A Little Salt in the Thorn Scrub

(A Continuation of “From La Sal Vieja to La Sal Del Rey”)

We drove from La Sal Vieja westward to La Sal Del Rey (“The King’s Salt”), which is another part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. La Sal Del Rey refers to a shallow lake sitting on salt deposits, which make it ten times more saline than ocean water. Clint and I visited this place some years ago, on a searingly hot summer day that had us staggering back to the car, desperate for water.

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Sign within the refuge

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In contrast to the first photo, this one shows that the thorn scrub can be pretty impenetrable.

This mid-October day was far more pleasant. The sky had been clearing, and by now it was a sunny, warm day, with a breeze that kept things comfortable. The first part of our walk took us past mostly open mesquite woodlands with thick grass and huge prickly pear cactus growing in mounds sometimes standing well over head high. Other plants and trees included the ebony blackbead, tepeguaje, and a bush that appeared to be some sort of acacia. This latter plant seemed to be an invertebrate Mecca, attracting all manner of invertebrates. Clint found a pair of stick insects, the female perfectly camouflaged as just another gray branch, and the male more spindly and with green color, as would befit a thinner new shoot off the main branch. There was a large predatory wasp with a red abdomen that never would sit still for a photo and kept flying off, only to return shortly to this apparently irresistible bush. Scattered among the branches were the little ailanthus webworm moths, with folded wings looking like a mosaic of orange and yellow edged in black. There was a mesquite borer, double-banded longhorn beetle, and mantid flies. Snout butterflies fluttered among the branches. And growing fat among this buffet of insects was a green lynx spider that had pounced on some sort of colorful fly which was now being drained like some dipteran Slurpee.

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Stick insect, female

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Stick insect, male

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Green lynx spider with fly

We arrived at the lake and I walked up on the observation deck to see the broad salt flats shading into the lake, with a large group of sandpipers milling around at the water’s edge. It was like a glimpse of the beach in microcosm, only the water was undisturbed by any wave or movement. The birds presumably were poking in the sand for prey. I approached, and at one point they spooked, briefly flying in a tightly coordinated group, quickly returning to the wet sand to continue their activity.

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Scrub, then salt flats, and finally the lake

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Sandpipers

 

I walked out over the salt-crusted sand and silt toward the water, in places crunching on a glittering deposit of salt. I approached the sandpipers, which shuffled about nervously but did not fly away. Several of their group hopped about on one leg, like little one-legged pirates. My reaction to the first bird that did this was a concern that it had lost a leg and was forced to hobble about with his brethren. Then I saw that it appeared to be a habit among numerous members of this troupe, and I was less concerned.

Walking back from the bare salt flats into scattered vegetation, I wondered what could live in the salty, bare sand, in many places under a brittle glaze of salt. I took a photo of one of the principal plants which appears to be a saltwort, with succulent little fingerlike leaves, pale green or blue-green toward the top but pinkish toward the base.

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Silver argiope

Walking back, I spotted a kind of argiope spider sitting in its web constructed in a clump of prickly pear cactus. Clint identified it as a silver argiope, a more southern resident that barely crosses into the United States. It has the basic argiope or garden spider form, but its abdomen has some projections that were fairly subtle in this young one but Clint says become more pronounced in adults.

We did see a couple of whiptail lizards, and the second, tiny one reminded us that this year’s eggs have fairly recently hatched. We saw lizard scat, suggesting that there were many other lizards we did not get a chance to see. But our walk had been a pleasant one filled with invertebrates of amazing form and color, sandpipers, and a pair of magnificent caracaras soaring over the thorn scrub.

From La Sal Vieja to La Sal del Rey…South Texas Day 1, Part 1


I am sitting on the veranda of the Darling Ranch house as I write this, watching the sun go down over the massive old live oak tree, with our first day in the Rio Grande Valley behind us. A front blew in overnight, blanketing the sky with grey cloud cover until after noon, but we decided to make a go of it anyway and get out into the field to see what we could find.  After hitting a taqueria for breakfast (and chasing a huge black witch moth across the parking lot with no success) we headed for La Sal Vieja, a national wildlife refuge consisting of two lakes northwest of the town of Raymondville. 

La Sal Vieja is so named due to the salinity of the lakes and the subsequent salt deposits that were once collected first by the Native Americans and later by the Spanish conquistadors. But with good old NaCl now available by the bag at any number of grocery stores and no longer a precious commodity, we focused our interests on the birds, bugs, and plant life. 

Aside from the salt deposits, La Sal Vieja is not unlike many of the other public land areas that dot the thornscrub in the lower Rio Grande Valley.  A narrow sandy trail winds through thick stands of mixed vegetation, with the predominate mesquite appearing alongside Baccharis, Junco, and Ebony blackbead. In the shade of these hardy species grow prickly pear in abundance, as well as a host of other succulents, grasses, and legumes. The ending result is an almost impenetrable mass of close-growing, often thorny vegetation, collectively refered to as the thorn scrub. 


While it may not be HOA approved landscaping, this verdant mixture of growth is home sweet home for a plethora of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates, the latter of which I was trying to get to fall into my canvas sweep net by dragging it through the high grass and shrubbery at trailside. Almost immediately this brought me into close contact with a beautiful jewel beetle of the genus Acmaeodera. Commonly referred to as “black and yellow buprestids” due to their similar appearance among species, these bullet-shaped borers are fond of yellow flowers, where they both blend in superbly well and mimic similarly-marked bees and wasps. This was a species I had never before seen in the field, but its atypical pattern of yellow margins on a black background with coral pink elytral blotches identified it as Acmaeodera flavomarginata. 


As a self-described buprestophile, I was ecstatic to break the ice with such a specimen. At the time it seemed like a rare find, although I would later find this species in relative abundance at La Sal de Rey. But for now, it was fresh and new and provided me with just the boost of energy I needed to keep me going along the trail, bum leg be damned. Still, the going was slow, but it gave me the opportunity to observe things at my leisure instead of the usual high-speed burn I insist on maintaining when both legs are functioning at full capacity. But the slowed pace soon payed off in the form of two additional species of Acmaeodera, as well as a host of other great stuff of the six and eight-legged kind. The buprestids were being drawn to a low-growing, purple-flowered plant I later identified (hopefully accurately) as blue mistflower. It grew abundantly along the trailside, and in spite of the adverse weather (buprestids seem to prefer hot, sunny days) produced several dozen specimens of Acmaeodera haemorrhoa and A. scalaris.

Acmaeodera scalaris (above) & A. haemorrhoa (below)


All Acmaeodera aside, the sweeps produced their fair share of notable arthropods as well. Queen butterflies, those southward-migrating monarch mimics of slightly darker complexion, were present both in their adult phase in the air and their larval phase in the weeds. Their mimicry even bleeds over into the caterpillars, with the larvae closely resembling that of their more well-known close cousins. Like the monarch, the queen is toxic to predators in all stages of its life cycle. 


Another interesting find that turned up in the sweep net was a cardinal jumping spider, a brilliantly-marked species of the large genus Phidippus, which includes the familiar black and white jumper that often makes its way into peoples’ houses. This one was stunningly beautiful, and in spite of its alert nervousness we both managed to snag a few decent close-ups before returning it to the high grass. 


A few species of insects were in ludicrous abundance, with the presence of one being comparatively benign to that of the other. Geometer moth caterpillars (better known as inchworms) covered the trails, grasses, and anything in between. They seemed especially fond of the ebony blackbead trees, where a single rap from my cane into the basket of the sweep net would produce a hundred or more of them.  A close inspection of these trees revealed dozens of specimens dangling from the branches by silken threads like weird ornaments, giving the trees the appearance of some strangely decorated Christmas tree. 

While abundant in staggering numbers, the geometer moths paled in comparison to the legions of tiny, bothersome gnats that flocked to our eyes, ears, and noses. Resistant to Deet and unbelievably persistent, they were a constant nuisance from trail’s head to end. In fact, it was a sudden increase in their numbers that eventually led us to turn around and head back to the car. I was glad we did, for no sooner had we doubled back than I spied a pair of long, waving black antennae amidst the jade greenery of a small bush. These belonged to none other than Liconotus flavocinctus, a handsomely marked longhorn beetle I had previously only known from online field guides. 


Another find worth mentioning, found on the same plant, was a land snail, later identified on inaturalist as the striped rabdotus. My son is into snails, so I made sure to send him the pic of this colorful gastropod in situ. 


The walk back was quite eventful as well.  We kept our eyes to the sky for the hope that a little sun may break through, but the thick wall of cloud cover held on with obstinate determination. The yellow flowers of the mesquite-like tepeguaje complimented the low-growing orange of the blossoming lantana, and the discovery of several corona de cristo (gorgeous purple hued members of the passion flower family) by Michael blended together to provide a diverse vibrance to the landscape.

Corona de Cristo and katydid

Michael also found a very unusual assassin bug which looked like it could have costarred in the film ‘Hellraiser’ with its orange and black pincushion abdomen. 

Halloween punk rock pinhead assassin bug… a good enough common name as any


Best of all (at least in my opinion) was the pair of Trachyderes mandibularis that we found breeding on the trunk of a flowering Baccharis. These large and showy longhorn beetles have been on my lifelist for some time, and spotting them was a definite highlight to the day’s walk. 

Trachyderes mandibularis on Baccharis


A big female green lynx spider guarding her newly-hatched brood of spiderlings and a most excellently camouflaged purple crab spider on a blue mist flower provided the finishing touches to a great adventure at the Sal Vieja refuge. As we returned to the vehicle and pointed it in the direction of our next destination, Sal del Rey, the sun peeked out teasingly from the grey mass above us. Stay tuned for Michael’s rendition of our trip to Sal del Rey…

Green lynx spider guarding her newly hatched brood


Roseate skimmer


Crab spider

Atrox Pinata on the Great Rattlesnake Highway

I have known about the “great rattlesnake highway” in the rolling plains for well over a decade now, and it has produced quite consistently over the course of that time span generally without fail.  Located in that vast expanse of open mesquite scrub and prickly pear patch dubbed affectionately by both locals (with pride) and tourists (with general disinterest) as “the Big Empty”, it is a rattlesnake lover’s wonderland if little else.  Amber and I have turned herping out there every fall into a sort of contest wherein we try to beat the previous year’s record of most western diamondbacks seen in a single night. It started back when we were dating and I took her on her first night of herping the area. We racked up a total of 32 rattlers and a few neonate bull snakes and from then on the GRH fall atrox contest became an annual tradition. Every October (with the advent of an approaching storm or cold front, if luck and schedule permitted) we would head out on a day trip in an effort to best that first magnificent night that I still credit for getting my wife hooked on herping. It didn’t come until 2013, when we broke the record by two. Last year we got 41, and so this year we had high hopes to beat that one. 

Even in an area as diamondback-blessed as the rolling plains, 41 snakes in a single night is hard to beat. But last night, with an approaching rainy cold front darkening the skies to the north of us after a day high in the nineties, we managed to pull it off, with a sum of 42 diamondbacks, plus a handful of other common locals for a total of 50 snakes! While the diversity wasn’t staggering, it made for a family fun night herper-style, with Zev wide-eyed and alert in the seat, counting each and every atrox as we pressed ever-closer to our goal. Although I hate to admit it, my wife has keener eyes than I do when it comes to spotting snakes on the road, and she insisted I stop for each and every suspicious object, the majority of which ended up being neonate rattlers. On two occasions we turned around for one snake and as we backtracked found two more. It was a glorious time, in spite of the fact that it kept us out until midnight on the eve of Michael’s and my departure to the Rio Grande Valley. While an annual autumn atrox count may not seem like the ideal for government recommended family fun, it suits me and mine well enough. Kudos to Zev for spotting the first snake and Amber the last (as well as most in-between). I can only hope for such fortune now as Michael and I make our way south with the monarchs.  Until we get there and get out into the thornscrub and sabal palms, a few highlights from last night on the plains:

Zev finds the first snake, a little checkered garter, in a hole in the concrete. Everything else was found on the road


One of two massasaugas found AOR


An unusually colorful atrox out and about


The largest diamondback of the night, a female around 48″

Signs of Autumn From the Front Porch

As I write, the signs of fall are all around me. The resident bobwhite quail chicks in the field are several months older now and learning to fly. The sinking sun casts long shadows over the eaves of my porch as early as six pm. My wife and I are sitting there now, with only the munching of dried kibble by our cat, Travelin’ Jones, at our feet. The days are still warm but there is a briskness to the air. The first dying leaves of autumn have begun to feel its presence, and respond by sailing over the fenceline from the elms and post oaks and sugarberries and lodging in the grass blades in my yard. Silverleaf nightshade has yet to yield any such quarter; the small crop growing at the edge of the porch has shed its toxic fruit but still stands tall.

I keep a small collection of common native cacti on the other side, a motley assembly of spikey succulents that resemble a line of punk rockers waiting for a show outside the Roxy. There is a hedgehog cactus, a Spanish dagger, a polyheaded hydra of lace cactus, a nipple cactus, and a prickly pear, the latter of which still bears its rosy fruit.

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Giant swallowtail butterfly

Out in the yard a flash of color catches my eye. In the green and straw-yellow sea of short grass beyond the porch the dried remains of a giant swallowtail butterfly sway in the wind like a tattered flag of final surrender. The sulphur-hued diagonal bars on its forewings still stand out against the soft chocolate brown background of microscopic scales. Soon the ants will be picking it apart with all the efficiency of a team of microsurgeons, storing up on energy that will see their colony through another winter in the cross timbers.  Giant swallowtails in this neck of the woods utilize hawthorn as their chief host plant, and the big greenbriar-strangled bush of it that winds its thorny branches about my fenceline sees its share of the exquisitely camouflaged larvae, which resemble bird droppings to the point of giving off a waxy shine of browns, blues, olives and whites. The adult butterfly is among our largest of lepidopterans, reaching a wingspan over 120 millimeters. At the pinnacle of its lifespan it is a common sight as it flaps its massive wings lazily across a glen or hovers over pollen-rich flora.

Speaking of pollen-rich flora, a sprig of goldenrod has sprung up along my eastern fenceline and has somehow gone unnoticed until this evening. As a hunter of bugs I am always eager to check out the bright yellow blossoms of this perennial member of the aster family.  The variety of insects that are attracted to this plant can be astounding.  Bees, wasps, blister beetles, butterflies, and more are all drawn to their intriguing combination of color and aroma. A particular species of beetle that also utilizes goldenrods in this way is the colorful amorpha borer Megacyllene decora, which is adorned with the same black and yellow caution stripes of the likewise ringed scoliid wasps they share space with. Although the beetle itself is harmless it is usually offered the same amount of protection from birds and other movement-oriented predators by this convincing display of mimicry. Amorpha borers are quite uncommon, as their emergence from the false indigo plants that host them coincides with the late emergence of the goldenrod, and the adult beetles’ affection for Solidago blooms limits them to areas where both of these plant species grow.

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Bordered patch butterfly

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Green metallic sweat bee

Of course I must explore this newly discovered goldenrod stalk while the sun is still full enough to coax out the beetles.  Amber follows me on my slow progression by cane across the driveway and to the edge of the field, which feels like a mile. But finally we make it and spend a few minutes checking out a scoliid wasp perched alongside a bordered patch butterfly. Nearby, the shimmering emerald abdomen of a green metallic bee comes into view. No Amorpha borers, as we are not blessed with the presence of false indigo here, but the goldenrod yet again produces its typical generous gathering of insects.

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A pair of great horned owls

Back at the porch, I make a vain attempt to study for an upcoming biology exam, but my concentration is cut short by the raucous cacophony of a murder of crows in the field to the west. This is shortly followed by the piercing scream of an enraged redtail hawk. These signs usually point to some large predator, usually a rat snake (in nesting season) or a coyote. Tonight I was in for something a little more special.  Our resident great horned owl sat perched atop the highwire at the top of a telephone pole. I have seen my fair share of great horned owls, and this is very likely the largest of those. He is the infamous bane of Travelin’ Jones, whose insistent presence beneath the eaves this evening now makes sudden sense. I have often shared my evenings in the presence of both cat and owl, but have never been able to get any pictures. Seeing the chance to remedy this, I dart inside to get my camera. When I get back Amber informs me that a second owl has flown in from the nearby post oak motte and joined our big male. Travelin’ Jones looks up at me and gives a single low-pitched mew wrought with concern. Double trouble.

A pair of crows swoop in for a cheap shot and then a pair of redtail hawks. The hawks wing their way back toward the motte, but the crows circle around and go back for a second round. The owls are instantly aware of my presence, even though I attempt to conceal myself by peering around the corner of my house. They respond by turning their heads in my direction, the silhouettes of their tufted heads portraying a glimpse of the beauty that is the Wilson Prairie at sunset.

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Zev and the owls

No sooner have I acquired my long-awaited pictures than Zev shows up. He has been studying owls for a week or so now and the coinciding events of the evening serve to further entice his interest. He stares out across the open field at the silhouettes of the pair and marvels, as do I.

At dark the owls fly away, but Zev has found a big female green lynx spider protecting her egg sac in the windowsill, and his attention has thus so diverged in her direction. He calls to my attention, and I take the photo opportunity that accompanies the discovery of one of these unusually-colored arachnids.

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Green lynx spider and egg case

It is a nice night. The air is warm and just beginning to be sung into being by a chorus of meadow katydids.  Between the stalks of bitterweed and bluestem they cling to, the cottontail rabbits forage, unaware that death lurks from above on the silent wings of the great horned owls. The crows have retired to their roosts in the tops of the post oaks, their owl-heckling over for the night. And mine as well. There are therapy and exams and labs to think about with the sunrise, but for now it sets humbly over the treetops, its light changing like the color of their leaves as summer gives way to fall on the Wilson Prairie.

Western (Texas) Ratsnake

fullsizeoutput_1011Many years ago I was contacted to go to my son’s day care, which had some land and kept a few animals around a small barn. They said that a big snake had been eating the duck eggs, and the culprit had been spotted earlier in the day. I went over and had a look, and as I raked hay away from what appeared to be an old burrow in the floor of a stall, I caught sight of the dark coils of a ratsnake. After pulling about five feet of Texas ratsnake from her refuge, I then had to get a very unruly snake into the bag so that I could relocate her. A day or two later I took the snake to the wooded corridor of a large creek and tried to pose her for some photos before letting her go. This did not go particularly well; draping a big ratsnake along a log by the woods gives the snake an immediate plan for escape and a very impatient attitude about sticking around for pictures. Of course she turned and bit me. I stood, finger dripping blood into the creek, wondering how many hundred times I have been bitten by Texas ratsnakes. Meanwhile I did get a photo or two before the big snake climbed into the highest branches of a nearby pecan tree.

I wished her luck, and she would need it. Relocated snakes often do not do very well, because they learn to recognize a particular area (their “home range”) where they live, and when taken somewhere new, even if the habitat is pretty good, they may act as though they are lost, and wander without settling down. Many studies of translocated snakes show that they’re more likely to die, failing to avoid hazards and/or to take advantage of resources in the new location. However, sometimes a snake like this Texas ratsnake faces a dilemma: stay and be killed or get relocated and “lost.” At least in her new woodland, she had a chance.

While I stubbornly hang onto the name “Texas ratsnake,” this species was re-named a few years ago after improvements in the scientific understanding of the relationships among North American ratsnakes. Its proper name is now the western ratsnake, Pantherophis obsoletus. What used to be called the “black ratsnake” and “yellow ratsnake,” east of the Allegheny Mountains, is now the “eastern ratsnake,” Pantherophis alleghaniensis. In the middle part of eastern North America, they are Pantherophis spiloides, a new name for the gray ratsnake. West of the Mississippi River, they become western ratsnakes, but some habits are hard to break, and so I still call them Texas ratsnakes.

This species may be the subject of more run-ins with people than any other snake in our area. Lots of “snake calls” are generated by people seeing a Texas ratsnake in their trees or yards. Soon after eggs hatch at the end of summer, babies sometimes turn up in people’s garages and sheds. Lots of them are killed on the road each year. Yet somehow, they continue to be abundant year after year around parks and suburbs (as well as in more remote locations).

This is one of our longest snakes, averaging about 3.5 to 6 feet long, with a record length of seven feet, according to Werler & Dixon’s Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution, and Natural History. Like several other ratsnake species, the Texas ratsnake’s body, seen in cross-section, is rounded on top and squared at the bottom, like a section of a loaf of bread. This is thought to aid them in climbing trees.

The adult snake’s fairly broad, flat head is dark gray on top, shading to white on the lips and chin. Starting with the neck, there is a pattern of dark saddles going down the back. The dorsal ground color may be yellowish-gray to gray or charcoal. Along the sides is another row of blotches, these being somewhat diamond-shaped. The skin between the scales of the neck and forebody generally includes reddish or orange color, more visible when the skin is stretched. Some of the skin between the scales within the blotches is light gray to white, showing as small flecks of white in a patch on the lower parts of the blotch. Add to this one further complexity of pattern – many adults have the suggestion of vague, smudgy stripes where the edges of the blotches seem to smear a little and join each other down the back. On the belly, the scales are light on the throat, darkening from front to back with large pale squarish blotches and then a mottling of gray and yellow toward the tail.

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A young adult Texas ratsnake with more yellow in the background color

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An individual with lots of gray color, though considerable red can be seen between the scales

Hatchling Texas ratsnakes have brighter and bolder patterns than the adults, with a light ground color so that the blotches stand out more. On the top of the head, juveniles have some dark spots and flecks, and a broad, dark band across the snout just in front of the eyes. That band then goes through the eyes diagonally to the jawline. The pattern darkens with age.

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Juvenile Texas ratsnake

Texas ratsnakes take advantage of a wide variety of habitats within roughly the eastern two-thirds of Texas where they are found. They occur in east Texas and down the Gulf Coast to Corpus Christi, and in central Texas to a little west of Wichita Falls, out to San Angelo, and southwest nearly to Del Rio. This means that they live in east Texas piney woods, bottomland hardwoods, cross timbers woodland, and savannas from north Texas down through the Hill Country. They are excellent climbers, and this may be one factor in their success, keeping them away from ground-based predators and people at least some of the time. While up in the trees, they may eat birds and their eggs.

My field notes and my memory indicate that I’ve found lots of Texas ratsnakes in patches of prairie, old fields with at least a creek nearby, and woodlands and forests. During the day, I have been more likely to find them by flipping cover such as discarded plywood or logs. I’ve seen a great many on back roads at twilight or at night, quite often in brushy or wooded areas, or within a short distance of a creek. Undoubtedly they use wooded creek and river corridors to move around in more dry, open areas further west in their range.

Both the accepted common name, “rat” snake, and the often used name “chicken” snake refer to some of their preferred food. A stomach contents study cited in Werler & Dixon, looking at 100 wild specimens in north Louisiana, found mice, rats, and a few squirrels and rabbits in their stomachs. This snake is more than happy to eat birds and their eggs. Coming upon nests, it may eat eggs or fledglings. A big adult reportedly can swallow an adult chicken. While this may not make the Texas ratsnake popular with either farmers or birders, it is simply doing its “job” and may eat enough rats that it does the farmer more good than harm.

The most memorable activity seen in Texas ratsnakes may be their belligerent self-defense when cornered or handled. When first approached, the snake may “make a break for it” or may stay where it is. I have often seen one pull its body into a series of short kinks and sit still, hoping that it won’t be seen. Once picked up, the snake thrashes in an attempt to get away, and may bite repeatedly while discharging musk from the other end. While some snake musk is only moderately disagreeable, musk from a Texas ratsnake is very offensive, a little reminiscent of burnt tires. But the open-mouthed gape while looking for an opportunity to bite is worse. Very commonly, having picked up one of these snakes, it remains coiled on one of your arms as if it were a tree limb while gaping at your hand or other arm as the obvious visible target. If your hand moves closer, the snake will strike, leaving a series of pinprick holes. Occasionally it will hold on and chew. It is important to remember that this only happens to humans who harass and pick up a ratsnake; an observer who simply watches and photographs will not be attacked.

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The famous Texas ratsnake gape, ready to bite the attacker

One additional note in defense of the Texas ratsnake, showing that biting is only self-protective and never because it wants to pick a fight: I have many times been able to pick up a Texas ratsnake by slipping a hand under it and supporting it while giving it no target that looks like an enemy. A freshly-caught ratsnake may crawl from one arm to the other as long as nothing comes at it like an attacker. However, this is in no way foolproof, and fairly often it pauses and seems to recognize that this is no tree, abruptly biting my arm. And again I would stress that I have never, ever been bitten by a Texas rat snake that I was  not handling or attempting to handle. They have no venom and they have no interest in becoming aggressive as long as they are left alone.

Spring mating results in the laying of a clutch of five to twenty eggs in June or July. The eggs are laid in rotting logs, in a protected area under leaf litter, in abandoned mammal burrows, or under rocks. It is also known to use above-ground tree cavities for nesting, and the description in Werler & Dixon notes that the tree cavity was used by perhaps four different females for communal nesting. The eggs hatch in August and September, and the baby snakes have much the same temperament as their parents!

(This article is adapted from one I wrote for the January, 2003 issue of the Cross Timbers Herpetologist, newsletter of the DFW Herpetological Society.)

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.