especially after ten vials of antivenin. That snake must have come from a population with a very high toxicity.”

​“Yeah it came from Thurber”, I said. “Out in the rolling plains. The Big Empty. The snakes don’t have anything to do out there but sit around and get hotter and hotter.”

​We conversed a while on the marvelous nature of pit viper venom, its biological makeup, and how certain populations of the same species within a given range possess varying degrees of hemo and neurotoxic components. “So, have you learned your lesson when it comes to messing with venomous snakes?” he asked as I was walking out.

​“I certainly have”, I said. “Never misplace your tongs.”

​With three appointments down, the only other place left to go was therapy. After an hour and a half of various hand exercises, Dr. Sexton, my physical therapist, pronounced my hand ‘well on its way to healing’. While the amputated digit was still stiff, as was the pinkie finger next to it, the rest of my fingers had gained full sensitivity and dexterity, and by the time I left I was almost able to make a crude fist. And thus the final prognosis was one of overall excellence, with no infection, tolerable pain, no further surgery required, and only one more therapeutic and surgical follow-up to go, scheduled for two weeks out.


​We pulled out of the hospital parking garage and headed for home. Outside the window, I could see the road stretching out before me in that mirage-like optical illusion that seems to shrink it down to a sharp, fine point as it touches the horizon. With a year of pain, nerve healing, at-home therapy, and keyboard retraining ahead of me, it was going to be a long one. I couldn’t wait to get back out in the field, in the company of my beloved rattlesnakes, with a slightly shorter finger, a reclaimed smile of satisfaction, and a nine foot long pair of custom made tongs to reach into my mailbox with and extract my medical bills.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stress – and a Sense of Peace on a West Texas Ranch

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Western diamond-backed rattlesnake

Here he was, our first snake of the year! Our first problem was going to be getting this rattlesnake into a different position, hopefully one in which he wasn’t hiding his head under a coil of his body. Not the best pose for a photograph, I figured. Whether he was doing this out of self-protection was hard to tell, but some snakes – even dangerous ones like this western diamondback – will hide their heads and hope for the best when threatened. Often this occurs after attempts to get away and to defend themselves have failed. Fight-flight-freeze: this is the trio of responses to stress that most animals, including humans, are equipped with. Your brain recognizes the threat and triggers the release of adrenaline, preparing you to fight the attacker or to run away. Or, if you are overwhelmed and nothing works, you freeze in place. We know that in humans the “freeze” response in traumatic situations can be accompanied by dissociation, a kind of numbing of reality in which you are really “not there.” It is one way our bodies and minds protect themselves from inescapable stress. The rattlesnake in front of us was not able to be interviewed or to have the activity of his nervous system measured, so it was hard to say whether he was experiencing traumatic stress.

What were we doing to this poor creature? We are two of the people least likely to intentionally harm a snake, but we love finding them. In the process of watching and photographing them, we may interfere with their movement or even briefly capture and reposition them, and for an animal that has no idea what our intentions are, this is stressful. A reasonable rule for a snake to follow is: when an animal much bigger than you starts to mess with you, it’s going to kill you and probably eat you. There is no reason to exempt naturalists from that rule, as far as the snake knows.

Here is what was going on from the perspective of the two humans. We climbed up a hillside on this ranch northeast of Abilene where Clint knew of a den used by western diamond-backed rattlesnakes. On this warm day at the end of winter, the snakes would be out sunning. And sure enough, near the edge of a ravine near the top of the hill, Clint spotted this four-foot rattlesnake enjoying the sunshine. When the snake spotted him, he tried to get away, but Clint is pretty good with a snake hook and so the serpent sat and rattled and waited, testing the air with his ebony-black tongue. I had climbed up the little ravine, carefully gauging each step up the crumbly soil and loose rocks and stood just below the snake, getting the camera ready. I used my own hook to pull a coil away from his head, trying to add to his stress only a little, not only for the snake’s well-being but also for mine. If he blindly attempted another escape and came down into the ravine with me, I was going to have my own sort of stress response. Having a four-foot long stressed-out rattlesnake at your feet while balanced precariously on loose rocks is not an ideal situation. But everything worked out nicely – our friend rattled and stayed in place for a little video clip and a couple of photos, and then we left him in peace. The snake had tried “flight” and maybe “freeze,” but never “fight,” showing just how reluctant they can be to use their venomous bite.

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Western coachwhip, with some indication of the alternating lighter and darker bands

Moments later, Clint flipped a rock and surprised a western coachwhip. Here was a second snake, and we could still hear the first one buzzing his displeasure only a few yards behind us. Our strategy when we find a coachwhip is entirely different than the one for rattlesnakes. While rattlesnakes certainly cannot be grabbed with bare hands and sometimes sit where they are, coachwhips respond by instantly trying to flee and they are very fast and agile. While we can just watch them slip away, another option is to catch them for a closer look or a photograph. They are quick to bite, but the result is no more than a scratch. Seeing one of these magnificent snakes close up can be worth a scratch or two, and we did hang onto this one for a couple of photographs. As we released it, the alternating darker and lighter bands were easier to see, each band extending down several inches of the snake’s body. This is a fairly common pattern in many western coachwhips. While sitting still, the coachwhip’s scales are brown or tan with light edges, and those light cream-colored edges are bigger in the lighter sections of the snake’s body. The lighter edges also “break up” the light and dark colors of the bands. In motion, the colors blur a little, so that you don’t see light-edged scales, you just see lighter and darker bands. In just a moment this snake’s lithe and slender body had propelled it through cactus, thorn bush, and around rocks, and it was gone. These snakes are built strongly for the “flight” option when encountering a threat, although strangely enough, when captured they have sometimes been known to become still with the head turned to the side in a sort of death-feigning.

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The hillside

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Young rattlesnake, partly concealed under a rock

There were several more rattlesnakes nearby, on or partly under the big flat rocks on the hillside. A snake could warm up by shifting a loop of its body out into the sunlight while the rest of its body sheltered under the rock. None of these snakes had much reaction to our presence, except at times to move back beneath the sheltering rock.

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Agarita in bloom

Most of the plants had not leafed out, with the exception of the agarita, a beautiful plant with thin leaves looking a little like holly because of the spines at their tips. Clumps of these low shrubs were scattered over the hillside and down in the wash below, and their budding little yellow flowers gave the area a slightly sweet aroma in places. Later in the spring, agarita will produce red berries that people sometimes make into jelly. There are also historical reports of Native Americans using the root bark and other parts of the plant medicinally.

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Horse-crippler

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Lace cactus

Several cactus species are common on this ranch. One that produces a low green dome with clusters of curved spines goes by a name sure to make you flinch – horse crippler. Another that often grows in clusters of two or three short cylinders is lace cactus. From ribs along these cacti grow thick rows of small, sometimes reddish spines. Prickly pear is a common cactus on the ranch, growing in the familiar flat pads which are generally green, though some of the plants are purplish or red. The other cactus that we saw was tasajillo, or pencil cholla. It struck me while I was looking for one to photograph that many of them were growing within a space occupied by one of the other woody, thorny plants. I later discovered that tasajillo, or Christmas cactus, often does just that, sending up its slender jointed stems in the midst of some other plant. Bumping up against tasajillo is not a pleasant experience since the spines are quite sharp and not easily dislodged. After brushing against it and getting stuck with spines, segments of the cactus easily break off so that the person or animal moves on carrying a little piece of the plant with them. Further down the road when the segment is brushed off or dislodged, it can sprout into a new plant if it lands in suitable soil. The little red fruits are edible, but watch out for those little glochids, the tufts of tiny spines that are very irritating (and seemingly invisible) when they lodge in your skin.

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Tasajillo, pencil cholla, or Christmas cactus

On another part of the ranch, we walked along a fence line through some brushy country that led up to another part of the hillside we had just visited. Clint moved ahead while I ambled along at a slower pace. One of the things I stopped for was the skull of a feral pig. These are wild descendants of pigs that got away from farmers and carved out a niche for themselves pretty much everywhere. They reproduce rapidly and populations have grown to become significant problems in many places in Texas. In a study that looked at sows trapped in a pig control program in north central Texas, Denkhaus reported an average litter size ranging from 5 to 11 piglets. The time required from breeding to farrowing suggested that pigs in north Texas may have one litter and start another during the same year.[i] With this fecundity and few natural predators, Denkhaus commented that feral pig populations have the potential to grow rapidly. Groups of feral pigs can dig up large patches of habitat and they devour virtually anything that they find.

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Skull of a feral pig

I paused to post a comment that this skull was “the only feral hog so far, out on ranchland near Moran.” I kept walking, with the fence line on my left and a small gully surrounded by a thicket of shrubs on my right. Suddenly I heard sounds like something big and heavy, moving in a hurry – to my ears it sounded like a horse galloping. Then, about thirty feet ahead of me, a large feral pig broke out of the thicket and charged across my path and through the barbed wire fence. It was so fast and I was taken enough by surprise that I cannot tell exactly how it got through the fence. Did it go under? It was barely slowed by the fence and did not appear to duck down. Did it squeeze between the first and second strands? All I can say is that it squeezed through without slowing down and with no regard for the barbed wire.

Later in the day we did see a group of three or four pigs run across the road just ahead of where we had stopped the truck. I was glad that they seemed determined to get away from us quickly, because they were big, solid animals that I would not want to have charging me. I understand that a sow is quick to defend her piglets, and a cornered boar would be a dangerous adversary. Feral pigs are one of the good reasons to be alert to what’s going on around you when out in the field – and when that fails (as it did for me earlier in the day), just be glad that their first options seem to be freezing or fleeing, not fighting.

As the evening approached and light began to fade, we sat on the tailgate of Clint’s truck and talked about our day. We revisited the problem of feral pigs and how much impact they may be having on the land here. We talked about the array of crinoid stems, snails, and other fossils scattered in with gravel and broken rock, and the occasional arrowheads Clint and his wife find here. In the approaching darkness the mourning doves began calling from several places around us. That familiar low whistle – the first a low note rising briefly, followed by three low notes – it might seem mournful or maybe just calm and reflective. These are our own reactions to their calls, evocations of what might be stirring within the heart of a human who would sing such a tune. The doves themselves may have other ideas.

But in any case, the mourning doves’ calls accentuated the quiet in that place as we looked out across this little piece of the Rolling Plains. There were no highway sounds or any of the other mechanized noises that pervade our lives. It was a blessed stillness and peace, the kind that invites us to breathe a little slower and let go of all the things that keep us wound up. I am a fan of quiet places, as I have written before, and quiet is getting harder to find. A study published last year in Science described increasing levels of noise pollution even in protected areas within the U.S.[ii] Critical habitat for endangered species saw increases in noise levels, as did other places.

img_1743It became darker, and the silence continued. When it is quiet like that, you talk softly, if you talk at all. The doves became less vocal. And off in the distance, there were a few yips from a group of coyotes. We were staying a little longer for the quiet, and for those coyotes. The yips and then howls from scattered groups of these “song dogs” will capture your attention and your imagination out here in the darkness. We heard a few more coyotes, but then they were done. Sunset was over and so were the calls of doves and coyotes, and soon we reluctantly had to spoil the peaceful quiet at the base of the hillside by starting the truck and making our way home.

 

[i] Denkhaus, R. 2015. Notes on the reproductive potential of a north Texas urban wild pig (Sus scrofa) population. Post Oak & Prairie Journal, V.1#2, Pp.14-20.

[ii] Buxton, R.T., McKenna, M.F., Mennitt, D., Fristrup, K., Crooks, K., Angeloni, L., & G. Wittemyer. 2017. Noise pollution is pervasive in U.S. protected areas. Science, V.356, Issue6337, Pp.531-533.

 

With Spring Around the Corner

The waiting is the hardest part

– Tom Petty


10…9…8…7…6…5…4 more days until winter is officially a memory. Unable to hold off our anticipation, Zev & I took a bike ride down a trail that cuts through 80 acres of gently grazed prairie & post oak savannah in Wise County yesterday evening. Everything was in bloom, and the nice weather (if a bit windy, but hey it’s March…in like a lion & all that) coupled by an amazing sunset made us forget that it was technically still winter. The newly emergent buds & flowers never fail to jump-start me out of the winter blues. Mexican plum, crow poison, and flowering dogwood filled the air with their sweet aromatic fragrance, catkins of cottonwood fell to the ground beneath towering trees awakening from their long sleep, and the lime-green tips of elms and fluorescent, Dali-esque purple tips of redbuds shone in relative brilliance against the stubborn straw and brown landscape that would be green in a matter of weeks. 

Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands

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Earthstar

“Hey, look at this,” Zev called out. Clint and I came over to see a pale beige sphere resting on eight rather stubby, darker “legs,” as if some weird tarantula had been transformed into a fungus. Of course, that was only our strange imaginations at work. The pale, flattened ball at the top was torn in just the way you would expect from a puffball, a fungus that produces a spheroidal fruiting body that releases a puff of spores when broken. It was the eight “legs” that had us gazing in fascination, and with closer inspection we could see that originally there had been about ten, but a couple had been broken off. We – Clint, his son Zev, and I – were visiting Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area[i] on a warm February 18th. Zev was there for salamanders, Clint was looking for beetles overwintering under loose tree bark, and I wanted to get re-acquainted with the upland savannah there. But really, the thing we were mostly there for was discovering something new or seeing some new variation on a familiar theme. The sort of thing that happens when you stumble upon an earthstar, for example. That vaguely spider-looking puffball? That was an earthstar (thanks for the identification, Burr Williams). What starts out as an outer layer around the spore sac splits into a number of wedge-shaped segments that curl back over the sac, forming star-like rays or, in the one we saw, curling so far under it that they resemble legs. The earthstar develops under the soil surface but pushes up to become exposed when mature[ii].

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Site of a prescribed burn two years before

We had already walked for some distance after parking the car at Catfish Creek and poking around in the bottomland woods for a while. We then followed a primitive road up to higher ground and wandered across a big field that had been burned a while back. The larger trees still stood, their lower trunks charred a little but not killed by the fire. Others were standing skeletons of trees that probably died before the fire, and the patches of loose bark on their trunks were the best places for Clint’s “bug hunt.” The ground was a patchwork of tall grasses that had come back after the fire and the burned lower stems of yaupon that formed a thicket before the fire. Those woody shrubs would cover the ground, block the sunlight, and crowd out the grasses and forbs, just as they currently did in nearby areas that had not been burned. I later called and spoke with a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department biologist who said that the burn had occurred in 2016, but that the yaupon and other woody plants had grown so thick that they had to first cut it, then mulch it, and then burn it. We talked further about the effort to restore and maintain the Post Oak Savannah ecosystem, and he said they are trying to do prescribed burns every two to three years. That is music to our ears, because fire plays a crucial role in maintaining prairies and savannahs.

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Little brown skink

In this sandy area where the 2016 burn had occurred, Clint was finding invertebrates under bark and beneath fallen branches or logs. Under one of the logs we disturbed a prairie lizard that was just trying to get through the end of winter in peace. Like a junior cousin to the Texas spiny lizard, this species has spiny scales and a suggestion of wavy bands on its back. The prairie lizard’s scales are smaller and less “spiky” than those of the Texas spiny lizard and its sides often seem to be a plain, darker color (while something similar to the wavy crossbands continues on the sides of the Texas spiny lizard). As we continued our walk, we uncovered a number of lizards. In each case we took a photo or two while trying to disturb the lizard as little as possible, making sure to put its shelter back in place at the end. A couple of our finds were little brown skinks. By that we mean not only that they were little and brown, but that they were “little brown skinks,” as someone aptly but unimaginatively named them. Equipped with four small, short legs and a long tail, these small reptiles might be mistaken for stubby snakes as they seem to swim through leaf litter and loose soil as much through undulation of the body as by use of their legs.IMG_2839IMG_2842We saw numerous mushrooms and fungi along the way. One of them that Clint found under a log had the overall flattened, round shape of a mushroom with gills under the cap – but they were hung from the bottom of the log instead of growing up from the ground on a stalk. Some had irregular-shaped caps with thin lines that looked like some delicate, finely striated material had been draped over the stems. And of course, there were shelf fungi on tree stumps and branches, some in a delicate shade of green and others in shades of brown and orange, in concentric bands shading outward to yellow. In a place with generous rainfall and lots of trees, these fungi can proliferate, working to return dead wood to soil.IMG_2850Version 2

Probably because of the greater rainfall and so much wood to attach to, lichens grew in a profusion of the leafy and brushy forms that I’m not used to seeing back home in the Cross Timbers. Closing out the forest around me, I focused in on the fairy forest of lichen, the bowls and cups, the little bushes and trees, all growing in a five-inch section of oak branch. Worlds within worlds.

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Lichen

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Savannah

We drove to the northern part of the property, to an upland area where Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has worked particularly hard to restore the savannah. In places there were extensive grasslands dotted with a few trees, while in others, the prairie grasses grew within a woodland with a somewhat open canopy. It was all beautiful, with the dark trees contrasting with the burnt orange of the dormant grasses and fallen leaves. Thinking about it later, I wanted to talk with a deer hunter to find out if they see this, too. While searching for the right buck, surely some of them get lost in the experience of the twisted oak limbs against the sky, the carpet of reddish-brown leaves, the clumps of grasses like vertical up-strokes on a painter’s canvas, the dense gray blending together of trees when you look as far into the woods as the eye can penetrate. Such beauty cannot just be the background noise of a deer hunt, can it?

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Woodland with open canopy

Further back, a little way from the beaver pond, we had seen a group of turkeys foraging in an open area between the road and the woods. They numbered about fifteen, and probably they had been scratching around for acorns and other nuts and seeds. I took a couple of photos from as close as they would tolerate, which was not very close. Each time I took a few steps closer, the group trotted a little further away. Clint and I had been spoiled in a trip to Palo Duro Canyon, where we saw a group of females being courted by a male. All of them seemed unconcerned about the presence of humans, at least from twenty or thirty feet away, and perhaps the courtship had them a little distracted. But here, in a place managed not just for habitat management but for hunting, the birds rightly sensed that people represent mortal danger.

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Wild turkeys

We had one more shot at finding salamanders before we needed to leave, so we headed down into the creek bottomlands again. In a mowed clearing, we came across the little armored beast that is a Texas icon: the nine-banded armadillo (it is the official state small mammal[iii], in case you’re keeping track of such things). As the compact little mammal snuffled and poked into the base of plants and any little crevice where an insect or grub might hide, I shot some video from the car rather than getting out and spooking him. They are charming in that nearsighted way they have, ambling through the understory or wandering in clearings, digging and rooting around and nearly oblivious of whatever may be nearby. Occasionally they pause and sniff the air, using their one sense that is really keen to check for something – danger? Or the smell of damp leaf litter or soil with better chances of finding something to eat? It is generally understood that to get close to a wandering armadillo, the thing to do is to stay downwind. If you are reasonably cautious you may not be seen or heard, but when they get a whiff of danger, they shamble off toward a thicket. If startled or pursued, an armadillo can run fairly fast, and plunge through tight places and thorny thickets where you cannot go.

We walked down the last distance to a slough, with tall trees standing in dark water. A man-made levee impounded a broad pond where the rich mud and accumulated tannin from fallen leaves made the water black. The branches overhead reached across to the neighboring trees like arches in some wetland cathedral, and this splendid architecture was mirrored in the black water below. An alligator rising to the surface would have completed the swampy picture, but the only reptile we saw was a big red-eared slider, basking on a snag just above the water. She dropped in as we walked nearby, but on our way back she was pulling back onto her spot on the log.

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The “wetland cathedral”

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Red-eared slider

On the other side of the levee was an area with a meandering stream, shallow ephemeral pools, and downed logs. Try as they might, Clint and Zev did not turn up a salamander. What they did discover under a log was a big slug just a few inches from a cluster of translucent ovals, like tiny, bright grapes. A quick check of the Internet verified that these were indeed slug eggs (yes, a smart phone can serve several useful purposes in the field, especially documenting observations on iNaturalist!).

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Slug eggs

And that was our last real discovery on our day at Gus Engeling WMA. We saw another flock of turkeys on our walk back, Clint continued the search for beetles under the bark, Zev was very good-natured about not finding salamanders on our walk, and we continued to soak in the view of every bottomland pool, every downed log, and every woodland clearing on our way back to the highway. Spring is only a month or so away, and we’ll be back!fullsizeoutput_1145

[i] Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area. (Internet) https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/wma/find_a_wma/list/?id=10 (accessed 3/5/18)

[ii] Phillips, R. 2005. Mushrooms & Other Fungi of North America. Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books

[iii] Schmidly, D.J. 1994. The Mammals of Texas (Revised Ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Beneath the Bark


Sunday afternoon saw Michael, Zev and I ascending a sandy trail up from the black water and dense vegetation of a section of bottomland forest at the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in Anderson County, Texas. It was a warm day (warm for mid-February at least) with the temperature hanging just under the sixty degree mark. While Michael is no stranger to the area, I had only visited once on a very brief side trip on the way back from the Big Thicket, which lies about 150 miles to the southeast. Zev had never been at all, and all three of us were excited to see what natural treasures the day had in store. After four months of cold it was nice to be out in the forest during this brief warm spell. Zev was hoping to see an eastern newt, and Michael was adamant about exploring the post oak savannah. I, however, had bugs on the brain as usual. After all, conditions were perfect for finding a plethora of overwintering species in choice microhabitat that just so happened to be all around us. It didn’t take much searching to find what I was looking for. A massive post oak stood tall and straight at the edge of a tannin-rich pool, its leafless black limbs reaching for the sky. In truth it was not unlike so many other oaks growing all around it, except for one little difference. The bark around the lower trunk was raised slightly, separated from the tree by a shadowy space where I knew a mystery grab-bag of invertebrates potentially lay in wait. I stepped to the side of the trail and gently peeled it back, trying to be mindful that this was many creatures’ home and therefore trying to keep the destruction at a minimum. As I pulled the bark, separating it from the base of the trunk, I was rewarded by a fine sight: a female southern black widow spider had constructed her infamous messy web here, where she now sat with her scarlet hourglass pointed at me, the globular ebony abdomen shining like a black marble. Around her, a quartet of tiny beige and black marked fungus beetles sat, waiting out the winter months on a bed of spongy white granular fungi that was smeared across the wood like paste. I snapped a photo as Michael ventured over to see what I had found. Afterwards I replaced the bark as closely to its original state as I could get, and we continued making our way upland.

A black widow (Latrodectus mactans) and fungus beetles (Ischyrus quadripunctatus) beneath bark

While winter is a time when many insect species see an end to their life cycles after the first freeze, and most of our lepidoptera are tucked away safely in their insulated cocoons, there are many species which ride out the long harsh days of ice and sleet beneath a thick layer of tree bark, where they enter a torpid state of dormancy until the call of spring ushers them back to life.  Some can be found communally, huddled together in odd clusters, while others tend to be found singly. From centipedes and millipedes to spiders, beetles, true bugs, ants and wasps, a little peek beneath the bark on a winter walk in the woods is sure to eventually provide one with a behind-the-scenes look at how arthropods (and even some vertebrates) spend their winter vacation.

A ripe stump in the Trinity River bottomland, awaiting exploration

We continued along the trail, where a prescribed burn had cleared away much of the undergrowth and allowed us easy access to the post oak savannah. Here, the charred black remnants of timber littered the sandy, nitrogen-rich soil. Bone-white tree trunks, their bases scorched and bark peeled back like finely shaved coconut slivers, were full of promise. Sure enough, we found not only invertebrates but a couple of slumbering prairie lizards in this area, and Zev learned about the bright turquoise patches on the undersides of the males of this species that can be used as a differentiation key between the sexes.


Fires, while generally considered to be destructive from our human perspective, are beneficial to ecosystems such as pine forests and grasslands, as they burn away sections of old growth and overgrown thicket so that new plants can start over in their place. The ashes of the burned wood that mix in with the soil are high in nitrogen and contribute to the nutritional medium the new plants spring up in. Without periodic fires (either caused naturally by such factors as lightning strike or intentionally set and maintained by the forest service) our forests and prairies would quickly be overtaken by brush and invasive grasses.

Michael & Zev walk the trail to a burned section of post oak savannah

After exploring the burned section of fringe habitat for a while, we moved even further upland, where a wide looping trail was bordered by a barbed wire fence. Here the brush had been cut back extensively, leaving a generous amount of deadfall in the wake of the dozer. We all began turning over choice logs and sheets of bark, and in doing so located a number of interesting creatures. The first was a southern yellowjacket queen, tucked neatly away in a crevice under a spongy section of oak. What many people call “yellow-jackets” are in reality paper wasps, a large genus of vespids collectively grouped under the name Polistes, whose familiar water-resistant nests constructed from plant fibers mixed with saliva are seen hanging from porch eaves and barn rafters. The real yellowjacket is smaller and nests underground, building a roughly rounded structure the size of a basketball. Yellowjackets are generally more aggressive than paper wasps, although this dormant queen seemed too snug and content to worry about us as she sat patiently awaiting the first warm days, whereupon she would set out to begin a new colony. It is for this reason solitary yellowjacket queens are known as “foundresses”.  Looking down at this one it was hard to believe she held the potential to build an empire of soldiers that, over the course of a few seasons, could expand to 100,000 or more individuals.

Foundress of a vast future empire: Southern yellowjacket queen

Polypleurus perforatus, a strange tenebrionid with densely punctate elytra

The trail eventually led back around to another section of open, sandy savannah, with post oaks and hackberries growing spaciously over some type of rough, woody growth that resisted the progress of our boots, forcing us to plow through it with some difficulty. Saw palmettos and patches of azalea mixed with greenbrier further inhibited our travel across this landscape. A small grove of oaks, their lower trunks showing signs of peeled, aging bark, beckoned to me from the trail, so I braved the undergrowth and walked out into the field to give them a look. Although it took a bit of time, the effort was well worth it, for this proved to be a popular brumation spot for inverts. The dried hull of a metallic wood-boring beetle of the genus Polycesta was found beneath the first sheet of bark, its head and abdomen missing but elytra and thorax still present, a relict of chitinous armor that spoke of the past summer, of a creature that had at one time possessed a set of mandibles powerful enough to chew through the heartwood of the oak but had now been reduced to minute bits of ant food. Still, the sculptured pitted elytral pattern gleamed in the late afternoon sun like pyrite, a testament to the profound beauty and intricacy of these remarkable insects.

Stand of young pines on the border between savannah & woodland, Gus Engeling

Not far away from it sat a huge assassin bug, Microtomus luctuosus, a tricolored beauty that is kin to the dreaded kissing bug, a vector for the potentially debilitating Chagas disease. Also known as American trypanosomiasis, it is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, and is transmitted to humans through the feces of the insect, which are involuntarily rubbed into the bite wound when the victim scratches the skin around the site of the bite. Chagas is a serious threat, especially in Texas, where a study conducted by Texas A & M found as many as half of the population of kissing bugs in the state to be carriers. Chronic complications from the disease include intestinal damage, heart problems, and can even lead to cardiac arrest in extreme cases.

Fortunately this was not the dreaded kissing bug (Triatoma sp), which also makes its home beneath tree bark, but a much more welcome and colorful member of the family. While it is larger than the kissing bug and capable of delivering a painful bite should one be so inclined to handle it carelessly, it carries no known communicable diseases. The species enjoys a wide range from central Texas south as far as Panama, where it is attracted to lights and feeds exclusively on smaller invertebrates.

Microtomus luctuosus

From the post oak savannah we followed the trail back downhill, where it led to a small pine grove flanked on all sides by water elm and sweetgum trees. Gradually we descended back into bottomland forest, and the rich earthy smells of organic mud could be detected on the breeze as we left the openness of the plain for the shadowy realm of the trees. In little time my eyes fell upon a dying pine. Unlike oak bark, pine bark tends to slough off in huge sections, and as I pulled the bark on this one back I couldn’t help but be reminded of a morning on the Louisiana border when I pulled off a great sheet of bark that broke off six feet above my head and rained an overwintering colony of imported red fire ants down on me. That had not been a serendipitous morning, but this pine tree would offer much better rewards beneath its flaky exterior. A small group of rough shield bugs (genus Brochypelma) were huddled up beside a few of the strangely rotund smaller shield bug Lineostethus sp.  Close beside them sat a cryptically marked click beetle, and several examples of the dull black tenebrionid, Alobates pensylvanica.  It was a true insect menagerie, a communal late winter gathering of mini-beasts, and a treasure trove of photographic potential for a student of entomology.

Shield bugs beneath pine bark

Click beetle

From the pine grove the trail wound back around to the vehicle, which was parked beside a bridge overlooking a small creek. From there we drove to a large section of bottomland where most of the forest floor lay beneath a shallow lake of dark water. At first glance the place looked as if a bulldozer had run amok through the woods, but upon closer inspection it proved to be the work of feral hogs. Feral hogs are notorious for working their way through patches of habitat, rooting and ripping and tilling up the ground and gobbling up everything they come across, leaving a trail of razed devastation in their wake. It did make for easy walking though.  The bottomland was replete with rotten logs and deadfall, and as we made our way along I knew it would only be a matter of time before I ran into more invertebrates.

Hemiscolopendra marginata

Solopocryptops sexspinosus

While Michael and Zev walked the edge of the waterline, with Michael photographing a basking redeared slider and Zev exhibiting his climbing skills across a felled tree, I resumed my pace, flipping and peeling bark, knowing that our time here was running short as the sun fell back over the treetops to the west. I found several centipedes here, as well as a handful of wolf spiders of the genus Hogna, and a pair of bess beetles as well. Also known as the horned passalus or patent leather beetle, this remarkable species is one of the few recorded types of beetles that rears its young. Bess beetles live in the pithy center of rotting logs and stumps, where they exist in communal family groups, with new generations growing up and “joining the family” to care for the next season’s progeny. They communicate through stridulation, whereupon they rub their wings against a special structure located on the underside of their wing covers, producing a high-pitched squeaking sound. While many species of insects are capable of producing sound in this way, bess beetles are unique in that their larvae “squeak” back by rubbing their legs together, demanding food like nestling birds. Bess beetles are important contributors to the breakdown of decaying wood in the forest, and their presence is generally indicative of a healthy ecosystem.

Bess beetle, in situ

From there we traveled upland, with no sign of Zev’s newts in spite of what felt like a thousand logs turned. “You’re not trying hard enough”, was his response when I asked him why he thought we weren’t seeing any.  “Dad has a metal ankle and a bad back”, I said. “Maybe they can’t be found because they’re good at not being found. That ensures their survival”.  But Zev would hear none of it.

At the day’s end Michael drove us up to another section of post oak savannah, and we tried out a trail that seemed to lead endlessly into dried bluestem sparsely dotted with small oaks.  As soon as we got out of the car I turned an oak log and found a pretty little black and white weevil that popped its head out from between the bark layers. It was Euparius lugubris, a first recorded sighting for Inaturalist.

Euparius lugubris

It had been a wonderful day of relaxation, an honorable day of rest. Aside from a throbbing back from rolling too many logs, I was glad to be back out into the field at the tail end of winter. As the air cooled and the sky darkened we said goodbye to the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area with plans for future trips already bouncing around in our conversation. It was back to the warmth of central heating to see me through until winter’s end.  We pulled back out onto the highway and headed for home, with the dense oak and pine rich forest all around us. Thousands of trees supporting a vast array of life through the winter, beneath the bark.

Bottomlands, Gus Engeling WMA

http://www.Animaldiversity.org

http://BugGuide.net
Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America: Eaton, Eric R & Kaufman, Kenn; Houghton-Miflin Harcourt; 2007

Whats biting texas? The hidden threat of Chagas disease”, Jennifer R. Hericks, 26 Jan 2016; The Houston Chronicle

Kissing bugs and chagas disease in the united states; http://www.kissingbug.tamu.edu; agriculture and life sciences, tx a&m university

http://www.Texastreeid.tamu.edu

http://www.Texasento.net

Beetles of Eastern North America; Evans, Arthur V; Princeton University Press; 2014

Recyclers in the Circle of Life: Bess Beetles; Michael J Raupp; http://www.entnemdept.ufl.edu

Observations on the life history of the horned passalus: LE Gray, 1946

A Trip Through Time On the Wings of Herons

The grey heron moved fearlessly and fast, long black sticklike legs pounding the ground as it spread awesome silk grey wings…

– ‘Martin the Warrior’ (Brian Jacques)

I was already running late for a biology class. With earbuds in and ‘Saint Dymphna’ playing, coffee cup balanced precariously in one hand while the other one manned the wheel, the morning found me barrelling down Highway 114, amid the eighteen wheelers hauling loads of gravel and beaten ranch trucks dragging enclosed stock trailers full of wild-eyed, bewildered cattle. Overhead, a steady procession of transparent wispy clouds reduced the risen sun to a pale yellow sphere in the new eastern sky. A front was on its way in, promising rain. Thick grey nebulous clouds obscured what would have otherwise been a clear blue January sky. A red-tailed hawk soared on an updraft, flapping its great wingspan for stability as it collided with an invisible gust that threatened to veer it in a different direction.  As I crossed the bridge over Salt Creek I habitually looked up at the overhanging power line, as a belted kingfisher can frequently be seen perched there, its keen eyes perusing the shallow water surface below for ripples caused by gambusia and leopard frogs. The bird wasn’t here today, nor were the motley flock of pigeons that reside beneath the bridge and  fly in seemingly tireless circles with the approach of every passing car.

After the bridge the land opens up on either side into a broad, plowed field which is used for growing watermelons and cantaloupes. In the summer the giant ovaline green fruits of the former and veined tan globes of the latter litter the ground before being harvested, and it is not unusual to see workers there day and night, some operating heavy machinery and the less fortunate stooped low, backs bent, with paisley bandannas tied over sweat-shiny faces and wide-brimmed straw hats combating the merciless sun. But summer is still half a year away, and for the moment the ground lies fallow and cold. To the south it is composed of barren dry clods of alluvial sand and clay deposited by seasonal overflows from the west fork Trinity River, but to the north a sea of high straw-yellow grass stretches out, its far banks governed by a treeline nearly a mile away, with the sandy Cottonwood Creek trickling over the land from the east. The highway runs through the middle of these two plots, atop a steep hill that provides a view of the scene from above, like driving atop a levee. Between the endless caravans of semis flanked by commuter cars and pickups the road is a busy one with a narrow shoulder. Dozens of carcasses of unfortunate wildlife lie along the white lines, coyotes and whitetail deer and raccoons and skunks and opossums, their presence a testament to the encroachment of man as well as the ignored speed limit. It is a dangerous place to break down, and a foolish one to pull over on.  On this grim black asphalt ribbon that invokes so much carnal destruction it is wise to keep one’s eyes on the road at all times, but on this particular morning I saw something from the corner of my eye as I passed, and I turned my head in the direction of the grass sea, where the lifting fog penetrated by the struggling rays of sunlight cast a primeval-looking spell on the land.

The early morning mist had just risen from the mud of the nearby creek. Towering above it were the crowns of oak trees, their boughs deceivingly bright with what appeared to be vibrant spring growth but was in reality the parasitic evergreen mistletoe. The tall grass waved in the remnants of the morning wind, and the dusky hue broken by the thick layers of elongated grey clouds added to the effect, giving the landscape a vaguely prehistoric look, as if I were crossing a bridge in time, one paved with modern-day blacktop made from ancient crinoids and other plants compressed over the eons and extracted as petroleum.

I took all this in in the span of a moment: a long, snakelike head popped from the grass, mouse-grey feathers mixed with those of stark white, with a familiar crest standing straight back at a slightly elevated angle from the graceful neck like a stubborn cowlick. The daggerlike beak pointed forward, orange as a flame-heated knife blade. It was a great blue heron, a noble and savage avian predator of swamp and creek and marsh and stock pond. Its scientific name of Ardea herodias sounds much more regal and befitting. This bane of frogs, fish and snakes dominates the shoreline from Canada to the Galapagos Islands. It is the largest heron in North America, standing over 54″ in height and boasting an impressive wingspan that can reach six feet across.

Closeup of head and bill of a roadkilled A. herodias

The bird lurched forward with a single fluid glide of movement, its bill punching the air, and I stole a glance back at the road, checked my mirrors. When I looked back I could see more herons. The sudden sight of them standing there, stalking the denizens of the grass with maddening patience struck an overwhelming chord with a mental image of a long-extinct dromeosaur from the late Cretaceous, dienonychus or velociraptor. Velociraptors were residents of Mongolia some 75million years before this foggy morning, and recent fossil evidence in the form of a forelimb containing what is believed by scientists to be a quill knob suggests that these last of the agile therapod dinosaurs may very well have sported feathers.  If dinosaurs were indeed endothermic, these would have supported the regulation of their body temperature as those of the heron and other modern birds do today.

As these magnificent rulers of the Cottonwood Creek hunted on long legs, their narrow tapering heads scanning the ground for prey, alert golden eyes detecting the slightest bits of movement, I could easily see the resemblance between the extinct and modern species separated by the ages, the shrinking back of the great seas, and the dawn of man.

Feet of A. herodias, showing resemblance to small therapod dinosaurs

As I passed over the Cottonwood Creek bridge it dawned on me that such a passing glimpse of nature’s transcending, ever-changing beauty simply would not do, and at the risk of being late to class I turned the truck around and passed back over, where I pulled onto what little shoulder that was available. The herons were still there, four of them in all, their elegant silhouettes beset against the grass stalks. Cars zoomed by me, buzzing in my ear like giant hornets as they passed only a couple feet from my driver’s side door. I had to get a picture, to at very least attempt to freeze-frame such a pristine conjunction of time and location. A thought fell upon me as I waited for a break in the traffic flow: a vision of a state trooper pulling behind me to ask why I deemed it necessary to park my vehicle along such a dangerously busy highway atop a steep hill with no shoulder.

“I have a perfectly justifiable explanation, officer. I just pulled over to take a shot of herons” was a response that could easily be misinterpreted. But I decided I would risk life and excuse and take my chances. After a few minutes the last car zipped by, and I bolted from the truck and headed down the hill. I stopped mid-way to take my first shot,which was too far away to capture much depth, but I was glad I did, for as I got closer to the fenceline the herons, which were still nearly fifty meters away, seemed to simultaneously take note of my presence. Had I been standing there in the late Cretaceous this would have most likely meant my untimely end as the dromeosaurs gathered together as a unified pack, but the herons spooked and took to their great wings, objects of perfect creation in flight, transforming from velociraptors into pterosaurs before my mind’s eye.

Dorsal view of a roadkilled A. herodias, showing resemblance to ancient pterosaurs

The fog was lifting now, and its departure was beginning to reveal patches of unnatural white between the oaks in the background. These were the rooves of barns. In front of them, a series of shiny new pumpjacks sat on open grassless ground, their crescent-shaped steel heads fixed onto craning beams that gave them the appearance of giant metal grasshoppers. The clouds remained, stacks of slate grey and pastel blue, unchanged over the countless centuries. The lifting of the fog had left the grass wet abd bright, and it was among it that I spied a lone, defiant heron who had refused to fly upon my approach. I snapped a picture, grateful for the opportunity, and then turned to leave. As I did a second heron sailed in like an avian hang-glider. It landed with exquisite form and grace, folding its wings up as delicately as an origami. Not wanting to further disturb the birds, I froze the frame in my mind and climbed the hill back to the truck. Less than four minutes had passed on that unexplainable scale of time. Somewhere far back along its track the Great Age of the Dinosaurs had ended, the seas had dried, and mammals ran through clumps of cycads that were on their way out while early birds tested out their new wings. A blink and here we were, making stone tools and driving automobiles and selling out to smartphones and blogging about great blue herons via the worldwide web. Millions of years and a three hour biology lab. For whatever all of it was worth, my moment  with the great blue herons of Cottonwood Creek that morning would make the time fly by.

Arnold, K.A. & G. Kenedy. 2007. Birds of Texas. Lone Pine Publishing International p. 92

Castro, Joseph. LiveScience. Velociraptor: facts about the ‘speedy thief’ https://www.livescience.com/23922-velociraptor-facts.html

Pough, Richard. 1951. Audubon Water Bird Guide. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. Inc. pp. 40-41

Sattler, H.R. 1983. The New Illustrated Dinosaur Dictionary. NY:Lothrop, Lee & Shepard p. 337-338.

Turner, A.H., Makovicky, P.J., & M.A. Norell. 2007. Feather quill knobs in the dinosaur Velociraptor. Science, Vol 317 (5845) p.1721

My “Herping Family”

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Trans-Pecos Copperhead (now Broad-banded Copperhead)

On the border between Texas and Mexico, along the Rio Grande, in the middle of the night, Clint and I wrangled a trio of copperheads by the roadside. It was an amazing find, life-listers for both of us if you consider that until recently they were considered Trans-Pecos copperheads (they recently were lumped in with the broad-banded copperheads, their bright patterns notwithstanding – but DNA trumps outward appearance). After all this time, three at once! We had a moment of discovery, wonder, and celebration, miles from nowhere, in a place supposedly so dangerous that we need a wall to protect us. After years traveling in the Big Bend country, often at night, as far from other people as we can get, we both feel as safe there as we do closer to home. Even in a familiar and beloved place like the Big Bend, we were glad for the companionship. We choose people to go with us on these long trips, and even for shorter ones, for a reason – or several reasons – and the relationships that can develop are enduring and strong.

I have been doing this for many years, and my earliest trips were with museum people, older and wiser, able to teach about the land and its wildlife and at the same time share the delighted reactions we had to the discoveries we made. There were the map turtles of Rough Creek, the hike down into Palo Duro Canyon, and finding Texas tortoises in the south Texas thorn scrub. These guys were biologists, but at the same time they were like scout leaders, keeping sometimes unruly but promising teenagers in line, nurturing our interests, and at the same time getting good work out of us to advance the museum collections.

In later years there were people like Bob Smith and my wife Jo. I still remember when Bob and I stared at a big diamond-backed watersnake in some pond somewhere in Van Zandt County, trying to reassure ourselves that our identification was so absolutely correct that we could grab that big beast, take our medicine (bites and musking were sure to ensue), and take a photo. A few more years’ experience and we wouldn’t give it a second thought, but on that day we shared a little uncertainty, and as a result the snake got away.

The first serious member of my herping family was Steve Campbell. (By “herping family” I mean something like our work “families,” the people we grow close to and come to depend on at work.) By “serious,” I mean going long distances for several days in the field with a person. After Steve moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, we co-founded the DFW Herpetological Society and organized several field trips to places in central Texas, down on the Pecos River, and the Big Thicket. Steve was a likeable, funny guy and an excellent naturalist. He knew a lot about the natural history of reptiles and amphibians as well as fish and understood how they were interrelated with the plant and animal communities around them. He and I took a series of field trips together that we would come back and write about for the herp society newsletter. We picked at each other mercilessly for comic effect (he was better at it than I was). Steve had exaggerated and funny monologues criticizing everything from my musical preferences to my packing multiple cameras and pulling them all out when we found something really cool.

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Steve Campbell, at the LBJ Grasslands

The thing was, we shared a similar perspective on things like whether we could be happy seeing common species in the field (even if we didn’t see the more rare and glamorous ones), how much collecting was ethical (we thought we should take only a few if any, even if the species was common), and whether a good walk through great habitat was enough by itself (it was, but we still wanted to find herps). We got to know each other’s abilities, quirks, and preferences, and settled into herping trips like brothers. Steve’s untimely death in 2012 was a loss that is still felt among his friends in the Texas herping community and at Texas Parks & Wildlife Department where he worked.

The other truly serious member of my herping family is, of course, Clint King. Steve and I met Clint in the early days of the herp society and found him to be the most single-minded and passionate field herper we had ever met, even though he was just out of high school at the time. Clint writes about an early field trip to the region around the Pecos River in a chapter of the forthcoming Herping Texas book that should be available later this year. He captures the essence of Steve’s slightly teasing, class clown persona quite well. Clint gave that affection-disguised-as-humor back at him by the truckload, writing about Steve’s quirkiness in “Campbell Ideology is Nothing to Mess Around With,” that first appeared in the herp society newsletter and was reprinted in this blog.

Over the years, Clint and I have visited every major ecoregion in Texas, sometimes on a day trip and whenever possible over several days. You cannot do that with someone and survive unless you truly trust, respect, and enjoy each other’s company. While our travels have not exactly been nail-bitingly dangerous adventures, we have been in isolated places, far from help, messing with venomous snakes and other wildlife. A venomous bite or a fall down a mountainside become all the more serious when you’re miles from nowhere, and it helps to thoroughly trust the good sense and commitment of your field partner.

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Clint King, at Caddo Lake

It also is a plus when your field partner has an interest in the natural world that is similar to your own. When we’re on the road, the focus is on the landscape and the wildlife, with partying or sightseeing side-trips never crossing our minds. On the other hand, reasonable indulgences are allowed. While Clint has been known to hang out with merciless herping machines who need no sleep and who find something to do even when the desert is broiling at over 110 degrees, on our trips he seems to fall easily in line with getting some sleep and visiting a few memorable eateries such as El Patio in Presidio and Shrimp Boat Manny’s in Livingston.

We also seem to have a comparable mix of reverence and wonder for the natural world. When you make your way down the rocks that form a staircase into the presence of Gorman Falls on the Colorado River, it helps when your companions (in this case, Clint and his wife and son) experience a similar awe and fascination. When standing in the desert above Terlingua staring at the clear night sky and the infinite star field overhead, you want to share the experience. We’re wired that way, as social creatures, and the transcendent wonderfulness of it all seems deeper when someone at your side gets it and is staring in similar slack-jawed amazement.

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Clear cut, near a unit of the Big Thicket National Preserve

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Refinery complex on the road to Sea Rim State Park

It similarly relieves a little of the sense of loss when looking at a clear-cut patch of forest next to the Big Thicket, driving through a refinery belching poison into the Gulf Coast, or visiting a place like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The latter may soon be walled off from us by a border wall envisioned by people who have never been there and don’t care what will be needlessly lost. Traveling to wild places in Texas, refuges, natural areas, and parks sometimes feels like attending a series of funerals for someone who isn’t gone yet, but whose death or debilitating illness is imminent. Sure, there is the joy of being there, the fascination with all the working parts of the ecosystem, the beauty of wildlife captured by the camera or just in a memorable glimpse. Sometimes there is also that sense of impending loss – will this place still be here next time? Will it be walled off? Scarred and poisoned by extractive industry? Toasted and flooded by a climate that is increasingly out of whack? Only those who see these places as essential, irreplaceable gifts will understand the joy of being there and the underlying dread of loss that goes with it. Like any other grief, it is easier when shared.

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A trail at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

I don’t let the sense of loss lurking in the background spoil my time in the field. Moments like when we found the three Trans-Pecos copperheads should be lived in the present, and those experiences are all the more exciting and fun when shared as well. I’ve been fortunate with herping companions and family just as I have with my “regular” family, and I’m thankful for all of them.

In Search of the Savannah

IMG_2820I headed northeast for an afternoon’s visit to Caddo National Grasslands, a place just below the Red River in a region of post oaks and other kinds of oak, juniper, and some scattered savannah grasslands. The Post Oak Savannah ecoregion starts at the Red River and extends down in a band through east-central Texas, and I have only been able to visit a couple of places within it, such as the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area. My road trip to Caddo hopefully would help me learn more about the Post Oak Savannah.

Driving north from Greenville, I tried to imagine the origins of the landscapes I was driving through. I knew from the map that it was historically Blackland Prairie. But what did it look like now? There were fields of close-cropped grass on either side of me, stretching back to a nearby tree line, marking a fence row or a creek somewhere. There were little houses every few hundred yards, collapsing barns, and horses nibbling rolled bales of hay. I passed a few fields with black soil, flecked white from last year’s cotton crop. The black soil, that rich, dark, alkaline clay soil, confirmed this as part of the Blackland Prairie, although there was hardly a relic of the tallgrass that made it a “prairie.” But once in a while, among the cotton fields and mowed hay fields, along a fence line I would see a tuft of prairie grass, standing up straight as a yardstick, an echo of an ecosystem that has mostly disappeared.

Even on the outskirts of Honey Grove, getting close to the Bois D’Arc Creek Unit of the Caddo National Grasslands, the soil was still black. I pictured the maps available from EPA and TPWD, showing that the Post Oak Savannah stretches up to the northeastern corner of Texas and then tracks back along the Red River, just above the Blackland, ending in western Fannin County. Even though I trusted the maps, the first thing I looked for when I got to Caddo was the lighter sandy soil that is associated with Post Oak Savannah. And on that first trail I could see for myself, the soil was reddish and sandy.

The trail passed a small clearing with some little bluestem and other grasses, and then descended through woodlands toward a tributary of the creek that runs north-south through the preserve. I was in search of uplands and, hopefully, open grasslands, so I moved on to another trail. The second trail started in a grove of pines and continued over a rolling landscape with oaks and other trees. It dropped down through another creek tributary and back up a hillside. Here and there, surfaces along the ground were covered with patches of moss. So far, this part of Fannin County just seemed like woodlands of oak and juniper.

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A small semi-open area within the woodlands, Caddo National Grasslands, Bois D’Arc Unit

Everywhere that I walked, recollections of another visit to Fannin County were never far from my thoughts. That visit was at a church camp, over fifty years ago, and the memory of finding eastern coachwhips is still very clear. These long, slender snakes are typically satiny black on the head and first part of the body, gradually fading to sandy brown. The scales toward the tail are edged in darker brown, making it look a little like a braided whip. As a teenager at camp so many years ago, I caught a couple of these snakes, typically by turning a log or a section of downed oak branch and grabbing the snake before it could escape. Coachwhips are so fast and agile that few people are able to chase them down when they are awake and on the prowl. I don’t remember what else we did at camp, but I’ll never forget those snakes. One of them in particular gave me quite a workout. In a group of kids walking back toward the camp buildings, I had spotted an entirely black coachwhip in the dirt road ahead of us. As it spotted us and took off toward a line of trees on the right, I broke into a run to intercept it. As our paths converged, I dived toward the snake and caught it. When attacked, coachwhips are known to target the face of a predator, and that is exactly what this one did, tagging me on the cheek. One of the kids ran ahead, no doubt telling a camp counselor that one of the boys had been bitten on the face by a snake. So as I headed up the road, proudly holding my prize, we were met by a group of panicky camp staff, ready for god-knew-what emergency. It was hard for me to see what all the fuss was about; all I cared about was that they would let me keep the snake. I doubt I’ll ever be able to think of Fannin County without picturing a satiny black serpent cruising through sandy soil and open woodlands.

I certainly wasn’t going to find any coachwhips on this January 28th trip, more or less in mid-winter. It’s true that the temperatures would reach into the mid-60’s that day, and I walked the trails in a t-shirt, very comfortable in the warm afternoon sunlight. However, most reptiles would be sheltering in burrows and under logs, with the layers of leaves and soil insulating them from the brief warm-up just as they protect them from hard freezes. The only activity in the forest was the occasional bird flying from tree to tree. It was quiet and peaceful as I walked through the leaf litter under the bare branches. But I still wanted to see some open savannah. I thought about how periodic fires are needed in order to maintain prairies and grasslands. Land managers in such places will use “prescribed burns,” carefully planned so that they do not get out of control, to burn off the woody plants that will turn prairies into woodlands if left unchecked. The grasses burn too, of course, but quickly regenerate from their roots and can compete with the slower growing sumac and tree seedlings. How long since there had been a burn here?

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A patch of open grassland within Caddo National Grasslands

I went in search of another trail, turning south down a county road a short distance, until I found gates for walking trails on either side of the road. One led further into woodland, but the other looked like it led up through a scrubby area, and that’s the way I went. The trail soon opened into a big open patch of grassland! Finally, here was a place that looked like savannah! The afternoon sun was getting low; it was nearly five o’clock and the light was golden and still warm. Sparrows flitted from low tree branches into a nearby thicket at the edge of the open grassland. Here was some north Texas perfection, and I stood there and soaked it in for a while. One of the things that I love about such moments, away from cities and towns, is the calm quiet of the place. The sparrows might call with their high-pitched “stip,” and dormant grasses might crunch as I walked, but such sounds did not have to compete with highway noise or other mechanized sounds. It was quiet, in a way that perfectly framed the occasional bird call. Here was a refuge, a sanctuary in that original sense of a sacred place. Like so many other natural places that have barely been touched by human activity, it was a place where the “noise” of everyday life could be stripped away, down to the experience of the garden in which we originally lived. That garden feels like home, even if most of us would not know how to live there now. It can be a brutal world of predator and prey, unforgiving of accidents or sickness, but in our sprint through the modern world, we might be forgiven if we romanticize that world just a little, and want to step away and stand in the late afternoon sunlight and listen to the birds.

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Savannah sparrow, in a thicket at the edge of the patch of grassland