December Beneath Post Oaks

The western cross-timbers occupy over 25,000 acres of Texas, rolling westward from what is left of the blackland prairie, where they slide into the southern end of the plains. Mixed grasses conquer vast open meadows where bands of mesquite and honeylocust spring up from the Trinity sands, whose powdery composition dates back to the Cretaceous period.   It melts into the crusty layer of Redbeds from the Permian Basin, where chunks of igneous and sedimentary rock sit and wait out the centuries with timeless indifference. Their jagged, irregular surfaces speak of a past that was vastly different from the one the region enjoys now. Five hundred million years ago my property was submerged beneath the saline waters of a shallow sea. Tylosaurs and the great turtle Archelon patroled for the fish, crustaceans, and echinoderms that would eventually become beds of limestone, and archosaurs and hadrosaurs left their distinctive  trifurcated tracks in the mud. Their bones would witness the Ice Age of the Cenozoic period, mastodons and dire wolves and sabre-tooth cats. The prairies would erupt from the rich soil, and man would walk across them over thousands of years, hunting with ancient spears and then Clovis points and then Comanche points knapped from flint, chert, and obsidian. The bones of the prolific bison can still be found alongside these artifacts after a heavy rain, rough and white and chalky, with red clay embedded in their many fissures, the smooth dark marrow still visible on either end.   Generations of hunters and gatherers saw the land change. Dire wolves became red wolves and coyotes. Smilodon was reduced to a mountain lion, and the coniferous forests to petrified wood. 

On this crisp cold dawn in December, several centuries after the North American bison and Comanche and Apache disappeared, replaced by cattle and oil tycoons and railroads, the splendid cloak of another morning begins to blossom all the same. The red-orange orb of sun sends a Jacob’s Ladder through a dense heap of lavender-edged clouds, crowning the tops of the post oaks in gold. My son and I stand across the field, the prickly pears casting long shadows toward the west. It is a minute’s walk to the edge of the treeline, with the crisp air in our lungs, dessicated soil crunching beneath the soles of our shoes. A scraggly ashe juniper stands at the forefront of this massive stand of oaks, its evergreen needles mocking the naked oak branches. A blue jay erupts from its midst in a flurry of sky blue and black and white, sounding a hawklike alarm. The pastel blue juniper berries it has doubtlessly been gorging itself on come into view as we approach closer, complementing the deep jade hues of the juniper needles, like a naturally decorated Christmas tree. The bird disappears into the woods, winging its way expertly amid the rough boughs of oak. 

At the fenceline, bright pink clusters of what I assume to be beautyberry stand out in vivid contrast to the earthen tones of late fall. They are encircled by chaotic coils of greenbrier, a little paler and devoid of their characteristic heart-shaped leaves but otherwise none the worse for wear. They tug at our socks and pant legs as we venture into the understory. Here, dried leaves form a crackling carpet broken in places by sun-bleached cover boards and pieces of lichen-covered deadfall. Zev lifts one, peering beneath it in the hopes of spying a slumbering centipede or cluster of harvestmen. He finds nothing that pleases him, and moves on to the next piece, knowing the locations of each from memory, pausing to dust away a thin layer of leaves from a large sheet of weather-worn plywood, its cracking edges bent up toward the sky by repeated seasons of saturation and dehydration. He starts to pull it back, then freezes, eyes wide. Zev drops to his knees and peers forward into the leaf litter, where tiny fingers of fiery coral colored fungi reach up in frozen tendrils. I join him and, of course, he has to ask what it is. I tell him I don’t know but I own a book that does, and we conspire to look it up when we get back to the house. 

It is too cold for even the fossorial reptiles and mammals and arthropods that seek winter shelter beneath the boards. We venture deeper into the woods, where the post oaks interspersed with the occasional blackjack grow closer together, the bases of their trunks hidden beneath the leaves. 

There is some strange magnetic force that exists between children and fallen leaves, and Zev can’t resist plowing through the leaf litter at full speed for a short burst. The sudden break in the stillness of the woodlands startles a solitary American crow, who adds his own displeasured brand of noise to the disrupted solitude. I explain to Zev the genetic relationship between the crow and the blue jay we saw moments earlier. But he spies a late cloudless sulphur butterfly as it bats its oversized wings and he is off like a shot. The sulphur’s wings are a fluorescent yellow that glows as if they have been painted by a highlighter. Cloudless sulphurs are fall migrants that journey to Mexico with the seasonal lapse in photo-period, and we ponder how this one has survived several freezes and why it has chosen to stick around. But then again the temps have been unusually warm for this late in the year, and it feels good to be out on a more normal winter day. 

We come upon a dying oak, a probable victim of lightning strike. It has been split in a jagged diagonal line by some powerful unseen force. As a result the tree has suffered excessive branch die-back. Unlike the surrounding trees, most of which still bear a few stubborn leaves that vibrate in the northern wind, this old behemoth is on its last roots, destined to return to the dust it sprouted from untold decades ago. 

A closer inspection reveals sharp, slanted holes cut clean into the scarred areas of the wood. The oddly segmented, bulbous-headed larvae of buprestid beetles, known collectively as flatheaded borers, are the culprits. It was a summer for Polycesta elata, a large handsome silver-speckled metallic species that infests stressed trees. The holes in this particular unfortunate oak look fairly fresh, likely bored this past summer. They were made as the adult beetle left behind its youthful larval stage for its comparatively brief adult existence on the outside. This typically occurs between April and July. The fact that the species had been feeding off the wood long enough to mature and exit suggested that this had been a resilient post oak, for woodboring larvae can take several years to mature. 

Wood-boring beetle larvae

Buprestid beetles are especially attracted to burned wood, and if this one was in fact struck by lightning as we hypothesized, this could explain the presence of the holes. Using specialized infrared sensory organs, they can detect burning wood from miles away, and are important contributors to the natural cycle of forest fires, with the infestive larvae speeding up the process of returning the burned organic material to the earth, where the nitrogenous addition to the soil encourages new growth. This year’s crop of beetles have come and gone, the emerged adults having either found shelter beneath the loose bark or succumbed to last week’s low of 17 degrees. 

Too soon it is time to leave; we exit back out of the woods, from beneath the gnarled bare branches of the post oaks. They watch us pass as they have several generations before us. Zev pauses to admire a much smaller plant growing in their midst: a humble silverleaf nightshade that is still hanging on in the face of adversity. A few pallid, withered leaves still droop from its stems, alongside marble-sized yellow-green speckled fruits that look invitingly edible. But their beguiling, brightly colored flesh is full of toxic tropane alkaloids, and ingesting them would be a mistake. 

Silverleaf nightshade

“Deadly nightshade!” Zev points at the plant as it falls into view. He has been familiar with the plant since early childhood, when I explained to him that consuming those enticing “baby tomatoes” could send him into hallucinatory fits of delusion at best and possibly even prove fatal. He had already found out about stinging nettle, fire ants, and paper wasps the hard way, and was afterwards able to spot nightshade during all seasons. Still, he is mesmerized by the plant’s benign appearance which conceals so much harnessed destructive potential, and he speaks of it with a mixture of endearment and reverence, the same measure he gives black widow spiders and rattlesnakes.  Before leaving the plant behind us I tell him a story of how Native Americans on the plains used juice from the nightshade on the tips of their dart points, and how several Roman political assassinations were believed to have been carried out in the first century A.D.  In the spring the silverleaf nightshade will bear violet star-shaped flowers with rigid canary yellow pistils, but for now the berries hang on as the little plant trembles in the wind along the edge of the prairie, unprotected from the elements. 

Our house is in view now, and the skies’ hues have dissolved into a dusky blue, the pleasant orange ball that first peeked over the eastern horizon less than an hour ago already turned to blinding sulfur.  It looks down on us as we walk back across the dormant prairie, the same cosmic timeless star that has overseen the Earth’s Precambrian beginnings and the Age of Reptiles and then the Age of Mammals and the Dawn of Man.  It gazes down with all the unwavering indifference of the stones at our feet as our own species plods toward eventual extinction. A tufted titmouse sends its echoing, fast-paced trill from the fragrant juniper tree, its smoky grey crest standing out against the blue of the sky. Another year is winding down in the Cross-Timbers. 

“Herping Texas” – Telling Our Stories of Reptiles and Amphibians

Clint King and I have been writing together for a long time. We have spent time in every ecoregion of Texas looking for reptiles, amphibians, and other wildlife, and we have written about those experiences. Our goal has been to increase the reader’s understanding of these animals and the places where they live, and pass along our love for the wild places in Texas. It is particularly important for all of us to realize that some of the places in Texas are world-class landscapes with species just as fascinating as the wildlife we see on TV, and just as worthy of conserving. Eventually, of course, we had to take a shot at writing a book, and that book should be out next year.


A world-class place: pitcher plant bog in the Big Thicket

I met Clint in the early days of the Dallas-Fort Worth Herpetological Society, and while serving as Editor for the society I had the pleasure of publishing Clint’s remarkable account of a herp trip he took with Steve Levey to Arizona. “In the Tire Tracks of Kauffeld” was an exciting story, filled with wit and sarcasm and encounters with species we all dreamed of, like Gila monsters and sidewinder rattlesnakes. Meanwhile I had been writing about box turtle conservation, problems seen when we try to relocate reptiles, and my own accounts of herp trips. In 2010 we started co-publishing an e-publication, Texas Field Notes, that came out roughly quarterly. Some of the articles discussed the natural history of one species or another, but we also wrote about our trips in an attempt to get others to go see the places and the animals that we were seeing.

When it came to writing a book, we knew from the beginning that we wanted to organize it around different areas of Texas. Werler and Dixon’s Texas Snakes, one of our favorite go-to books, had some wonderful introductory material on the biotic provinces of Texas, and these authors spoke highly of Richard Phelan’s book, Texas Wild. Both books inspired us to include a description of each of the ecoregions we visited in the book we wanted to write. We also wanted to write about common species as well as the uncommon or charismatic species like the Texas indigo snake. As a result, we write about cricket frogs and watersnakes with as much interest as we do the speckled racer or Texas lyresnake.


One of the common species, a broad-banded watersnake

We also wanted to provide lots of photographs of the reptiles and amphibians and their habitats. We have taken cameras along with us everywhere we have gone, in the desert and mountains of the Trans-Pecos, in canoes on Caddo Lake, in the wintertime misting rain in east Texas, on the beach at the Gulf Coast, and the result will be over 150 photographs documenting our experiences.

Although the road from book proposal to publication is long, we’re glad to be working with Texas A&M University Press to get this book to you, and it looks like the editorial process is done and they will now be designing the overall look of the book. After numerous conversations about a title (our working title had been “The Great Rattlesnake Highway,” a metaphorical reference to the path we have followed), the book now has a name: “Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles and Amphibians.” We hope you’ll keep an eye out for it, with a planned release next fall.

A Walk at the Grasslands on a December Afternoon


LBJ Grasslands, Wise County

Fall is my favorite season, which doesn’t align perfectly with my interest in herpetology, because as fall deepens, there is less reptile and amphibian activity, for the most part. But the quality of the lower, slanting light deepens shadows and contrasts, and there is something nostalgic in the way the light suggests that the day is ending, the year is ending, and it’s a time for reflecting on what has come before. The colors are part of the feeling of fall. Even when the leaves don’t turn that brightly, the countryside is a study in bright straw yellow, russet, muted orange, rust, brown, and gray, under what, on some days, is a deep blue sky. A walk in the woods, when you can find a quiet woods, is calm and peaceful, with the crunch of grass or leaves underfoot, and the far-off call of a crow. The smell of the carpet of leaves on the ground is subtle and good – it is good the way that the earth should smell in the woods as it prepares for winter’s sleep.


Cross Timbers woodland

“Winter” is hardly a word that came to mind yesterday, December the second, as Clint, his son Zev, and I arrived at the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) National Grasslands. The high temperature that day in Decatur was 79°F, twenty degrees higher than average. However, it felt comfortable, compared to many of the late spring and summer walks I have had there, and so we set out across a patch of grasslands and into the oak woods. The path became very sandy, like walking through several inches of fine beach sand. To either side, the mixture of grasses, trees, and woody plants like sumac provide a thin layer of organic debris and tie the ground together, but on the trail, the steps of humans and horses churn the sand and keep it loose and powdery. In many places along the trail, harvester ants were on the march, collecting bits of vegetation and seed to carry down to the colony, to see them through the winter.

The Western Cross Timbers, of which this place is a part, is built mostly on sandstone and clay, and at the LBJ Grasslands the soil shifts between patches of deep sand and patches where red clay dominates. It is a place where erosion often cuts into the land, making the land drop unevenly or seem torn into open ravines.


Erosion cuts through the grassland

We soon came to such as place, where the grasses gave way to a gully where the water cut through the sand and clay and washed it down into one of the area’s many little ponds. Clint and Zev were inspecting the edge of the pond well before I took yet another photograph and made my way down one of the cuts to the water’s edge. As is always the case, Blanchard’s cricket frogs are still active long after other herps dig into shelters for protection from the night time cold, even if the days may warm to record highs. The little frogs make every day of their short lives count, and when the sun is shining they are likely to be sitting by the water, waiting for the tiny invertebrates that they eat. Nine-year-old Zev is already known to be a master at catching cricket frogs, but the need to keep his shoes dry kept his success at cricket frog capture just out of reach. He walked the narrow space between the dirt embankment and the pond’s edge skillfully, ducking under brush and exposed roots like a tightrope walker, like a confident nine-year-old boy with more experience walking in the woods than most men.

On down the trail we walked, past the stands of post oak and blackjack, juniper, the wild plum thickets, and the open patches of bluestem and Indiangrass. While the dominant trees of the Cross Timbers are post oak and blackjack oak, many other trees flourish there. In places, the junipers are almost numerous enough to suggest the phrase “cedar breaks,” those dense patches of juniper (or “cedar”) on the Edwards Plateau where almost everything is crowded out by the junipers standing shoulder to shoulder.


Blister beetle

Somewhere along the way, Clint and Zev came upon a sizable black beetle making its way across the trail. Clint identified it as a blister beetle, and puzzled over the fact that its wing covers (elytra) looked a little too short for it to be a black blister beetle (Epicauta pennsylvanica). Whichever member of the family Meloidae it turns out to be, it was black as midnight, and carried a skin-blistering toxin called cantharidin that it would release if harmed. The insect exudes this fluid in a defensive reaction known as “reflex bleeding,” where fluids are released from pores in the exoskeleton. Clint said the point of release in these blister beetles was the leg joints. We photographed it and sent it on its way, unharmed and presumably with all its cantharidins safely within its own body.


“Fire” in the forest

In some places, one of the oaks would have some leaves with color remaining. Often these were blackjack oaks, but sometimes they were post oak, and they created a nice effect, like a glimpse of orange fire within a forest primarily lichen-gray with green junipers here and there. We appreciated these patches of color even more because they were uncommon.


Zev, halfway up a juniper

The trail meandered through this woodland, and sometimes required the trimming of a tree or two to accommodate the hikers and horse riders that use it. A few times, the cut limbs of a juniper made just the right set of rungs for Zev to climb. We talked a little about how to go about this successfully. He mentioned the cut limb stubs offering great places to step, while testing other branches to make sure they were not brittle and would not break. I’m really thankful for kids like Zev, who not only have opportunities to explore places like this but who eagerly embrace the experience of climbing trees, catching frogs, and wondering at the intricacies of the little webs of bowl and doily weaving spiders that Clint pointed out among the twigs of the tree limbs. Magical places like the grasslands will be in good hands if inherited by people like Zev.

On the way back, a little bit off the trail, we saw an armadillo snuffling along the woodland floor, pushing neck deep through leaf litter in search of invertebrates to munch on. The nine-banded armadillo is a staple of Texas culture, and it is even designated as the state small mammal. The Armadillo World Headquarters was a venerable spot in the Austin music scene in the 1970s. The real animal is a fascinating creature, armored from neck to tail in hard but somewhat flexible, leather-like skin with bony plates strengthening it. The tail is covered in rings of that same material. In the middle of the back, the animal’s bony shield is broken up into nine bands, adding to its flexibility. They dig multiple burrows that may be anywhere from one to five meters long; short ones may function as not much more than a pitfall trap where insects collect and will be eaten, but longer ones are used as refuges. According to David Schmidly’s The Mammals of Texas, studies of stomach contents show that 93% of the diet is animal matter, such things as insects, grubs, caterpillars, termites, and at times crayfish! The occasional reptile or amphibian is taken as well, as this small mammalian tank plows through the woodlands.


Nine-banded armadillo

Anyone who has tried to approach an armadillo knows that their vision is poor and their hearing is probably not much better, but their sense of smell is well-developed. By staying downwind, moving slowly or only when the armadillo is head-down in the leaf litter and digging for food, one can often approach them quite closely. I did manage to get a few pictures of this one, initially digging and then sitting up on its haunches to sniff the air. They are inoffensive but exceedingly strong. I freely admit to trying to catch one here and there during my adolescence, and when touched or grabbed their first reaction is to buck (sometimes launching themselves into the air) and then scramble away noisily through the thicket. While they only have small, peg-like teeth, their legs are equipped with very strong claws adapted for digging and are almost impossible to hold onto.

We emerged from this walk tired, after about three miles on the trail, and ready to do it again at a moment’s notice. If you want to visit the LBJ Grasslands, there are trails for hiking or horseback riding in several locations, and a downloadable map at the Forest Service website. You will find over 20,250 acres of Western Cross Timbers habitat, that is, belts of oak woodland and patches of prairie or savannah.fullsizeoutput_1473

Holiday Homecoming in the Cross Timbers


Light playing with oak leaves

The day after Thanksgiving, November 24, the itch to get outside combined with perfect weather – I had to go somewhere.  I headed for the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, a place that, after practically a lifetime of walking its trails, feels like home. I have a dim recollection of going to Greer Island with Rick Pratt, from whom I learned a lot at the museum as a young volunteer, soon after the first 380 acres had been set aside as the “Greer Island Refuge & Nature Center.” That was in the mid-1960’s. A lot has changed in the fifty years that followed; the refuge expanded to become the largest city-owned nature center in the country, and the twenty miles of hiking trails leads you through cross timbers woods, prairie, bottomland forest, marshland, and limestone caprock at the top of a ridge. It feels familiar and welcoming, like an old friend who you see from time to time and immediately resume a comfortable and warm relationship. It is like home.

In yesterday’s homecoming, my aim was to visit some places along the oak motte trail. One of them is a patch of prairie within the oak woodland, where a giant live oak tree overlooks a gentle hillside with prairie grasses and yucca. Here is some of what I wrote in my notes, at 1:30pm:


Live oak

I’m sitting beside a very big live oak tree with the early afternoon sun at my back, looking out across a little prairie within the Western Cross Timbers. Here, the soil is a sort of ash-gray, but as the elevation drops, more caliche and limestone appears, with more yucca and the grass is more sparse. Below that, a rusty beige line shows where little bluestem is dominant.


A patch of prairie

As I walk down to the line of bluestem, it is obvious that (a) a tremendous diversity of grasses and forbs is present, and (b) my plant identification skills are not nearly up to the task. There appears to be broomweed growing amid the yucca, and who knows how many other species, from small, ground-hugging plants to a few big clumps of Indiangrass growing more than head-high. The prairie is dotted with a mesquite here, a couple of junipers there.


American snout – the reason for the butterfly’s name is clear!

An American snout butterfly comes in over me, low and hard, fluttering away in a strong tailwind. These butterflies are out in force today, and for the most part they make it hard to photograph because they take off when approached. They must have some orange or yellow on the dorsal wings, but their flight is constant motion and when they rest on a stem of grass, their wings are folded, showing shades of gray with a little orange showing where one wing disappears beneath another.


Northern cardinal, male

So far I have seen a northern cardinal, a mockingbird, a few turkey vultures soaring overhead, and only a couple of other small unidentified birds. The woods and fields are mostly quiet.

As the afternoon progresses, the sun is getting low and the quality of the light makes everything look more beautiful. Autumn here is an amazing mix of yellow, tan, rust, brown, orange, and red, with splashes of green. The yellows and russets of the grasses paint pictures with so many textures and patterns. It is 78 degrees (F) and 22% relative humidity. There is a light breeze. I want to stay!


A sort of pocket prairie within the oak-juniper woodlands

Life, Death, & Coffee on the Wilson Prairie

The days are short now. Volleys of leaves, multi-colored, their dried husks deprived of chlorophyll but still beaming with the muted, subdued tones of accessory pigments, whirl in skirts across the yard, carried from the disrobing pecans, post oaks, and the ancient mulberry that stands like an old seminude giant across the road, its skeletal arms still reaching toward the sky, as if in prayer for an extension of photoperiod. On the ground, beneath the impossible, thorny tangle of the dried greenbrier thickets that adorn the tree’s trunk like some billowing medeival dress, a pair of eastern fox squirrels chatter and scold one another, their russet, bushy tails atwitch; they duck, dive and skitter across the leaves in great bounding leaps, as if engaged in a game of tag. They seem dangerously preoccupied, seeing as to where their place lies on the food chain, but in reality are anything but disconnected. I could stand and they would pick up on it instantly, the game suspended. I watch them from the porch, a steaming mug of black coffee gripped in my good hand, its surface still blisteringly hot. It is early morning, mid-November, a week before Thanksgiving. The weather has been unseasonably warm…much warmer than usual , a testament to McKibben prophecy. Still, there is a current overcast, grey wash to the eaarth this morning, the sunlight obscured behind a semipermeable world of pastel fog. 

In the field behind the house a section of the herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle that my wife’s uncle owns traverse slowly at a determined pace, seeming pointlessly driven but with an underlying air of unspoken unity that testfies to their herd mentality, a trait inherited from long-extinct wild ancestry. Their sleek black heads are down, lowered towards the weather-wrinkled prickly pear pads and dried stalks of silverleaf nightshade and dessicated pods of Proboscidea that lie on the yellowed prairie like tiny skulls. It is cold enough to see their breath, thick plumes expelled from the nostrils, likewise as of one accord, the gaseous carbon dioxide cloud doubtlessly reeking of the pulpy grass chewed to mush by saliva and stomach acids. 

The steam rises from the edge of my coffee cup, spilling out and disappearing into the moisture-rich sky. Yesterday a thick, marauding band of fall thunderclouds slipped in like black warhorses, but their swelled bellies held fast to the bulk of their contents, dropping only random spatters of rain in their wake. In they rolled in the late evening, and out again, still threatening doom but devoid of follow-through. 

The world is a collection of visible exhalations: my own breath hot as I blow across the oily surface of the coffee, the cattle leaving theirs behind to dissipate as they make for the grove of post oak, blackjack, and honey mesquites on the property’s east end, following the well-beaten trail, their hooves never veering to the left or right. Walking that seemingly tedious, programmed straight and narrow that runs from the pond to the woods and back and will inevitably end at the slaughterhouse. 

I take my first sip of coffee, invigorating, the bitter, acrid punch of it evoking my senses, strong and dark, a collection of exotic hints that speak of cloud forest mountaintops I have never seen. I look out at the deciduous hardwoods that cover the Wilson Prairie between the open areas, with their mottled autumn wardrobe. It is no cloud forest, but on this foggy, damp morning, with the air thick and heavy as a saturated blanket, I can imagine it to be. It is as close as I will get at this elevation anyway. 

Back beneath the mulberry, the fox squirrels have taken their game from the leaf-dense ground litter to the massive trunk, bigger around than a whiskey barrel, its bifurcated center bearing an enormous gaping cavern to which, earlier in the summer, my son and I had introduced a big female black widow spider, her shiny globular abdomen like a perfectly polished ball of obsidian beset by that marvelous crimson hourglass that serves as a ‘No Trespassing’ sign for its clumsy, unkempt web. A former resident of the windowsill by the front door, she had been relocated on the orders of my wife, who ignored her presence until she produced an identical pair of oval-shaped egg sacs, each one as large as her abdomen itself. While Amber is no arachnophobe, the thought of hundreds of tiny, venomous spiderlings going out in the world to seek their fortunes at our doorstep was a little much, and so we transported the female, eggs, and web mass all in one great glob on the end of a forked stick, with the irate mother-to-be dancing haphazardly between the broken strands of silk. 

Now the spider is gone, the only evidence of her presence is the remaining threads of web, which still remains partially intact due to its protection from the elements. The dried hull of an unfortunate paper wasp hangs suspended here, its inner contents long turned into soup and drained out by the spider’s fangs, turned into nutrients that produced a third egg sac in late August. A stray pecan leaf has fallen into the web as well, its brittle veiny skeleton adhered to the sticky strands. 

As I approach the tree the squirrels race around to the other side…around and up, following ages of instinctual successful predator evasion. While I have no intent to cause them harm, this does not hold true for another, keener pair of eyes that observes their comings and goings with less curiosity and more focus. At the edge of the field, just beyond the road, our resident redshouldered hawk sits, its lethal talons gripped firmly into the top of a telephone pole, turning its head with each and every movement that passes between me and the squirrels, missing nothing. 

The hawk is a fairly new addition to our little biological community here, having arrived only a couple months back. It is a young one, not completely fully grown but large enough so that the telltale retrice feathers stand out in their stark black and white banded contrast against the yellow, predormant pasture. It was first noticed by our late cat, Traveling Jones, former guardian of the front porch, whose sharp feline senses missed little. Jones had been sprawled across the double lawn bench that sits on the porch, scoping the world through tired eyes that looked like a pair of marbles beset between his marmalade ears. I was beside him, halfway through a cup of coffee, feeling lazy and listless myself, with the still-warm late afternoon sun hanging in a cloudless, powder-blue sky. Above us, the enormous paper wasp colony that claims territory in a corner between the archway and a support post were busy making preparations for the coming fall. Jones was disinterested in wasps, but his ears suddenly perked rigid, accompanied by ranks of long orange hairs along the back of his vertebrae, which folded up suddenly like porcupine quills. His bored stare disappeared, and he rose up onto his front paws, looking out across the yard at whatever had just captured his interest. I followed his gaze, and there, balancing immaculately as a porcelain ballerina in a snow globe, sat the young redshouldered hawk atop a t-post along the fenceline. It was looking right back at us. I thought about going in to get my camera, but I didn’t want to take the risk of startling the bird, so I raised my coffee cup to my lips in a slower, more practiced motion, and we simply watched each other. It was more than enough to satisfy. 

Now Traveling Jones is gone, slipped from this strange, unexplainable existence into that black, mysterious void of the hereafter, reduced to a savage, swift end that is not uncommon to the lives of vagabond cats who ever-precariously walk the tightrope between domestication and ferality.  One day he was there, same as ever, and the next he was stretched out in the grass in the yard, limbs stiff from rigor mortis, with his spine bowed in a permanent arch that ran down to his tail, glassy lifeless eyes wide as if still staring eternally now at whatever swift angel of death had swept in and robbed him of his existence. I stood over his body with my wife, our hands on our hips, filled with a mixed sense of wonder at this delicate yet savage life we all live and frustration as to how we were going to break the news to my son, who has never known life without Jones. 

The cat is gone now, returned back to whatever microscopic particles and stardust he came from, but the hawk is still here, eyeing the acorn-fat squirrels from its own comparatively benign perch at the top of the food chain, destined one day as well to perish like the rest of us, but not likely of fright or at the indifferent tooth or nail of some larger beast. The squirrels, even moreso than cats, cannot afford such luxury. Their lot in life is one of constant nervous attentiveness and caution, bundles of pent-up mammalian energy, like furry, coiled springs, seemingly always either in hyper mode or twitching and tensing at its threshold. Natural selection has ensured this trait is copied down and hardwired into their genetic makeup. Lazy, unobservant squirrels are dead squirrels. Lazy unobservant squirrels end up clutched between the merciless, plucking talons of a redshouldered hawk. 

But these squirrels are long-time residents, and they do not maintain their overfed dimensions through such deadly lack of caution. They have survived the brief seasons of young squirrelhood, in spite of nimble arboreal nest-raiding rat snakes, coyotes, and resident raptors, and they are born-again hard, in spite of their meek and merry appearance. Eventually the killer atop the telephone pole tires of the unlikelihood of their eventual capture, and wings off across the open field for the oak motte, its sleek feathered head pivoting left to right as it scans the open ground for a cottontail rabbit that hopefully possesses a preoccupation of whatever sort that will allow the bird to fall like a stone and slide into its soft fur and the quivering flesh beneath with lethal precision. But the hawk finds nothing, and the spread horizontal shape of its departing silhouette, like a stretched letter “M”, disappears into the cross timbers. 

The hawk is gone. The squirrels are gone. The cows are gone. The cat is gone and the black widow is gone. Now it is just me and the torpid wasps, huddled together in silent immobility, their ectothermic systems waiting for the sun to come piercing through the thick wall of dawn cloud cover and set them to flight. The coffee has released plenty of its thermal energy into my own endothermic shell, as well as into the cool surrounding air. As a result it has grown cold, and i quaff the chilled remnants with a bit of resistance.  I stare out across that great field in perfect solitude, its still-life appearance disguising the hidden wonders that lie within all those undiscovered worlds hidden away out in the deep brown weeds and tangled thickets and red clay banks. The prairie grasses sway to the caress of a gentle breeze that also whisks its way around the corner of the house from the northeast, sending a fresh outbreak of gooseflesh across the bare skin of my forearms. In this way, somehow, I feel a sense of connection. We are one, the prairie and I, caught up together in that ancient, beautiful, cataclysmic scheme of things, momentarily suspended here against the breeze of an autumn wind that, like this life itself, cannot be physically seen but must be felt and experienced to maintain its reality. It traces against our forms with phantom fingers and, in our own way, we both respond accordingly. 

The coffee mug is empty now. The forecast calls for an eventual spike in temperature, up to 76 degrees by noon, but for now there lies not a hint of it in this cold, pallid morning dominated by fog and escaping vapors of breath and the subdued and vibrant composition of autumn. For now it is a world rapidly being engulfed in dead leaves, bowing dried stalks of bluestem, bathed in golden glory, still and silent. A world in wait. I turn to go in to the house for a second cup of coffee, the sound of the door creaking on its hinges , an alien shriek that seems intrusive, out of place here. Unnatural.  Man-produced, and somehow wrong. The coffee can wait, and the couch and central heat and television spewing doom and radiation with it. For now I am content to sink back into the lawn bench, my legs propped up on Jones’s old cat box, eyes reduced to mere slits as I return to my post in the midst of this blessed natural world that surrounds me. It is a world I hold dear. A world I long to grasp and retain and somehow pass down, whatever is left of it to pass. When Zev gets home from school, I think, we will go for a walk in the woods, beneath the oaks, our tennis shoes parting piles of their symetrically-lobed leaves around our ankles. We will marvel at cocoons adhered to the crisp, delicate distal tips of twigs, waiting for the wind to pick up even more and send them plummeting to the forest floor to wait out the worst of the coming winter. Zev will point out the form of one of our seasonally-visiting male kestrels on a low limb, or perhaps, if the sun triumphs over the clouds, a Texas spiny lizard clinging headdown against the cracked bark of one of the oaks, watching us with copper eyes full of suspicion. We may remark on its superb camouflage or hypothesize on where it is likely to spend the winter. Wherever the trail takes us I will do my best to keep his interest in this rapidly passing natural realm kindled, so that he will carry the torch that will light its continued importance and conservation into a future I will not be able to occupy. But for now it is just me and the wind and the prairie, alone and yet not lonely on this cool fall morning before Thanksgiving. In that I find solace, and can find, in my own way, much reason for thanks, my heart full of gratitude that there is still a bit of the natural world and its tragic, glorious order devoid of such concepts as good and evil. For now, it is enough. 

First Weekend in November

A Hot Afternoon at Southwest Nature Preserve

fullsizeoutput_10acI walked north toward the pond at the northwest corner of the preserve, along a shallow hillside where post oak and blackjack oak woods open here and there to pockets of little bluestem grasses. It was a clear day, hot and dry, with leaves yellowing and falling as if from exhaustion due to a summer that refused to give up. We were about six weeks into autumn; in Texas the turning of the seasons from summer to fall tends to be gradual, but today felt like not so much a turning but a thinning of the same hot, dry season we knew in August. In fact, we set another record today, based on information at showing that the record high temperature for this date was 88 degrees. At the north pond, the temperature in the shade, about three feet off the ground, was 92. The relative humidity was 41%.


fullsizeoutput_10b4The mud banks of the pond were getting broader as the water recedes, and cricket frogs jumped for the safety of vegetation or into the water as I approached the edge. In one spot, a red admiral butterfly sipped moisture from the mud, and the damselflies and dragonflies were still very common. There were plenty of red-eared sliders in various spots around the surface of the pond and basking in the afternoon sun on a couple of snags. A big bullfrog that had jumped into the water later revealed himself, a pair of eyes watching me carefully from the shallows. He allowed one photo and then – was gone.fullsizeoutput_10b9

Sitting on top of “Kennedale Mountain” on a sandstone ledge was pleasant, in the shade. The oaks at the top of the ridge blocked out the city, but did not block out the sounds of the nearby streets and highway. It was enough, though, getting away for an hour and a half or so, surrounded by things that are no less beautiful for being common: the cricket frogs, the sliders, the butterflies and dragonflies.fullsizeoutput_10ba

I do find myself hoping for winter. I am hoping for days when the high temperatures do not break records, when a jacket might even be necessary. I even wish for snow, for a quiet walk through a woodland white with several inches of snow, for big snowflakes falling from a cold, gray sky. For now, I’ll enjoy whatever kind of day the preserve offers.fullsizeoutput_10ae

A Night on Greer Island 

(I wrote this story nearly ten years ago, while editor of the Cross Timbers Herpetologist, newsletter of the DFW Herpetological Society. Happy Halloween!)

The car windows were down as I crossed the bridge back over Lake Worth, and the Allman Brothers were on the CD player.  After all this time, still putting out high-energy rock and roll, with the new release taking me back to 1969 when “Eat a Peach” came out.  The wind whipped by as I exited for the Nature Center. 

After an autumn day looking for reptiles and amphibians, a group of us had called it quits and headed home.  However, once on the road I realized we had not picked up some minnow traps we put out at Greer Island.  A minnow trap is a sort of wire mesh bucket with a wire funnel leading in from each end.  In the hands of herpetologists, minnow traps don’t catch minnows so much as frogs and snakes.  We placed several of them in shallow water along the island’s shore, partly exposed so that anything that got in could breathe.  However, I could not leave any animals trapped, and so I was headed back into the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge. 

As I drove along the road at the edge of the lake, Greg Allman sang: 

“Can’t you feel a cold wind is howlin’ down, blowin’ my song?

Well I ain’t an old man, but you know my time ain’t long.” 

I thought about the cold wind that would soon be blowing on the refuge as fall changed to winter.  Oh well, I was ready for a change.  The end of summer had been unusually humid, and cool weather would feel good. 

The sunset glow still provided some light as I walked the causeway to Greer Island.  The wind picked up, scattering yellow cottonwood leaves to drift down through the remaining light.  I felt a slight shiver.  The thought of walking around alone on Greer Island in the gathering dark did not bother me, did it?  I’ve been on the island many times, and it is as peaceful as any other part of the refuge.  Maybe that Allman Brothers line about a cold wind howling down had gotten to me. 

FWNC-Dec04-GreerOn the island, I pulled the first minnow trap up from where it had been nestled beside a fallen tree branch at the water’s edge.  Inside was a water snake, its chocolate brown scales glistening as it frantically tried to find a way out.  I put on the gloves, unfastened the trap and reached inside.  The snake writhed and bit at the glove, with the small needle-sharp teeth barely penetrating to my skin.  Although nonvenomous, water snakes defend themselves by repeatedly biting and by expelling a nasty-smelling musk.  I wanted to get this done as soon as I could.  Just before I released him, up came a small leopard frog the snake had eaten earlier in the day.  “More data for the survey,” I thought, as I recorded the details of both snake and frog. 

I searched for the next minnow trap with my flashlight, as it had now gotten dark.  Pushing through buttonbush and stepping carefully among the deadfall, I squished through the saturated ground to the next trap.  When I found it, it was open.  This was very puzzling, because the two halves of the trap fasten pretty securely.  I looked around, certainly not expecting to see something.  No one else should be on the island at night, and besides, it was ridiculous to think that just because the trap was open, someone had opened it. 

More wind whispered and sighed through the treetops, and the flashlight’s beam caught the flicker of a few more leaves fluttering to the forest floor.  I reached the site of the third trap, but did not see it in the water.  I moved the light around and caught a flash of metal.  There!  Hanging from a tree branch was a tangle of smashed wire dripping in the flashlight beam – the minnow trap!  My hands felt numb and the two other traps dropped from my fingers to the ground.  Not bothering to pick them up, I turned and walked quickly back toward the trail.  I wanted out of there in a hurry.  I pushed through underbrush and spider web, resisting the urge to run and trying to keep my bearings.  The flashlight illuminated a narrow section of woods, and everywhere else the darkness seemed menacing.  Some of the fear dissipated as I walked, and I emerged into an upland area where the woodland was less thick and the image of the mangled minnow trap was less immediate. 

Finding the trail, I set out toward the causeway.  Just a little bit now, I reassured myself, and I would be walking on that narrow strip of dirt and gravel under the stars toward the safety of the car.  The path re-entered thicker forest and I concentrated on the circle of light from the flashlight.  I kept it on the trail, unwilling to risk a glance to either side.  The dirt path narrowed, understory shrubs and then tree trunks increasingly closing in.  The trail ended!  I must have gotten turned around, I told myself, but there were no trails on the island that simply ended.  I turned, backtracked, and shone the light around.  Nothing but oak and understory shrubs around me.  Finally it occurred to me to get into the backpack for the GPS.  It constantly plotted my path on its screen, like an electronic version of the trail of bread crumbs in “Hansel & Gretel.”  I had used it on more than one occasion to help me backtrack through the forest.  As I felt inside the pack for the GPS, I heard something some distance away.  It was something like the wail of a large animal, rising in misery and then strangled in a series of barking or coughing sounds.  I was frozen for a moment, staring stupidly at the flashlight beam shining where I had set it down, illuminating a tangle of greenbriar and Virginia creeper.  Another wail pierced the forest, greater in intensity and ending in several guttural cries like shouts of rage. 

Snatching up the flashlight, I ran back along the trail and then cut through a small clearing in the direction I thought I should go.  My mind raced back to another memory from 1969 – what was it?  The Lake Worth monster?  A goat-man that had been seen numerous times but never found?  The memory was cut short as I tripped over a downed branch and fell.  I picked myself up and tried to run again, but a snare of entangling greenbriar brought me down like a staked dog reaching the end of its tether.  I made a bleeding mess of my hands trying to pull the tough, thorny vines away and then finally yanked free.  Back on my feet, I set off in a blind panic, the GPS lying useless in the dirt somewhere behind me. 

I’m not sure how far I ran, and I’m even less sure of the direction.  As I staggered breathlessly up to a higher elevation, the roof of a small pavilion came into view.  My heart sank.  This structure, with its concrete slab and two protective walls, was far from where I wanted to be.  I took a few more steps up the slope, and saw the glow of a small fire burning on the concrete floor.  The fire itself was obscured by someone or something sitting with its back to me. 

I hesitated.  The figure poked the small fire in front of it, without turning toward me. 

“Ain’t no gittin away, try as y’might.”  The high, thin voice spoke as if we were in mid-conversation.  It had some of the hard edge of a threat, but the unsteady quality of a man barely containing his excitement, or maybe fear.  Still I stood immobile, wary of doing anything. 

“Sit right still, he’ll come,” he added, while drawing distractedly on the concrete with his stick. 

I turned and ran, and after me came his high, unsteady shout: “Ain’t no gittin away!”  And as if in answer, over to my left came another screeching cry, clipped off and followed by two short bellows of fury.  I heard a large branch snap, up in the treetops.  I turned and focused the light to see a large figure in the trees, eyeshine reflecting back at me.  And then it dropped straight out of the treetops and out of sight.  Running away from it would take me away from the causeway.  My way out was blocked. 

I crouched by a log in dense brush, waiting and trying to think.  Bits and pieces of old news accounts returned to me.  In 1969 there had been a series of frightening encounters with residents describing something half-man, half-goat covered with light gray fur and scales.  Once it was said to have jumped out of a tree and onto a car parked at Greer Island.  On another occasion, several bystanders at Lake Worth watched it until it supposedly hurled a car wheel (tire, rim and all) 500 feet in their direction.  They mystery had never been solved. 

My thoughts were shattered by a voice right beside me – “Ain’t no gittin away, told ye.”  I jumped and fell backward in leaf litter and twigs, and when I was able to sit up I saw the old man from the pavilion.  His eyes were too wide open and they darted around, not really connecting with mine.  He had a desperate look about him, and he was covered with filth.  As I started to say something, he swung a bag with something heavy in it, like gravel, and clubbed me. 

In my next moment of awareness, I was slung over his shoulder watching the ground go by as he carried me.  My wrists were bound.  My captor was muttering crazily, “Billy brekkist, Billy lunch, he’ll come, oh yes.”  We reached the pavilion and he put me down, and then set busily to work tying me to a support pole.  Here and there he paused to look at me with a sick grin that exposed broken teeth and receding gums.   

He sat down beside the flickering little fire and looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for some sort of performance.  Away and to the side, I saw lightning flash on the horizon. 

“Billy!  He’ll come – oh yes oh yes.  You’ll see.” 

In the nearby woods, another wail – chopped, at the end, into staccato yells.  The old man became agitated, gibbering “Billy, Billy, Billy, no gittin – no!”  He backed away and stumbled into the darkness, eyes as big as saucers. 

Why did he keep repeating that name?  And suddenly it hit me!  It was the children’s story about the goats who try to cross the bridge where the troll lives.  I was the bait, and he was going to catch his billy goat. 

I exhaled as far as I could, rolled my shoulders forward, and dropped down.  The first loop of rope slipped, and I started working out of the bonds that held me.  My captor flew into a rage, squealing “No gittin, no gittin!” as he jumped back up onto the concrete.  As he got close enough, I kicked him away.  I slid further down, escaping more of the rope and then was able to get free.  My tormentor made another run at me, screeching “No gittin! No – no!” 

Just then, an enormous form jumped in front of me, hitting the old man with such force that they both rolled ten feet away.  There was a sickening sound of snapping bones.  I looked toward them and in the dim firelight I got a glimpse of fur and horn – and a head turned and stared at me for an instant with the horizontal slitted eyes of a goat.   

I leapt away from this horror and ran through the woods, branches and vines slapping me as I went.  Somewhere I found the trail and was able to go faster.  Behind me a long wail arose, riding on a gust of wind.  Lightning flashed.  I was aware of noise in the treetops, but could not tell if the trees were disturbed by wind or by some terror pursuing me.  The trail widened and big raindrops began to spatter down among the leaves.  I followed the bend in the road and emerged onto the causeway. 

The rain came down in sheets as I reached the car and got in.  As the cold wind blew through the treetops, I made my way out of the refuge.  I could not get the old man’s shrill voice out of my head as I drove along Shoreline Drive.  I had not gone very far through the heavy rain when a gust of wind blew something onto the road in front of me.  I stopped the car and leaned over the steering wheel to look.  It was a minnow trap. 

“Billy goat for breakfast; Billy goat for lunch, 

Billy goat, Billy goat, munch, munch, munch” 

The Magic Is In the Finding, Not the Keeping

Clint and I have been hitting the road together for over ten years, and we each started herping a long time before that. Like others, we’ve gone through an evolution during these years of getting out in the field. To put this most recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley in context, here’s a little of my own evolution as a kid who liked snakes, to a herper, to a naturalist.

When I was about ten, the girl across the street came over and asked if I wanted to go snake hunting. Sherry was certainly breaking the mold for what girls were “supposed” to do, and I like to think she grew up continuing to be interested in the natural world and uninterested in what women are “supposed” to do. At any rate, we scoured some of the fields on the western edge of Denver, caught a plains gartersnake, and I was hooked.


A juvenile plains gartersnake

When our family moved back to Texas, I wanted to see and catch more snakes, but had little interest in the rest of the natural world. My parents got me involved with the Natural History department at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum, and my fate was sealed. I went on field trips, got together with other kids who also liked snakes, learned something about the value of preserved collections and put in a lot of hours injecting formalin into specimens. But I put in even more hours wading the creek and wandering in the woods, collecting snakes that came home to live with me, and picking up specimens that came to the museum to be preserved in a jar.

There was no way to hang out with the museum people and not pick up some appreciation for the broader natural world. I learned a couple of things about birds, not that I cared much for ornithology but I respected the biologists who did. Under Bill Voss I learned a few things about arachnids, even though I was still somewhat afraid of spiders. Gradually I learned that if you wanted to understand a particular snake or turtle, you needed to understand the place where it lived, what its predators were, and what other organisms were in its diet. My horizons broadened.

I still mainly wanted to collect snakes, and had a sweet tooth for turtles, too. I brought back a juvenile Texas tortoise after our family lived in Corpus Christi for a year (before the tortoises were protected). I was captivated with softshelled turtles after finding a couple of hatchlings at the creek. Everything had to come home with me, because when something was as wonderful as a coachwhip, or a Texas tortoise, you wanted to have it.

I got married and Jo appreciated these animals as well. We got a boa constrictor as one of our wedding presents, and of course in the 70’s we made the short-sighted decision to buy the cutest little baby Burmese python. The snake was beautiful, not finicky about eating, and gentle when handled. Then we learned that they grow fast and then become quite impractical for most people to keep. Meanwhile, we collected many of the snakes we found, because to pick up such an incredible, beautiful, fascinating animal and then just let it go was so hard.

Eventually, it occurred to me that the magic was in the finding, not the keeping. A snake in a box had only a small fraction of the wonder that the snake had in the field. I began to be able to look at and release all but the most desirable species. Meanwhile, those that I did bring home cruised around in their boxes (whether literally a plastic shoe box or an expensive display cage) and generally could be kept healthy, would eat, and even breed. Gradually, an appreciation grew within me for how their lives might be impoverished by living in a little patch of wood shavings, hide box, and a water bowl. They are designed to move about within a home range very much larger than a snake cage, and their travels provide a good bit of stimulation and variety. My training in psychology and neurosciences tells me that brains – human or nonhuman – develop in a working partnership between neurons and experiences. Behavioral health depends on an adequately stimulating environment, and while the reptile brain is very different from our own, the same principle should hold. No anthropomorphizing is intended here; I am not trying to assign human characteristics to reptiles, just trying to understand what reptile characteristics belong to reptiles. The more we learn about maternal care in rattlesnakes, reptiles’ ability to recognize a home range and find their way back to it when moved a small distance, and so on, the less I am able to look at a snake as a pretty automaton with no more brain than necessary to house a collection of “instincts.”

I mean no condemnation to those who keep snakes in captivity, especially those who maintain collections for study or other worthy purposes. If you like keeping snakes in cages, I’m not fussing at you. Do it as well as possible, keep them healthy, and give them as much space as you can.


In the Sabal Palm Sanctuary

At the same time that my interest in collecting decreased, my interest in the broader natural world increased. Bit by bit, I tried to learn more about invertebrates, trees, plants, and ecoregions like the cross timbers. By the time Clint and I planned to go to south Texas, we weren’t concerned with how many snakes we might find (though that was the first love for both of us), or targeting places where collecting was allowed. In fact, in recent years we have benefitted a great deal from visiting the places least affected by human activity, and that is often a preserve or refuge where no collecting is permitted. Seeing the places themselves, visiting relatively intact habitat – reminding ourselves that some of it still survives – that’s the thrill. We found a Texas coralsnake, Clint saw a Texas indigo snake, we saw three big western diamond-backed rattlesnakes, we saw over twenty rough greensnakes, as well as green anoles, Texas spiny lizards, rose-bellied lizards, keeled earless lizards, short-lined skinks, Texas brownsnakes, Gulf Coast ribbonsnakes, and so on. When we were not seeing reptiles, we saw black witch moths, green lynx spiders, Texas tan tarantulas, tons of other invertebrates, a marine toad, caracaras, Harris’s hawks, green jays, chachalacas, and the list goes on. We learned a little (only a little!) about the trees and other plants of the valley, such as tepeguaje, barbed wire cactus, retama, ebony blackbead, and so on. Because of the richness and diversity of all the different species, there was almost always something to admire and photograph.


Western diamond-backed rattlesnake, near La Sal Del Rey

We hope this way of thinking comes through as you read about our time on the road. For us, a broad interest in everything from ecosystems to various plants and animals works wonderfully. I’m no expert in most of these things, but I don’t have to be – it’s enough to be open to really seeing all of it, wondering about it, and seeking to learn more.

At the National Butterfly Center – South Texas, Day 3

IMG_2544.JPGWhen you first arrive at the National Butterfly Center, you see a quiet pool with lotus and other plants, and then walk to the visitor center entrance through patches of flowers alive with bees and butterflies. In our visit on October 18, these plants were heavily visited by queen butterflies (among many others), creating a kaleidoscope of black-edged orange wings with a sprinkling of white spots. But amid the peace and beauty of the center’s gardens looms a threat to the center’s integrity, as well as a threat to our system of fairness and due process. Clint and I were there to learn about the beauty of the place, the work of the center staff, as well as the threat that the property will be torn apart by a border wall. The Center’s director, Marianna Trevino Wright, was very generous, taking us on a walking tour of the 30 acres at the front of the center and then a tour of the 70 additional acres of habitat behind a canal and levee that currently can be driven or walked over.


The marine toad on his perch

Knowing our interest in reptiles and amphibians, she first took us down a trail where an indigo snake periodically turns up. While we did not see the indigo, we did find a marine toad (or “cane toad”) hunkered down in a big lump on top of a cut tree stump, several feet off the ground. Wright said that they climb, and here was a clear demonstration of that! Marine toads are found in Central America and the Mexican coasts, making it barely into the United States along several counties of the lower Rio Grande Valley. It is our biggest toad, growing to roughly four to six inches long. Unfortunately, the species has been introduced in several spots around the world and is a harmful invasive in those areas. Marine toads have very large parotoid glands that produce toxic secretions that discourage predators, and while they are not dangerous to humans (provided you don’t eat them!) it is important to wash your hands if you handle a marine toad.


Chachalacas, photographed in Harlingen

A little later, as the trail bent around to another area with plants for pollinators, a group of chachalacas ran, hopped, and briefly flew nearby. These birds are roughly chicken-sized, mostly a sort of gray-brown color with a buff-colored belly and white-tipped tail feathers, and we saw several groups at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. There, they usually moved about on the ground and on low branches, and sometimes one would trot along in a way that reminded me a little of a big, chunky roadrunner. Like the roadrunner, their flight was often low and for short distances. Here at the National Butterfly Center, this small group emerged from the brush, hopped onto something and flew on to the next group of trees.

Wright showed us the canal and levee that divides the front and back of the property. The North American Butterfly Association (NABA), which is the parent organization to the Center, owns the land that the levee is on, but the government has an easement at the levee for flood control. The easement would allow government officials or contractors to enter the land and use it for specified purposes. While the language about the purpose of the easement may not say “border wall,” the government can describe the wall as a “fence” and assert that it is an improvement to the levee, thereby attempting to stay within the purposes of the easement.


Part of the property behind the levee

On the other side of the levee, the Center’s property is mostly a combination of forest and the kinds of plants that make up the south Texas thorn scrub. The low mesquites, acacias, and other trees shelter cacti and various shrubs that can support a variety of wildlife. A little over a mile down the road, we emerged at the banks of the Rio Grande, in this spot looking wide and grand, indeed. The possibilities for supporting wildlife and providing education and research opportunities are clear. Wright described how the Center, as one part of the chain of refuges, preserves, and parks, is supposed to function as a conservation corridor, connecting habitat up and down the river to support everything from indigo snakes to ocelots, Texas tortoises to great kiskadees. Along with preserving a piece of the lower Rio Grande habitat, the Center is also busily helping schoolkids and others learn about wildlife. Wright said that they worked with 6,000 kids last year, and they are working with Streamable Learning to provide virtual field trips to classrooms anywhere and everywhere.


The Rio Grande, at the south end of the Center’s property

Unfortunately, the border wall will significantly limit some possibilities and destroy others. The threat is not off in the distance, it is here right now. Last July, a government-contracted work crew showed up on the back property, with no notice and no communication to the Center, beginning to take earth samples and cutting trees and brush to widen an already wide dirt road. It is worth noting that this was not on the levee itself, where the government has the easement, but along a 1.2 mile road owned by the Center running back to the Rio Grande. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) come onto the property at will, and occasionally things are tense. Wright said that the NABA has filed a notice of intent to sue CBP regarding their destroying habitat and property without due process – the Center got no notification and no opportunity to challenge what was happening in court. Keep in mind that CBP’s plans not only include a wall of concrete and steel bollards on top of the levee, but clearing a 150-foot zone around the wall that will be barren, and setting up lights and surveillance around the wall. Wright told us that she has been told that the workers will be back, accompanied by armed CBP agents. It appears that the intent to go to court means nothing, and they may show up and clear the land, getting it done before NABA would even be able to try to get a court injunction that would make them wait until the legal question is settled.

For some background information about the wall in the lower Rio Grande Valley, you could read “Over the Wall,” an article from this past June in the Texas Observer. Another article described how the wall would destroy the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, in the words of a federal official quoted by the Observer.

We know that readers of this blog may be united in an interest in wildlife and habitat but have diverse political opinions. However, my perspective is that this is not necessarily a political issue in the usual sense. I don’t care who you vote for, but chances are you support conservation of wildlife and habitat, nature education, and the preservation of our rights as private citizens (or private nonprofit organizations) to hold private property without worry that the government will simply take it, overrun it, or destroy it without due process – without our having our day in court to say why it shouldn’t happen.

It you would like to support the National Butterfly Center, there are a couple of ways to do this, through their website. One is to support their legal defense fund, and the other is to download and send their model letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supporting NABA’s right to due process prior to CBP taking part of their land, making a strip of it completely unusable for its purposes, and consigning over half of their property to a “no man’s land” behind the wall.


The mercurial skipper, a rare species seen while we visited the Center