Return to the Rolling Plains 

Storm clouds emblazon a Stonewall County sunset, as seen through the car window photo: Zev King

A flash of lightning illuminated the sky outside the passenger window, behind which a sun the hue of an overripe peach quickly slipped over the plains to the west. Deep puddles lined the roadway from bands of storms that were unleashing their late summer fury upon the thirsty red soil. A lone coyote, looking scraggly and thin, stood in the roadside grass, saw us approaching, and trotted across the two-lane blacktop and into a nearby cotton field, picking up pace even as he looked back over his shoulder with his tongue lolling sideways. From the seat behind me my son watched him disappear at its edge into a thick grove of honey mesquites. 

We were in Stonewall County in the middle of the Big Empty, with nothing but miles of shortgrass prairie, mesquite savannah, and low outcrops of red rock. Mark Pyle, my longtime friend and field accomplice, was manning the wheel, with me and my crutches riding shotgun and Zev in the back. I had only recently gotten out of one of my boot casts, and was eager to get out in the thick of it, crutches be damned.  And here was no better place and time. As dusk gave way to the black of night great horned owls winged in from out of the darkness and perched along the telephone poles at roadside like harbingers of rodent and rabbit death. The myopic refraction of whitetail deer eyes gave away their presence just outside the realm of our headlights, and once we had to swerve a band of feral hogs that came parading across the asphalt, seemingly out of nowhere. The lead boar looked as if it could have nearly doubled me in weight, and I frowned at the thought of these unscrupulous ungulate lawnmowers razing the rocky hardpan of plants and animals alike. In the sky above a nightjar boomeranged above the car, trying to hone in on the moths drawn to our headlights.  As the sun died the plains came to life. 


At the Haskell County line we set up a blacklight at a familiar roadside rest stop where a row of honey mesquites draped their thorny branches over the fenceline. We would check the light at the end of the night to see what was hopping on the invertebrate scene. Late August is a great time for blacklighting. Sphinx and giant silk moths are emerging in their final brood of the year, the fall blister beetle species begin to show up, and mantids and walking sticks begin to make their annual appearance. 

We drove back and forth along the mostly deserted highway for the better part of three hours, where we tallied up a sum of young-of-the-year rattlesnakes, all of them western diamondbacks. The largest of these was around two feet in length, and the rest were only months old, all of them perfect replicas of the adults, with their telltale diamond patterns etched in light colored scales and their black and white ringed tails bearing only the baby button and a single attached segment. In true western diamondback fashion they displayed a variety of temperaments, with some lying motionless and others instantly wriggling away.  On a good diamondback night there is always one ornery individual, and ours took cute little snaps at Mark’s hook as he scooted it to the safety of the roadside grass. 


Western diamondbacks may reach their greatest abundance in the state in this ecoregion. I have herped all over Texas and nowhere have I seen population densities so great as that area between Lubbock and Throckmorton. On a three day herpathon in mid-May of 2013 I racked up over a hundred snakes, 65 % of which had been diamondbacks. But it was 100 % on this night, and after 11:00, with the thermometer reading 71 degrees and due to drop into the low sixties by the morning, we decided to pull in the blacklight and call it quits. 

The rolling plains may no longer be a home where the buffalo roam, but it serves as the eastern boundary to a species of ant lion (Vella farfax) that is the largest in the United States.  Antlions are better known in their larval forms as ‘doodlebugs’, and are recognized by the familiar inverted cone shaped pitfall they use to trap ants.  The adult somewhat resembles a damselfly, although with a wingspan of up to 120 mm the giant species rivals that of our largest dragonflies.  These were in abundance around the headlight beams, and Zev hoped we would draw some to the blacklight, but they were strangely absent when we got there. We did, however, find a plethora of other insects. As predicted, several male mantids and a walkingstick were hanging out on the sheet, alongside several tiger beetles (Cicindela sp) and blister beetles  (Pyrota concinna) who looked pre-dressed for Halloween in their vibrant orange and black warning colors that advertised their witch’s brew of cantharadin.  A pair of mesquite girdlers (Oncideres cingulata) ambled across the sheet with their long antennae trailing along behind their elytra.  Several feet away a checkered beetle (Enoclerus quadrisignatus) waited for one of them to deposit its eggs so it could parasitize them with its own voracious larvae. 

A mantis snacks on a moth under the glow of the uv lights


The baby diamondbacks were still running strong as we made our way to the tiny town of Aspermont a little after midnight. There are only two motels there to choose from, but the one with the grey fox dining on crickets beneath the security light seemed appropriate, so we pulled in to get a little rest. It wasn’t the ritz, but with my leg throbbing and aching as I pulled it out of the accursed boot and into the bed, it beat a kicked back car seat or a sleeping bag under a mesquite tree by a long shot. 

Another mantis outside the Hickman Motel, Aspermont Texas


We awoke to a cool calm morning in the mid-sixties, and after an Allsups breakfast of granola bars and iced coffee (Mark had milk as he insists he’ll never stoop to drinking burned beans as I’ll never stoop to drinking from the mammary glands of another species…our lines are drawn) we broke once again for the wide open plains. 

Part of the reason behind our mini-trip ( at least the part we used to explain to our wives involving its absolute necessity) was to photograph a coiled western diamondback for the cover shot of the book Michael and I were still in the process of publishing, and Mark had brought along a robust, photogenic four-footer for just such purpose.  The goal was to get a good shot of the highway fading away to a central focal point on the horizon line, with the snake buzzing in the classic position in the foreground. We wanted to get this done in the cool of the morning if possible, and after a brief hunt for the “perfect spot” we did a short photo shoot just north of the town of Jermyn in nearby Kent County. It took about 20 minutes, and during that  period the sun came out and the temp began to climb. This brought the day crew out. The previous night’s owl posts were relieved of duty by redtail hawks; bobwhite quail bobbed along in their curious, synchronized huddles, and a trio of roadrunners peered at the car from beneath a mesquite as we passed by, their concentration only momentarily broken from the morning’s lizard hunt. 

Mark photos the atrox while I stand by and try to keep the shadow of my crutches out of the shot


We hadn’t gone far when we saw the high domed carapace of an ornate box turtle as it ambled along the pavement. While these brightly colored chelonians are sadly becoming an increasing rarity around the western cross timbers, they are still faring pretty well in undisturbed parts of the rolling plains. We pulled over to photograph this one, and Mark got a little too close and received a good nip from the little turtle’s strong beak.  It was hard enough to draw a small amount of blood, as well as a large amount of teasing from Zev and I. Apparently these rolling plains box turtles didn’t owe their survival out here to meek dispositions and blackberries! It was flesh and true grit that would see them through another day!

The Terrapene Terror poses calmly for a picture just minutes before the incident, looking the picture of innocence.


By now the sun had warmed the air to over 80 degrees, and while we weren’t surprised to see a western coachwhip come streaking across the road, we were by the only other live snake we saw that morning: a juvenile eastern hognose.  Eastern hognose snakes can be quite common in parts of their range (in spite of Michael Smith’s apparent lifelong jinx when it comes to finding them) but are not so in the rolling plains, where they are replaced by the smaller, more boldly patterned western hognose. In fact, in nearly 20 years of herping the area this was only the third specimen I had come across.  We were thrilled to find this little guy out and about, and it ended up being a county record. After a series of photos Mark carried the pintsize bluffer to the fenceline and released it into the grass. 



Several minutes later we pulled over for a much more commonly seen denizen of the plains. This was a Texas horned lizard, and it sat calmly along the white line as we gathered around it for photos. Not even the squeaking, mechanical approach of the bionic crutch-herper frightened it. Texas horned lizards, even moreso than box turtles, have disappeared from much of their former range, but are still found in healthy numbers in much of the rolling plains. This is likely due to the arid climate that supports dense populations of the red harvester ants that constitute the bulk of the lizards’ diet, while preventing invasions of the moisture-dependent imported red fire ant that threatens both the lizard and harvester ants.   After photographing it, Mark made sure the horned lizard made it off the road safely by toeing it into the grass. As a result he ended up getting a harvester ant sting on his leg. Apparently the rolling plains was giving Mark a run for his money. 


Dozens of diamondbacks, bitey box turtles, horned lizards and hognose…I could think of no better way to ring in my return to the field!

Hanging Out With Master Naturalists

Texas’ wildlife and wild places can use all the friends they can get. Many of our citizens are in the grip of “nature deficit disorder,” and so the best friends nature can have are those who like science and natural history. Luckily, there is a cadre of people who study nature in Texas, who like nothing better than spending time immersed in it, and volunteer to support it. Who are these ecological illuminati? They are Texas Master Naturalists, an organization with 42 chapters in Texas and over 8,000 trained volunteers. Last Tuesday I spent the better part of three hours with the incoming group of Cross Timbers Master Naturalists, teaching their herpetology class. We followed up yesterday with a brief walk at the edge of the marsh and in the bottomland forest at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.

We started at the marsh boardwalk, expecting to find a few frogs and a basking turtle or two. Sure enough, I quickly spotted a green treefrog on a reed stalk. Adhering to the stalk like a lime-green lump, it stayed motionless as the group of us pointed, took photos, and talked about this beautiful little amphibian. I encouraged the group to take any opportunity they could get to listen to a springtime breeding chorus of these frogs at night. Hundreds of eagerly “quacking” male green treefrogs at close range in the darkness is a slightly overwhelming and oddly beautiful experience.

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A green treefrog at the boardwalk, FW Nature Center & Refuge

We also spotted a couple of young American bullfrogs, sitting on the mud beside the water and so marvelously matching the color of mud and algae that they were hard to spot without looking for the outline of the body and the two eyes scanning the area for insects to eat and for any approaching watersnake or heron with a taste for bullfrog. While adult bullfrogs may reach up to eight inches in snout-vent length (that is, not counting the legs), these may have emerged from tadpole stage earlier this year. Some were only a couple of inches in snout-vent length.

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American bullfrog (photo taken at LBJ Grasslands, Wise Co.)

The second group was treated to a glimpse of a western coachwhip as we left the boardwalk area. It took off within a small group of trees and greenbriar and I followed as quickly as possible, but these snakes are fast and agile as they thread their way through downed branches and greenbriar tangles. We lost it where a small log lay in the leaf litter, and did not see it again although I had people position themselves around the perimeter (watching for a “back door” escape), I used the snake hook to move the log, and we scanned the branches of surrounding trees. Perhaps it had already slipped away before we could get in position, or maybe a cavity where roots had rotted away provided it a deeper refuge. I love these slender, four or five foot harmless snakes. They are among the fastest and most agile of Texas snakes, and they have big, bright eyes and a tendency to “periscope” up to look around in curiosity.

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Bottomlands, Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge

We then walked into the bottomlands near the marsh. Here was a chance to see cottonmouths, watersnakes, frogs and toads, skinks, and other herps. Not that I expected we would hit the jackpot and see all these things, but we had a great chance to see some of them. Every herp trip is a roll of the dice, and in a big patch of habitat you can only turn a few of the logs and examine a small sample of leaf litter and tree trunks. Every additional hour and each new acre of habitat increases your odds of finding things. As it was, we saw a series of toads ranging from a tiny toadlet to a small adult Gulf Coast toad. We talked about the difficulty of identifying toadlets, while every millimeter of additional growth makes a pattern a little more apparent, cranial crests a bit more visible, and the shape of parotoid glands more apparent.

Someone in the first group noticed a little wiggle in the leaf litter, and that wiggle belonged to our smallest skink, the “little brown skink” (an unimaginative but accurate name). These two-toned brown to slightly coppery-colored lizards have small legs, long bodies, and almost seem to swim through decaying leaves and soil. I will never forget its description, in the Conant & Collins field guide, as an “elfin reptile of the woodland floor.” It took me several tries, using care not to break the tail of this subadult skink, before I had it in hand for closer inspection by the other participants.

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Little brown skink

Elsewhere in the bottomlands, there were many invertebrate treasures to find. Someone found a luna moth that had finished its short adult life and fallen to the ground. Luna moths are always a beautiful and special treat with their pale green wings, the hindwings gracefully trailing behind in an adaptation that I understand is designed to fool bat radar. And spiders had spun webs between branches everywhere. Especially common were the spiny orb weavers, little spiders with flattened abdomens and spines projecting around the edges (in the larger female spider). Sitting in the center of their orb-shaped webs, the spider can look like a small thorny seed that has become stuck in the web.

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Spiny orb weaver

I try to navigate through places like this with some care not to run into the webs. As a child, I had put my hand down a small burrow in the back yard and brought up a tarantula, and the experience was badly frightening. I had a severe spider phobia for some time, but in later childhood when I hung out with biologists at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum it became apparent that in order to pursue field biology, I would have to tolerate a certain closeness with spiders. The field trips were a sort of “exposure therapy,” which is actually the most effective treatment for phobia, and I came to have a certain appreciation for these arachnids – but I stop short of handling them and certainly don’t want to become entangled in their webs! When this happened a couple of times during our walk, I managed not to squeal like my former eight-year-old phobic self, but it sure was not the high point of the outing.

We were careful not to indiscriminately damage rotting logs, but those we rolled over or examined often contained bess beetles. I took a photo of one that was reddish-brown rather than black, and texted it to Clint, who identified it as a just-metamorphosed bess beetle whose chitin would soon harden and turn black. BugGuide says that these beetles live in family groups in galleries within the rotted logs that they eat. Adults take care of the larvae and feed them pre-chewed wood.

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Bess beetle

It seems like the ideal herp trip is one in which there are folks who know about and can interpret many aspects of the natural world, even if you aren’t finding a whole lot of herps. This little trip was enjoyable both for the herps we found as well as for the fascinating invertebrates, the giant cottonwoods, and all the other life of the bottomland forest. “Thank you” to the incoming Cross Timbers Master Naturalists, for making this a shared learning opportunity!


Conant, R., & Collins, J.T. (1998) A field guide to reptiles and amphibians, eastern North American (3rd Edition). NY: Houghton-Mifflin.

Night Driving on the Rolling Plains

Out in the red dirt country, the grasslands with mesquite and prickly pear, we have seen lots of wonderful things. Clint knows this country better than I, but I have walked and driven on the part of the Rolling Plains roughly between Abilene, Wichita Falls, and Lubbock enough to love the openness, the raw and uncompromising extremes, and the wildlife in this part of Texas. There’s hardly a better place to listen to the song of the coyote, catch a glimpse of owls at nightfall, and of course to see rattlesnakes, coachwhips, long-nosed snakes, and the Texas horned lizard.

Yesterday we set out again to drive out there, Clint with his legs healing from a terrible accident at work and just now able to tolerate longer drives without elevating his feet, getting around on crutches like a pro. We chased a few rainstorms westward, getting positioned so that we would be west of Graham by sunset and ready for what we hoped would be some snakes on the move, crossing the roads. Seeing snakes is wonderful, but we both love the land, the trees and flowers, the bugs, birds, and furry things enough that we are pretty easy to please. As long as the landscape is mostly intact, only lightly altered by the hand of man, we will find things to admire and wonder about, whether reptilian or otherwise.

Past Jacksboro, Clint spotted a coyote out loping along, paying no heed to the nearby highway or to the risk posed by his being out there in the light of day for all to see. Many decades ago, I helped take care of a coyote at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum, and feel some sadness even now for the close confinement of that irritable old codger, a big old boy that paced his cage and never had the social connection and chance to roam that these animals need. When they live on ranchland, landowners might consider them pests, but much of their diet consists of rodents, fruit when it can be found, and occasional carrion. Coyotes have been amazingly resilient in and around cities. Our former governor famously shot one while out walking his dog, and some of us might have rooted for the coyote instead. They certainly could be threats to smaller dogs, but overall, coyotes are smart, elusive predators with whom we can usually coexist.

The sun was setting in shades of brilliant tangerine, and we looked for a place to take a photo. I hoped for some place where I could look out toward the horizon with no towers, storage tanks, or telephone lines in the way. We just about gave up on finding such a spot before finding a good enough location where nothing but trees were on the horizon, and the sky was golden and then shaded past orange clouds to a deepening gray-blue sky and a crescent moon overhead.

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August sunset on the Rolling Plains

We were not alone in greeting the sunset. Somewhere nearby we heard the lonely, whistling call of a chuck will’s widow. Soon this “night hawk” would be flying, catching insects and settling in some spot on the ground, maybe in the gravel off the shoulder of this highway. A little further down the road, we spotted a great horned owl sitting on a telephone line, no doubt scanning the ground for movement. A scurrying wood rat, a cottontail rabbit crouching among the grasses, or even a skunk prowling around may be preyed upon by this big owl. Its wingspan can approach 50 inches (around four feet!) and the force of a strike with those big talons is enough to break the spine or crush the skull of many prey animals.

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Great horned owl

Somewhere before Haskell we turned around and headed back. Although the temperatures were holding within the 70s, it was just not a night for significant snake movement. We did see the ghostly image of another coyote, at the edge of the reach of our headlights, trotting across the road. Then, we passed a big owl standing in the opposite lane. Perhaps it had just dropped down to claim some rodent that had ventured out on the pavement. The most amazing sight was a badger, who abruptly came into view near the center stripe of the road, apparently feasting on some road kill. In our brief glimpse, the big mustelid jumped back a little and looked as if to say, “hey, watch what yer doing!” They don’t yield an inch, even to a speeding car.

It reminded me of a day trip Clint and I took in July of 2014, driving back roads in the vicinity of Aspermont. At nightfall, we came upon a badger who was beginning to dig in an embankment. Finding himself somewhat trapped between the car and the steep wall of red dirt, he turned and faced us with a growl that was enough to make anything, animal or human, a little weak in the knee. I got a photo from within the car, but Clint was standing behind the car and trying for an even better shot. I called out something about being extremely careful; these guys are not related to wolverines for nothing! The encounter ended with no injuries – Clint got his shot and got back in the car, and we let the badger go on his way. (I don’t think we “let” the badger do anything; he decided what to do and did it. David Schmidly mentions a documented report in which one badger held off two coyotes, and I’m pretty sure this one could have kicked our butts all the way back to the metroplex.)

Stonewall Co., TX, NW of Swenson

Badger, Stonewall County

There were plenty of other joys on that trip to Aspermont in 2014, like the numerous roadrunners sprinting ahead of us or taking low, short flights to a nearby tree branch, or the coachwhip we surprised on the road. In several places, the road was bordered by a tall plant with beautiful white flowers, each with a flat ring of petals topped with a cluster of filaments. Hovering and flitting among these flowers were sphinx moths. I set the shutter speed to try to freeze the motion of their hummingbird-like wings, to capture something of their brown, pink and white striped and banded bodies.

Stonewall Co., TX, NW of Swenson

Sphinx moth

On that day, we had seen about a dozen Texas horned lizards. Watching the red dirt road carefully, we would see what looked like a chunk of that dirt run ahead a few feet and stop. We would then pull over, jump out, and take some photos of these spiny little dust-pancakes with their two dark-brown horns and alert little black eyes. Close examination of their pattern shows many of the colors we admire in fall leaves. Brown spots are surrounded by a corona of golden yellow, fading into a sandy color that can be nearly orange. This is especially the case for areas with colorful soils, as a population of Texas horned lizards will come to resemble the color tones of their surroundings, giving them a survival advantage because they blend in with the background of soil, sand, and rocks.  For those “of a certain age,” seeing horned lizards is immediately followed by the wistful recollection, “I remember when we could find those in our back yards.” And I do fondly remember those days.

Stonewall Co., TX, NW of Swenson

Texas horned lizard

But on this day, August 26, 2017, we saw no horned lizards in the remaining light before sunset. Nor did we see snakes, until nearly 9:30pm as we were driving back. On the outskirts of Throckmorton, along the shoulder, we spotted a roughly two-foot long serpent, almost surely a rattlesnake. As we pulled over, sure enough it was a young western diamond-back. Out on the Rolling Plains, these snakes are so common that we’ve been known to slow down, note what it is, and drive on. However, when it is the first snake of the night, you stop for a closer look. I took a quick iPhone photo in the glare of the flashlight, and then moved it on across the road in the direction it had been heading. Although the occasional cranky individual will pull back and even strike repeatedly when touched with the snake hook, this one had the more typical laid-back temperament of many western diamond-backs. It tried to crawl away, not frantically but as if getting away from some inconvenience, and never rattled or showed any sign of annoyance. And with that, Clint and I could claim that we had not actually gotten “skunked.” It was our only snake of the night, but how could we possibly complain about a night seeing owls, coyotes, a badger, a frog and toad or two, and one easygoing little rattler?

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Young western diamond-backed rattlesnake, near Throckmorton, TX

Manaster, J. 1997. Horned lizards. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Schmidly, David. 2004. The mammals of Texas, Revised Ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Smith, D.W. 2002. Wild bird guides: Great horned owl. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

 

Under Cover of Daylight

And all that is now
And all that is gone
And all that’s to come
And everything under the sun is in tune
But the sun is eclipsed by the moon
            – Roger Waters (Pink Floyd)

“The world looks so hazy,” Zev says. He stands beside me, his head engulfed inside a cardboard “eclipse box” Amber fashioned for us to view the upcoming solar phenomenon in.

We are sitting on the porch under what would normally be full sunshine. It is a little after one o’clock in the afternoon, but it looks and feels like that incomparable hour before dusk.

The butterflies seem to be enjoying the day, in spite of the temporary muting of their beloved sunshine. We see clouded sulphurs, pipevine swallowtails and a Queen in the yard, and once a hurried Gulf frittilary flashes by on silver and orange wings.

Butterflies aren’t the only creatures that are out enjoying this mercy from the normally raging summer sun. A pair of scissortail flycatchers are using my barbed wire fence as a vantage point, where the butterflies’ presence is duly noted as well, with hungrier pairs of eyes.  As I watch, one sees its window of opportunity closing like the very shadow over the sun above and makes a feathery dive in the direction of a passing variegated fritillary.  They wing away behind my truck, out of view, with the bird in hot pursuit.  Nearby on the porch, a pair of hummingbirds hang suspended in the dusky blue sky that has suddenly taken on a psychedelically peach tone.

As I witness this perfectly anomalous miracle of nature unfold for the first time in nearly a century through its projected image via a pinhole lens poked through foil, I am reminded that my family and I are getting the chance to experience something few living people on this earth have ever seen before.  That, and Zev is nuts about space and everything it relates to and so things like meteor showers and eclipses are celebrated with the same anticipation and enthusiasm as New Year’s Eve around our house.  “Eclipse” is all my wife and I have heard for a week. We tried to use a welding helmet’s tinted glass as a viewing mechanism but the shade was not dark enough and I subjected my poor eyes to the dreaded Eclipse Blindness for a split second before deeming them unsafe. At that point my wife looked over as if questioning herself why she married a human guinea pig and set about to making the box, which worked wonderfully.

Zev declares August 21 an annual Eclipse Holiday from here on out, whether an eclipse is expected or not.

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Zev, using the “eclipse box”

But then my thoughts darken, as a man’s can in this day and age, to more dire things. “The End of the World!” is what I’m sure plenty of people said during the 1918 eclipse, and their words soon passed into the endless well of obscurity in the span of mere hours. But will ours? I think about places such as the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge and the National Butterfly Center, soon to be forced to eke out their future existence in the shadow of a concrete wall lit by floodlights. I think back to the spring of 2016, where Mark Pyle and I took Zev on his first trip to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, a 557 acre preserve located on the Rio Grande roughly between Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. On that trip, the rich earthy smell of a wide diversity of chiefly Mexican subtropical flora that thrived in the organic detritus composed of layers of fallen palm fronds in various stages of decomposition pervaded our nostrils.  A red-bordered pixie butterfly had fluttered between us, and had done its odd vanishing trick that involves the very unbutterfly-like behavior of hiding beneath a leaf with its wings stretched flat. Not one but two of the rare turquoise-spotted speckled racers (the objective of the day’s search) had blessed our trail before the walk had ended. It had been a day to remember, and as the sun now hung eclipsed in the sky overhead, I wondered if the beloved sanctuary would be one of the next things to be eclipsed by that all-consuming machine of what passes for “progress.”  It made me think of that vulnerable little strip of subtropical habitat that only occurs in the United States on the border of two Texas counties, of all the species that only occur north of the border in that specific niche, and of the dozers that loom in the razed strip of construction even now. I think of all this as I stare through that tiny pinhole again, where two heavenly bodies aligned in the sky have now begun to slowly part company above and behind me. I think of things we only get the opportunity to experience once in a lifetime.  Of everyday wonders within a thousand worlds that go on all around us.  And also of things we may never have the opportunity to see and enjoy again if we don’t act now.

The sun is returning now, breaking the spell of the eclipse across the land, as bright as mid-day in August. In another few hours the world will return to life as normal. Most will have forgotten the whole thing by this time tomorrow.  Will our wild places suffer the same fate some day? Will the sound of the bittern or the sight of a bobcat or a grey fox or a kingsnake become bedtime stories our children and grandchildren will tell theirs, as foreign a fantasy to them as the tales of dragons and knights? They will if we don’t teach them.  If we don’t show them and share with them. If we don’t relay and emphasize the importance of preserving them.

Zev takes the “eclipse box” from me and dons it like an imaginary astronaut’s helmet. He views what little is left to view through a cardboard-thin layer of protection. Beside him, I look out across the post oaks and prairie grasses and can’t help but feel that I am doing the same.

Snow-On-The-Prairie

(And the Things-On-The-Snow-On-The-Prairie)

One of the best things about an August visit to a prairie may be getting to see snow-on-the-prairie. “What?” you may say, “It was 100 degrees today, and the heat index was 105. Good luck seeing snow.” But this is a special sort of snow, a plant in the spurge family whose simple white flowers are surrounded by floral leaves with white edges. At first glance you would think that those leaves are the flower, but as you look closer you see the little flowers with five petals at the center of these groups of leaves.

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Snow-On-The Prairie

I first saw this beautiful plant at Parkhill Prairie, a prairie remnant east of McKinney that is part of the blackland prairie. I then learned that it is found in places throughout the eastern half of Texas and beyond. I figured that the prairie at Tandy Hills Natural Area in east Fort Worth would be another good place to see it, so I visited there today, despite the heat.

And it was hot! I walked the trails for a while, found shade under a juniper and sat for a while, and then walked some more. The little bluestem (maybe this region’s most noteworthy native grass) was healthy blue-green and all the plants appear to have benefitted by the unusual August rains this month.

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Little bluestem in the foreground

Like most prairie within the cross timbers, there are patches of open grassland bounded by clusters of trees or wooded ravines; there are no huge expanses of grass. As I climbed a small incline between patches of trees, I nearly bumped into a common prairie resident that thrives in late summer – a golden argiope or garden spider. She had woven her web between two clumps of bluestem, and this had pulled them toward each other to form an arch. She sat in the middle of the orb-shaped web, waiting for some insect to wander into that sticky web. With my apologies for nearly ruining her web, I took a photo of her underside and then walked around to get a photo of her upper body.IMG_2292

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A golden argiope, underside shown in the top photo and upper body in the bottom photo

Walking further, I found a couple of snails stuck to vegetation, and I wondered what it must be like to be stuck to something, waiting out the day in full sunlight in a Texas summer. I needed to take advantage of the dappled shade every few minutes, and I’m amazed that some of these creatures tolerate the heat so well.

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A snail stuck to prairie grasses

I found my way into more patches of snow-on-the-prairie, and promptly saw a spider on one of them. It seemed amusing to consider “things-on-snow-on-the-prairie,” and I began to look for more. I saw a honeybee, a large wasp, and then came across a large fly with a green abdomen. When I sent him the photo, Clint said it was one of the species of soldier fly.

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Soldier fly on snow-on-the-prairie

In short order I came upon a wasp on the snow-on-the-prairie, and approached it closely but only managed a rather fuzzy photo. I’ve learned that I can approach bees and wasps without much worry if I don’t make sudden close movements or get too close. This particular one was a pretty brown and yellow wasp that most people call a yellow jacket, but it is more properly called a paper wasp, after the paper nests that they build, suspended from branches, ledges, and the eaves of houses. Real yellow jackets live in burrows in the ground. Clint identified this particular one as Polistes exclamans, a name that always makes me smile as I picture someone “exclaiming” after being stung.

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Paper wasp, Polistes exclamans

Another treat during this walk on the prairie was the eryngo, or Leavenworth’s eryngium. It forms beautiful purple spiny flower heads with a stiff row of spines below and a small “crown” of spines above. People often think of it as a thistle, but it is not a true thistle.

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Leavenworth’s eryngo, or Leavenworth’s eryngium

By this time I had nearly forgotten the oppressive heat. Standing in a field with eryngo, Maximillian’s sunflower, and snow-on-the-prairie, the heat seemed irrelevant. Soon however, it was time to leave, but I hope to return soon to this little gem of a preserve, managed by the folks from Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, and loved and looked after by the Friends of Tandy Hills Natural Area.

 

Campbell Ideology is Nothing to Mess Around With

(Ye Have Been Warned…)

It’s hard to imagine that Steve Campbell has been gone for five years now. He was a herpetologist as well as fisherman, and talented naturalist, working for Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (teaching about aquatic ecology and fishing) and serving as President of two herpetological societies in Texas. His humor was legendary, and I think he loved being teased by others about that humor. Here is one of my attempts to do just that, in an article published several years before his passing.

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Steve Campbell

It seems my devil-may-care attitude towards the superstitions of the ancient elders in the herpetological society has finally caught up with me. I crossed the line this weekend and almost paid dearly for it, so I figured a public written apology was in order, if not downright necessary, to restore any luck I may wish to have in the future. Apology to whom, you may be asking? Well, Steve Campbell of course, a man with a few tight screws in his head I had considered hopelessly loose for many years, until I was shown the error of my ways as a direct result of radical arrogance.

Anyone who has spent any time at all with Steve Campbell in the field knows you cannot simply load up your gear and vehicle, pull out the road map, and go herping. It is not that simple. There are ancient customs and traditions that must be adhered to or the man just plain refuses to even go. I have balked at all of his rabbit’s foot and black cat, salt-over-the-shoulder hoopla for going on a decade now, and decided it was high time his theory be disproved once and for all, for all to witness as gospel truth in writing.

The setting I had chosen for which to conduct my experiment was East Texas; Brazos County to be more specific. I have long considered the area I herp there virtually infallible when it comes to finding snakes. So in all fairness it seemed like the perfect constant in which to test my theory of Campbell Ideology. My hypothesis was that all of those obsessive-compulsive hang-ups the man seemed to suffer from were unfounded, and could easily be disproved by an overnight trip to Brazos County along the Navasota River during perfect climatic conditions ideal for finding herps, whereupon I would purposefully break each and every one of his strange rules like some blasphemous herpetological heathen.

Before I go any further I suppose it is necessary to mention the Campbell Ideology and what it is, exactly, should any novice readers be unfamiliar with his seemingly silly rules and regulations. The Gospel of Steve is as follows:

RULE # 1: PAY CREDENCE TO THE ALMIGHTY WHATABURGER

When on any given trip, at least one What-A-Burger must be visited and something must be purchased and consumed. This rule is set in stone. The more What-A-Burgers you pass up en route to said destination, the worse your luck will become. If you are a vegetarian, order a burger anyway and just eat the lettuce and tomatoes. If no What-A-Burger is available on the way, turn around and go back home. This rule applies to all field outings, no matter how near or far.

RULE # 2: SPEAK NO EVIL

Do not, under any circumstances, speak the names of the species you wish to see in the field. This will automatically jinx you from seeing them. Should some self-righteous jester begin spouting off everything native to the area, you can protect yourself by plugging your ears with your index fingers and chanting ‘la-la-la-la-la-la-la’ over and over for as long as said offender continues with their insolent name-calling.

RULE # 3: WEAR A LUCKY ITEM

Something you found at least one of your memorable life-listers while wearing. This is usually a shirt or hat but can be a lucky pair of Care Bears boxer shorts if that’s what you wear in the field. It doesn’t hurt for the article of clothing to be adorned with some type of fishing tackle, or, even better, a stray mustard stain from a What-A-Burger. A strip of such an article will work in a pinch, in the unlikely event that it is finally deemed unwearable, which few of Steve’s clothes ever are.

I took all three of these religiously followed and time-honored traditions and broke them like a sack of cheap Christmas ornaments. I wore dress slacks with the legs still pressed, a striped silk shirt I hadn’t so much as found a DOR in on the way to the beer store, and a pair of brand new hiking boots so fresh from Cabela’s they still didn’t quite fit.

To add insult to injury I brought along a jumbo industrial-size bag of cajun crawtaters for consumption, along with a case of Red Bulls should I thirst. I passed dozens of What-A-Burgers, every single one of them, smiling at each as they disappeared unvisited in my rear-view mirror. In a final outlandish act of pomposity I pulled into the last What-A-Burger along Highway 6 in College Station for a restroom break. I bought nothing and didn’t even flush the toilet when I left. On the way out the door I filled out a customer service survey card and rated the place of overall poor quality, commenting that they could at least keep their toilets flushed.

To add icing to it all I had pre-recorded every single species of reptile and amphibian native to Brazos County in my own voice, covering the scientific names as well as the common. I took this tape and played it over and over again all the way there, from Waco east. If the Campbell Ideology was indeed a pointless lie, as I had long proposed, this radical behavior would prove it. And if it indeed did hold any truth at all, I was about to find out the hard way.

As if to laugh in his face, we began to see DOR snakes along the road to Bryan. It is a one-way road with little shoulder so we couldn’t pull over to see what they were. It was 79 degrees when the sun set over the river, and I pulled off the main highway onto my favorite. With flashlight at the ready and field notebook on the dash, it was showtime!

“Where are all the snakes? I figured we would have seen something by now,” Amber said from the passenger seat.

“I don’t know,” I replied glumly. “It’s a perfect night.”

The truth of the matter was I was afraid I knew all-too-well. Still, I was unwilling to accept defeat. We drove down the first road without seeing so much as a green tree frog, then broke off onto the highway that runs directly over the river and three of its tributaries.

The temperature held at 75, no cold wind blew, and the moon was invisible behind a thick gray wall of clouds devoid of even a hint of moisture. Still, we found no snakes. To make matters worse a line of cars filed up behind us, insisting on driving the average Saturday night college-town speed of 115 mph, so I had to keep pulling over to the side to let them pass. I drove five miles down the road into Grimes County, and then turned it back around. Without so much as a DOR or a toad to show for our efforts, I began to worry just how deeply I had offended whatever unseen forces Steve bowed to. It had to be bad mojo … some real serious stuff I had unleashed, and I began to regret my arrogance. How could I have been such a fool? Was there really a method behind the man’s apparent madness? Did those dazed, half-closed eyes behind the bearded face and 3-gallon fast-food cup hold the key to the mysteries of good field herping that were too deep and subliminal for my young petty mind to wrap around? And more importantly at this critical second hour into the rapidly failing experiment, how could my own bad luck be reversed?

I glanced up from the barren road and my jaw dropped open. The temps had dropped from 75 to 65 degrees, and it was only ten o’ clock. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. This couldn’t be happening. Could it? In a last-ditch effort to regain any chance at having any luck in the field whatsoever the rest of my days, I came up with an emergency plan. I shut off the tape recorder that was going down the list of Brazoria County herps for what had to be the hundredth time and smashed it to bits beneath my new hiking boot. A sacrifice…

“What-A-Burger! What-A-Burger! What-A-Burger!” I cried out as Amber looked nervously over at me and simultaneously inched a little closer to the passenger side door.

“Man the wheel!” I yelled at her, and as she did I grabbed my new luckless silk shirt by the collar with both hands and split it down the middle, sending buttons flying about the cab of my truck like tiny pearl missiles.

I slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road, threw it in park, and jumped from my truck and hit my knees on the pavement, repenting of my sins in a manner that would have put Jimmy Swaggart to shame. When the final tear had fallen, I looked up at the road in front of me and couldn’t believe my eyes.

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Southern copperhead

There, illuminated by the head-lights, a beautiful southern copperhead emerged from the roadside vegetation and paused there, motionless. The self-inflicted curse had been lifted! I was free once again from my sinful chains to herp the roads of Texas! An unstoppable cry of joy came bellowing out of my mouth as I threw back my head and howled at the late Brazos County moon, whose half-hidden face seemed to smile back at me with a peculiar shadowy spot on its surface that could have been a beard.

I made a bee-line to the nearest What-A-Burger (I had to get that foul survey card out of the box!) and on the way found an additional copperhead as well as a diamondback water snake. Lucky for me the What-A-Burger is open 24 hours for my convenience, and as I sank my fangs into the tastiest hamburger I had ever eaten, I made sure to let a little mustard drip down onto my new lucky herping shirt. I was just going to need to replace the buttons.

In conclusion, I learned a very valuable lesson that night. Herp where you will, and go wherever you want to go, whenever you get the chance. Run wild and free in what few places are left that allow that kind of behavior. But never, I repeat, never question the Campbell Ideology, or dismiss it as so much eccentric clap-trap. I made that mistake, and I barely made it out with any herping luck left in me at all. Always stop at What-A-Burger, always wear your lucky clothes, and if anyone mentions something they hope to find while riding with you, for snake’s sake, plug your ears! I’ll see you all in the Big Thicket hopefully, sporting my new lucky shirt, if I can find a What-A-Burger down there, that is!

Bumbling Around the Partridge Pea

I needed to get out, regardless of the steamy pattern of rain and heat this weekend, and so I headed to the Southwest Nature Preserve for a short walk. Somewhere along the sidewalk there was a large patch of what I’m reasonably sure is partridge pea (and if I’m wrong I trust my fellow naturalists will correct me), its yellow flowers being visited by an assortment of honeybees, bumblebees, wasps, and butterflies. I decided to take a few photos and brief video of the American bumblebee doing its thing. These big furry bees don’t seem bothered when approached, though I suppose if you stumbled into one or swatted at it, things could get a little tense.

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South end of a northbound bumblebee

It was a great, though brief, escape from a nightmarish weekend for our country. All this hymenopteran buzzing and busy-ness was soothing in its shifting patterns of yellow, black, and green.

One of these American bumblebees devoted quite a bit of energy to what appeared to be scraping pollen onto the large mounds already collected on its back legs. At one point she appeared to be hanging from the flower by one leg as she scraped and scraped.

It is amazing to watch these bumblebees in flight, as they hover and drop slowly into tangled branches and flowers, then take off and maneuver easily around the stems and leaves. (Well, it looks easy to me; they do bump into stuff at times!)

The bumblebees also took advantage of the Maximilian sunflower blooming all around the walkway. And not just bumblebees – I got a workable iPhone photo of a small bee that Clint thought might be a leafcutter bee.

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Might this be a leafcutter bee (genus Megachile)?

It was a nice visit – I’m never disappointed when I visit this preserve!fullsizeoutput_fda

 

For the Love of Copperheads

Photo: Michael Smith

“Be sure you marry someone who loves copperheads,” said no parent to their child ever. “You’re going to have to find someone willing to put up with venomous snakes, which is not going to be easy,” I rather recall my own saying. Fortunately, after a string of failed experiments in the matter, I found both. When an unfortunate rattlesnake bite on our second date landed me temporarily in the hospital and the girl stood by my side, telling me to hurry up and shake off the effects of the venom so we could get back out into the field, I knew I had at last found “the one.”  

Amber likes copperheads almost as much as I do. So much so that she has hit “copperhead road” (a little-traveled backroad near our house that still sustains a healthy population of the abundant little pit vipers) by herself whenever I am out of town on herp trips, and has been suggesting I do an article on them for some time now. So Amber, this one’s for you. 

Second-date snakebite: the Litmus Test?


I have shared my life with the greatly misunderstood, feared, and generally underappreciated copperhead since as far back as I can remember. When my family first moved to Wise County back in the mid-80s I distinctly remember my mother showing me a dead one that had been flattened by a car near our house. My love for snakes was well-evident even back then (I couldn’t have been more than four or five) and I remember her warning me. ‘If you ever see a snake that looks like that don’t pick it up!’ (the warning not to pick up any snakes had long since been abolished due to repeated acts of noncompliance). I also distinctly recall thinking ‘Wow! That’s the prettiest snake I have ever seen!’  Nice try, Mom. 

Later that summer my dad, who used to take me on backroad “snake hunts” showed me my first live copperhead. The beautiful chestnut crossbands alternating across a background of burnt orange that faded laterally to pinkish-grey still stand out vividly in my mind. I remember my dad (who was afraid of nothing) toeing the snake to the roadside grass with his leather boot, which neither provoked it to strike or crawl quickly away. My brother and I watched it slowly disappear with wide eyes, its body blending in with the tall grass and leaf litter in a remarkable display of camouflage. 

My earliest existing copperhead photo, taken by the side of our house in the early nineties


Fast forward five or six years and my dad would take me with him to one of his friend’s houses which was located in that vast section of red dirt canyonland mixed with oak and mesquite that lies between Jacksboro and Lake Bridgeport in western Wise County. Charlie was a backwoods mechanic and bachelor who lived alone on some acreage, and he and my father would spend hours shooting the breeze over cans of Coors while I ran wild through the fields. Charlie even made me my first pair of tongs, and even encouraged me to ‘catch all the copperheads you want and get’em off my property!’  While diamondbacks were plentiful around his house and barn, he treated them with comparative indifference. It was the copperheads alone that Charlie feared. “They look just like the damn leaves”, he said on more than one occasion, to which my dad would raise his beer can in a silent gesture of affirmation. “And they don’t give a warning before they bite.  I dread raking leaves every fall. I always find two or three.”  This would always get me started on a thorough survey of Charlie’s yard, where I would ‘rake’ leaves with my tongs ever at the ready. I never did find a single specimen, although Charlie continued to find many and eventually gave me a juvenile he had managed to somehow coaxe into a pickle jar, I assume as payment for all that fruitless leaf-raking.  That was the first venomous snake I ever owned, for a full 24 hours, until my mom found out about it and hit the ceiling. “Get rid of it!” was the verdict after what I deemed an unfair trial in which my court-appointed lawyer must have been sleeping with the judge. The next day was a school day, and the little snake was exiled to the porch until I could find it a proper home (apparently Charlie held no return policy when it came to copperheads). Fortunately my English teacher had a brother that worked at the Dallas Zoo and I was able to make a trade: a small copperhead for a lively little problematic green iguana, which introduced me to all the subsequent miseries involved in their husbandry. Ironically, the iguana ended up giving me a case of salmonella poisoning, which proved more dangerous than the copperhead. 

A nine year old me with a Texas rat snake (note the bloody shirt!)


“No venomous snakes in the house!” was mom’s proverbial cry as I hit my teen years. With a driver’s license and truck , I was now free to go on my own road cruises in search of snakes. The first night out I got fourteen copperheads on “Copperhead Road”, and of course brought them all home,where they shared a homemade wood and plexiglass cage on the front porch that I assured my mother was full of rat snakes. I guess I made the viewing window a little too large, because after a week or so mom peeped in and once again I was summoned back to court, found guilty of endangering my own life and the lives of others, and sentenced to “get rid of those things now!”

My Box of Copperheads, pre-trial


I Was a Teenage Snakehunter: more Tx rats with the herp-mobile in the background


I must admit I treated copperheads with less respect than they were due during my early years as a teenage snakehunter. I would frequently catch them by the tail or (I hate to admit this now) with a swift grab behind the head while “distracting” them with my free hand.  All that changed when I received my first copperhead bite, whereupon I soon found out that “the least venomous of our native pit vipers”  was nevertheless quite venomous indeed. The bite was through a pillowcase, a single fang to the knuckle of my left hand, by an adult copperhead. It left me in 24 hours of unrelenting pain as my hand and wrist swelled to 13 cm in circumference. It stayed that way for a full month before it finally began to recede, and I lost all feeling in the finger below the bite for four years. My days of disrespecting and underestimating the lowly copperhead were over! It was hooks, tongs, and reliable buckets with screw-on lids from then on out! I have always loved copperheads, but one kiss was enough to last a lifetime!

Copperhead bite:20 minutes in

Copperhead bite: 4 hours-30 days…


As the years passed I shared my life with countless copperheads. My travels afield gave me the opportunity to meet what were then recognized as many subspecies of Agkistrodon contortrix. Brazos County’s “Peach Creek” , before it fell to the bulldozer of “progress”, gave me my first taste of the southern copperhead..33 in a single night, to be exact. These were more pinkish than the broadbanded variety that frequented my stomping grounds in the cross-timbers, with wider more hourglass-shaped crossbands. Later excursions into the Big Thicket and Sabine National Forest of east Texas would provide even more opportunities to view this beautiful variant. 

My first southern copperhead, taken back when cameras still had film & parts of Peach Creek still had sand


A trip to Kansas in 2004 introduced me to the lovely little osage copperhead. Around the shores of Lake Perry north of the city of Lawrence, it seemed every other rock seemed to relinquish one of these beauties. Ten years later, on a return trip, I found them just as common as I remembered. 

Adult Osage found around Lake Perry

Juvenile osage: Lake Perry


I didn’t find my first Trans Pecos copperheads until the summer of last year, after they had been absorbed into the all-inclusive species A. c. contortrix, although I had spent fifteen years searching for them in the Chihuahuan Desert. Fellow herpers assured me they were fairly common in certain locales, but they somehow always managed to elude me. Then, on a single fateful night on the River Road in southern Brewster County, Michael Smith and I happened upon a “pictigaster party”. We found three specimens in the span of perhaps five minutes on the road and nearby banks of the Rio Grande. 

Now that mom no longer governs my collection: a pair of Trans Pecos copperheads


To tell of all the copperheads, or even the notable ones, for that matter, who have crawled across my path over the years would fill up far more space than this blog has to offer. There were the threevmy friend Scott Robinson saw hidden in the leaf litter between my legs as I squatted on my haunches to photograph a western diamondback den in Montague County. There was the hypomelanistic specimen I accidentally ran over on the LBJ Grasslands, which my wife never forgave me for, and the one that got out in my parents’ house and found the only non-snake-proof area in my snake room, a tiny 1/2″ crack beneath the sink I had missed with the caulk gun (I remedied this by sealing it up in the void between the sink unit and floor for a week or so and then removing the caulk and coaxing it out with a water dish in the center of the room, which luckily worked like a charm but soon found me seeking other means of habitation).  I could go on forever…


By now I am past all hope (sorry Mom!) All those tall tales told at family reunions meant to dissuade a young herper from venturing over to the Dark Side and pursuing that bane of the north Texas country folk apparently fell upon deaf ears and seems to have faded into obscurity. My lifelong romance with the copperhead has left me with more memorable field experiences than I can count and (sorry again) it looks like the fever was a contagious one, catching on to my wife and even my young son. Many “family nights” have been shared in a unanimous decision to forsake the Yahtzee board or latest cinema flick for an evening on “copperhead road.”  I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to my father, who never lacked faith in my knowledge, ability and maturity when it came to living among venomous snakes (even when those traits seemed to be lacking!) and also to my wife, who never once batted an eye when it came to sharing her home with copperheads, rattlesnakes, and a host of other species that neither of us were ever naiive enough to consider “pets”.  And to my poor mother, too, for maintaining her sanity over the years. (My experience with copperheads came in handy when I removed the one that had slithered out from the fire pit and coiled itself on the porch between her and the grill during an outdoor cookout).  But most of all I owe it to the copperhead itself, without which, of course, none of this would have even been possible. 

Wildlife Through the Window

By Clint King

As some of you who read my Coleopteraholic blog already know, I fell victim to an untimely work injury in mid-June that resulted in some broken ribs and both feet, fracturing the right one and reducing the left one to bone, tendon, and muscle soup beneath the skin. This ultimately resulted in my temporary disability, putting me on six month work leave with doctor’s orders to remain as immobile as possible, which, to a hyperactive naturalist such as myself, has proven near-impossible. Fortunately I was able to put a minimal amount of weight on my right foot, and thus do a small amount of walking with the aide of crutches, but the bulk of my mobility is severely limited, quenching all hopes of hitting the road/trails/forests/prairies etc for this year. Some weeks later (after workman’s comp agreed to foot the bill, no doubt) the surgeon had to go in and do a bimacular repair surgery, which involved rebulding the remnants of my shattered ankle with rods, plates, and screws. He then warned me to not even think about walking until atleast September, and then only after intensive rehabilitative therapy with the aide of a cane. The complete healing process could take up to eighteen months, blah-blah-blah. But as many who know me can attest, there is simply no way I’m throwing in the towel when it comes to including natural history observation and fielding in my daily regimen. 

This should make a good centipede tattoo someday…


During the first four weeks following the incident I was completely bound to bed or chair. My wife was finishing up a semester at college, so my mom graciously allowed me to stay at her house during the day until Amber got out of class and could pick me up. Even simple tasks such as getting a glass of water or making something to eat were impossible without reliance on someone else, and I was flung into a state of dependence. While I couldn’t go outside yet, I could look from the window of the car in the mornings and evenings and observe whatever wildlife happened to cross our path during the ten minute drive to and from our house to my mom’s. Like the use of my legs, all those common creatures I had once taken for granted began to gain more importance as they became my only source of connectedness to the outside world. I saw grey squirrels, cottontails, blacktailed jack rabbits, and skunks in the mornings, not to mention an array of local ornithofauna: northern mockingbirds and cardinals, loggerhead shrikes, scissortailed flycatchers, and sparrows of which I am unqualified to identify to species, all in a new light.  Perhaps my favorites were the painted buntings, little feathered works of art, the males of which look like their Designer couldn’t decide if He wanted to paint them red, green, purple, blue, or yellow.  The buntings are always busy around the roadsides beneath thick draperies of wild grape that adorn the fence rows, with their comparatively drab olive green female counterparts always at their side. A flock of wild turkeys made their daily morning arrival like clockwork, the big male leading his harem with a confident strut across the road and under the barbed wire fence on the other side. On other, less frequent occasions I saw barred owls as they sat on their perches in the lower canopy of the oak mottes after winding down their all-nighters. 

Killdeer as seen from a Pontiac G6


The evening’s drive home presented another mixed assortment of creatures, in spite of the typically oppressive June heat. Racerunners and spiny lizards darted across the roadway, and turkey and black vultures soared overhead, presumably waiting for me to die. Redtail and redshouldered hawks dominated the tops of telephone poles, while their smaller cousins the Mississippi kites stood on fenceposts and power lines. 

Post oak motte off the county road


Sometimes we would hang out at my mom’s until sunset, and on those drives home we saw an even greater abundance of crepuscular animals that call the Wilson Prairie where I live home. As the temps cooled with the setting sun, wildlife came out to take advantage of it, gearing up for their nightly forays. Small herds of whitetail deer grazed in open areas. Raccoons made their comical high-speed shuffles of panic across the road. And leopard frogs and Woodhouse toads leapt and hopped from one side to the other. Nightjars filled the sky, snatching up insects on boomerang-shaped wings. Once, our passing disturbed a young great horned owl as it had just settled into the top of a post oak to engage in its nightly survey of roadside rabbits. 

A pair of the ever-present Woodhouse toads, on nightly bug duty


Unfortunately I could not ride in the car for more than fifteen or twenty minutes without being in great pain, so roadcruising for herps was out of the question. But these little morning and evening drives, brief as they may have been, provided me with plenty of daily opportunities to catch glimpses of the wildlife all around me, as well as a rush of endorphins no amount of opioid-based pharmaceutical concoction could touch. 

The car window wasn’t the only chance I had to view wildlife. When I oversaw the plans for our house construction in 2015 I had two large double windows installed in the living room that allowed me to view wildlife from the comfort of my recliner. It paid off in full this summer, as I was forced to keep my legs elevated for the first few weeks of recovery. I have an open front porch, with an overhanging eave beam where swallows and eastern phoebes build their nests of mud and straw, respectively. Hummingbirds often take a break from their incessant flight here on the beams, and a special multi-faceted cylindrical porch light turns an everyday halogen bulb into a nocturnal beacon calling all flying insects!  Needless to say, the door beside it wasn’t painted white for aesthetic purposes, as its reflective glare brings in an all manner of moths and beetles.  To make matters better (or worse, my wife might argue) opening the door for a few seconds gave me an instant indoor insect show. 

One of many paper wasp colonies under the eaves


The lights also call up one of my favorite local residents with which we share the property, the ubiquitous little grey tree frog, which seems to show up like magic on hot, dry summer nights to take advantage of the insect smorgasbord. 

Swallows begin nest construction under the eaves


What I can’t see from the window my wife and son help by bringing photos to me of wild treasures they have found. Amber frequently sends pictures of snakes she comes across, and Zev is always bringing me beetles to identify. On two occasions he has brought in ornate box turtles, a species that is in rapid decline over most of its range. I am fortunate enough to be able to remember a time when they were much more common, but am glad that my son still has a chance to enjoy them, snap a photo, then let them go again where he found them. 

Ornate box turtle, photo by Zev King


When you live in the country sometimes you don’t even have to look through the window to enjoy wildlife. One of our tenants is the little striped bark scorpion. These turn up almost daily in our house, creeping across the floor or up a curtain with the menacing tail arched, or sitting still in a corner beneath a stray t-shirt. The fact that in the two years we have lived here we have only been stung twice is a testament to these creatures’ general reluctance to sting. Still, the thought of one crawling into my cast and hammering me relentlessly was a thought that kept me checking the blankets to make sure they weren’t dragging the floor during those first few weeks post-surgery when I was confined to the couch. 

Mesquite borer Zev found at the front door


Now that nearly eight weeks have passed since my accident I have a little more mobility. This has allowed me to do some limited hobbling around outdoors on crutches. I have found a crutch doubles as a good beating stick with which to survey foliage for arboreal insects. We even joked about modifying them to include an aerial net on one and a snake hook on the other, and equipping my wheelchair with two high powered LED flashlights so I could wheel it down the paved backroads for a little cruising. I could only imagine the hilarity that would ensue if I were to have to explain myself to a game warden. 

One way I have been able to engage in my continuously ongoing beetle research has been through the use of bait traps. While my ‘little house on the prairie ‘ is devoid of any trees close enough to be accessible by crutch or wheelchair, my mom’s 1/2 acre mini-forest of Texas ash and slippery elms we planted when I was a kid is within easy hobbling distance. These trees now stand twenty five plus feet tall, with massive trunks and bifurcated limbs that provide homemade swings and climbing opportunities for my son and his cousins. They have also given me a chance to hang some traps for my beloved longhorn beetles, which are most often found in arboreal situations. The traps consist of a mixture of red wine and molasses mixed with yeast and tap water and are placed into 2 liter pitchers, which are then suspended from the trees via hooks fashioned from coat hangers. 

A waste of good wine? Not for a bug nerd! (As far as I know it’s illegal to waste beer in this way in Texas)


While not all species of longhorn beetles are attracted to the bait, which mimics the fermenting fruit and sap they normally come to in nature, the ones that are show up in phenomenal numbers. My mom’s neighbors, who own a large section of private land consisting of oak motte/mesquite savanna, also gave me permission to put out a few traps, and with the aide of a driver (Amber? Mom? Uber? Anybody…) I have been able to expand my traps to a total of seven in two different habitats. As a result I have brought in nearly 300 specimens of longhorn beetle representing 15 different species, not to mention the click beetles, scarabs, wasps and other insects attracted to the bait. What is even more phenomenal is the abundance of longhorn beetles in these habitats in general, as these huge numbers represent only a fraction of the individuals found on single trees. When viewed from this light, it underlines the importance of wood-destroying insects to the forest ecosystem, as most species only feed on trees already stressed from branch dieback or woodrot caused by outlying factors, proving their beneficiality. 

Soup’s on! Straining the beetles from the bait


This has kept me busy laboriously pinning and mounting a series of specimens of which I hope to eventually use in a dissertation I plan on writing on the beneficiality of wood-boring species in my pursuit of an entomological degree. 

As I write this I am sitting in my recliner, my booted broken feet propped up on the extended footrest and the spasms of my atrophying back muscles screaming to be taken out to the field and stretched with some good old fashioned rock flipping. The curtains and shades are drawn back to provide me with an unobstructed view of the cross-timbers that lies in front of, behind, and all around me. There is a baby blue sky overhead, dotted by puffy patches of snow-white clouds like cottonballs. A high wall of sugarberry, mulberry, post oak and honey mesquite lord over an understory of juniper, hawthorn and gum bumelia. Paper wasps bump haphazardly across the window screen, while a hungry jumping spider eyes them, biding his time. In a few hours night will fall, and with the windows raised I will be able to enjoy the nightly chorus of our resident coyotes, the distinct cry of the whippoorwill, and the melodious mixed trills of the frogs in the pond behind the house as they take over where the dogday cicadas have winded down. A fork-tailed bush katydid will undoubtedly buzz from somewhere beneath the porchlight, and the luminescent glow of fireflies will blink on and off, calling their mates with their mysterious, still-yet-to-be-completely-explained cold light. I will enjoy all the natural gifts I can from the window, knowing they will provide sustenance until I can get back on my feet and out into the field. 

Bee assassin, found at my feet during a backyard hobble

A Summer Sunset at That Pond

In January of this year, I sat for an hour at the edge of a pond at Southwest Nature Preserve and then wrote about what I saw. I sat there again in March, taking note of the changes as spring progressed. On July 21st, it was time to do it again, but I went with some misgivings. There had been heat advisories during recent days, with the humidity making the heat index very uncomfortable. I took plenty of water!

IMG_1171It was a great day for Orthopterans and Odonates. The grasshoppers scattered out of the dry grass in front of me as I walked to the pond, and then when I arrived the dragonflies hovered and flitted around the water’s surface. Pondhawks settled on twigs and stems at the pond’s edge, and skimmers floated on the air, then quickly darted to the water’s surface. Whoever gives names to these Odonates seems to have more of a descriptive or whimsical sense than do herpetologists. We give names like “plain-bellied watersnake” or “Texas brownsnake,” while they use words like “blue-eyed darner,” “red saddlebags,” or “Halloween pennant,” invoking a sort of poetic sense with names that describe these fantastic insects.

I settled in beside the black willow where I have sat in each of these visits, putting out a small thermometer that soon reached 90 degrees in the shade of the willow, a big improvement from the high of 100. Periodically, a light breeze stirred things. The pond had grown a huge crop of some submerged plant that might be sago pondweed or maybe southern naiad, thin strands with filamentous leaves forming big clumps or mats. It brushed the surface of the water all around, from the edge toward the center, leaving a circular area in the center of the pond where none of it was evident. In that central area, two or perhaps three pond turtles’ heads surfaced, they paddled along briefly, and then submerged. One day I will learn to keep binoculars in the pack; if I had brought them, I might have been able to identify the turtles, which were almost surely red-eared sliders.

What would a hot summer evening be without the calls of cricket frogs? One of them soon began to call from somewhere to my right along the pond’s edge, with that gradually accelerating “grick-grick-grick” cutting through the hazy summer air. On my walk around part of the water’s edge, there were many of them hopping into the water or back into the surrounding vegetation. I did not see bullfrogs or leopard frogs, just dozens of little cricket frogs.

As the light began to fade, swallows began to appear, gracefully flying over the pond and engaging in all sorts of acrobatic maneuvers as they chased insects. I would imagine that they were barn swallows, but again, where were those binoculars? In any case, it was a quiet and peaceful few minutes there at the close of the day, with the sun sinking below the horizon and the dark silhouettes of the swallows cutting across a dimming pastel sky.

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Just before dark. The central part of the pond that was free of vegetation is visible here.