Deep in the Heart of texana……

On December 30th of 2018, I hit the road to San Antonio Texas for New Year’s Eve, a tradition that I have had for about the past twelve years. We have gone mostly to get our fix of some really good Mexican food. Typically, I don’t eat Mexican food north of San Antonio.

I try to take advantage of any opportunity to find herps when I am in a different region of Texas. One of the endemic species of turtles that occurs in this region is the Texas Cooter (Pseudemys texana). With a fairly wide range across the central part of Texas, it can be a fairly easy species to locate.

The Texas cooter was the very first species within the genus Pseudemys that I found as a kid. One summer in the mid 90’s my family took a little trip to San Antonio and Austin. My dad took my sister and me to swim at the famous Barton Springs pool. It was there I found a big beautiful female texana hanging out on the limestone in the shallow part of the swimming area. I picked her up and checked her out. I called my parents over and we all admired her. You can see the look of delight on my face in these pictures. After we took pictures I followed alongside her for as long as I could until she finally disappeared into the deep end under the diving board.

Lucky for me in these past few years I have been able to work with and admire many Texas cooters. As a part of the Turtle Survival Alliance – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, we have two long term population monitoring sites. Both locations, Comal Springs and Bull Creek in Austin, are places where Texas cooters call home. Since I see these turtles on a regular basis, I and others have noticed an interesting difference in the look of P. texana from Comal Springs and the ones from areas surrounding Travis county. Since this has been something of interest to us turtle nerds, I make sure to document the differences and similarities in photographs. Carl Franklin even makes a point to do this on the Texas Cooter page of the Texas Turtles website.

“Did you say cooter?  *Aheh-heh-heh hehh*

Yes, we turtle nerds get this question quite a bit from non-herp people. Cooter? Why do we call it cooter? Cooter is derived from an African word for turtle: “Kuta.” When slaves were brought to America the word “kuta” got vernacularized into “cooter.” There ya go!

During the day on New Year’s Eve while my non-turtle friends went to do non-turtley things, I set off to find some cooters in Bexar county. It did not take me long! I ventured to an area off the San Antonio River walk in a very developed location. One of those parts of the city that has recently been renovated with hipster breweries, coffee shops and apartments. To my surprise, I spotted some cooters right away. In Texas we can have all types of weather at any moment in time, and even all at one time. (Seriously!) The weather was rather chilly, overcast and cloudy and 57°F at about 2:30pm. Not what one would normally think of as turtle or herp weather. I have noticed that if days are warmer before leading up to a cooler/ overcast day I still have a decent chance of seeing turtles.  

I photographed these turtles as they sat alongside red-eared sliders and of course the always handsome melanistic male sliders. I made note of the stripes that ran down the side of the cooters’ heads and necks. Many have thicker yellow stripes toward the back of their heads near the ear. Their head shapes always stick out to me. I don’t exactly know how to describe it, but there is an almost blunt shape to their faces. They have a bicusbid upper beak, meaning that the upper jaw drops down in two little points, leaving a notch at the center, just below the nostrils. Along the carapace, at the edges, the underside of each marginal scute has a pinkish-orange circular or ring-shaped blotch. The back legs and feet often carry the same coloration. The carapace can be olive to brown with yellow lines creating a reticulating or even swirl pattern. They also possess amazing bluish/green eyes.

I walked a good distance down the river. As I neared the section where I needed to turn around, I noticed a great blue heron with feathers fluffed up. It looked as if it felt cold, and temperature was cold, that is for sure! Seeing birds is a great side-benefit to exploring waterways for turtles. In these winter months I do become more of a bird nerd since turtle/herp activity slows down. On my walk back, I noticed a little blue heron hunting for whatever creatures it could find under the bank. I watched this little blue heron for quite a while to see what it caught to eat.  As I pressed on, I came across a snowy egret that was also hunting. This little snowy egret was shuffling its feet below the water, at what looked to be the top of the mud or sediment. I watched it flush out whatever it could from the muddy water and then eat it. I am sure this is a behavior well known among birders and ornithologists. It was cool for me to watch!

On the rest of my walk, I spotted a few more turtles and many of the same turtles I saw earlier. I finally called it a day and headed back to my friend’s house to partake in “normal” New Year’s Eve festivities.

New Year’s Day, 2019.

All I really had on my mind with it being a new year was getting out to see what turtles, and particularly what texana, might be out. My friends decided to join me on this stop at a very popular and well-known San Antonio city park. It was 51°F – much colder, more cloudy and overcast than the day before. I was starting to think that I was not going to see any turtle activity.

However, it did not take me long to spot a small Texas cooter and red-eared slider “basking” on a small log. I was pretty happy with that, thinking that those were all I would see.  We all decided to call it quits since it was so chilly. On the drive out of the park I spotted more cooters out on logs and tree limbs in the water. I quickly pulled over and photographed five more cooters. Again, I thought it was still pretty awesome that they were out in such chilly weather!

First turtle of 2019

Texas Endemic

Texas has three endemic species of turtles that is, they are found only in Texas. These are the Texas cooter, Texas map turtle, and Cagle’s map turtle.  The Texas cooter distribution is throughout central Texas in the Colorado, Llano, San Saba, Brazos, Guadalupe, Nueces and San Antonio river systems. We even have speculated that they may be as far up as Tarrant county. We have caught a few during our Trinity River Turtle Survey that have quite a “texana” look to them. (This is a discussion for another time maybe!)  Here are some pictures that may show a bit of the difference between cooters in Comal County, Travis County, Bexar County and even Gonzales County.

Female Comal County
Female -Gonzales County TX

female -Gonzales County TX

For a while P. texana was grouped under Pseudemys concinna (eastern river cooter). It was described as P. texana in 1893.

As I mentioned before, these turtles are bicusbid. The insides of their mouths are pretty interesting. Along the surfaces of the jaws are “tomiodonts,” which look almost like stalagmite and stalactite formations. These structures probably come in handy since Texas cooters are known to be primarily herbivorous. ( these images courtesy of Carl Franklin showing tomiodonts for three different cooter species throughout Texas)

Perhaps the newest bit of information that we have found is that females grow to 13.5 inches (34.3 cm) and adult males reach 11 inches (28 cm) in straight carapace length. This data was collected from our Comal springs study site.

There’s still lots more to be learned about this Texas endemic. Hopefully, 2019 will continue to grace us with more knowledge on this species.

Thanks for reading……..Happy New Year!

-Viviana AKA Mother of Turtles

The End of the Year, 2018

I was lucky to visit Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge on the last day of the year. The weather was wonderful and the refuge is like home. We go back a long time, at least fifty-three years.

Lone Point Shelter

I started off by climbing up part of the Canyon Ridge Trail, up to the top of the ridge. The last 20 feet or so are a climb on stone steps, and suddenly the trail opens up in an area of live oak and yucca. And right there, to your left, is the Lone Point Shelter, a Civilian Conservation Corps structure built in the 1930s. The roof is gone, but there is a nice rock bench on each side to sit and look out over the lake. I took some notes and set my thermometer out – it registered 61 degrees F.

Live oak, yucca, and juniper grasslands (with a generous helping of prickly pear cactus)

Walking down the trail from there, I could have imagined being transported to somewhere on the Edwards Plateau; at least the live oak, juniper and yucca in a grassy savannah reminded me of central Texas. As I returned on this trail, I took a photo of another CCC structure. It’s really just a fancy stone outhouse, but it’s interesting and historical nonetheless.

More of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work

At the base of one of the oak trees I found a big patch of moss, vibrant green from the rain last night. Spending a few moments, very close, losing oneself in the tiny forest of moss leaves, will wipe away some of your troubles – try it!

A moss forest

I followed the trail back down the ridge, noting that my sense of balance on narrow trails with steep drop-offs is not what it once was. However, I distracted myself by noticing some little sprigs of oak leaves that still have their fall color. They are tattered but still pretty.

Fall color in a couple of leaves hanging on

My next stop was Greer Island. It was the first piece of land designated as a nature center, the little seed from which all 3500+ acres sprang. I walked the causeway to the island, remembering that when I was a kid, people drove down that causeway and parked on the island. I guess we’ve grown a little in our willingness to walk, thank goodness!

Coots in a reed marsh beside the causeway
An American coot on the other side of the causeway
Greer Island, seen from the causeway

A number of trails crisscross the island, and I walked the Audubon Trail around part of it. Sitting on a bench beside the water, the temperature on my thermometer was 63 degrees F. I had spooked some mallards, and near the bench were more ducks or perhaps coots making their throaty whistles and muttering. They were completely hidden by a wall of reeds. A little later, I cut back across a little pocket prairie (so small that it might be called a “thimble” prairie!) and through the woods back to the causeway.

A sea of reeds hides a section of Lake Worth
The “thimble”-size prairie
The trail back

I’m grateful that this place is still there, still taken care of by Nature Center staff like the treasure that it is. It was a great way to spend part of the last day of 2018.

Month end, Quarter end, Year end….

As 2018 comes to a close I have spent a lot of time looking back on this previous year of herping and what my friends and I have begun to refer to as “turtling.”

My lifelong fascination, passion, obsession with reptiles and amphibians and more specifically chelonians has driven me to see some incredible things in some pretty neat places. I have an even more ambitious list for 2019.

My highlights of 2018

These consisted of kicking off a spring break turtle survey with an amazing group of kiddos called the “Spring Lake Adventure Club” or SLAC / SLAC-ers. They got to learn the ins and outs of “turtle surveying 101.” They even have their own blog! I’ll talk more about them in future blog posts. https://chroniclesofslackers.wordpress.com/

SLAC-ers
Spring break turtle survey, with SLAC-ers

This year also marked the first full year of the Trinity River Turtle Survey led by our pal Andrew Brinker.  The Trinity River Turtle Survey (TRTS) is a mark and recapture long term population monitoring study. https://www.facebook.com/trinityturtlesurvey/

Also, we continued into the second year of a study on alligator snapping turtles in Harris County.

In April I traveled to Pennsylvania to take part in a wood turtle study/survey led by some of my fellow turtle nerds or as I like to refer to them, my Turtle Family.  Pennsylvania was not only a stop to check out wood turtles but a chance to get in some herping of some other amazing species. My buddy Andy Weber not only blew the trip out of the water by catching spotted turtles and painted turtles, but the cherry on top was when he was able to find me a hellbender salamander! This large and elusive salamander is also known as the “snot otter” or “old lasagna sides.” It lives up to its nickname of “snot otter” thanks to the amount of slime it produces when being handled or grabbed. The term lasagna sides refers to the wrinkly folds of skin that run down the side of its body. This helps the hellbender capture oxygen in the quick moving water in which it lives.  The hellbender is on the top of many herp nerds’ list of “herps to see in the wild.” It is also a species facing environmental threats and is being studied by herpetologists. Talk about an incredible moment!

HELLBENDER !

In May I spent five days with my turtle family turtling and herping across parts of central Texas. We found everything from narrow-mouthed toads, cliff chirping frogs, broad-banded water snakes to Cagle’s map turtles.  

During the start of the hot summer, I traveled to east Texas with buddy Brett Bartek and found southern painted and Sabine map turtles that are only found on that side of the state.

After all that, perhaps the biggest find of the year was discovering juvenile and very old alligator snapping turtles in Tarrant County with Carl Franklin and Andrew Brinker (more on this later also!).

The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) Conference took place in August in Fort Worth. TSA is a nonprofit organization that is, as its website states, “dedicated to zero turtle extinctions” across the globe. This conference is likely the largest assembly of the world’s biggest turtle nerds. I not only presented at the conference but once the conference concluded I took my friend Dr. Shailendra Singh, who is the Director of TSA-India, across as much of Texas as possible. In two days I helped him find 12 species of Texas turtles including all of the Texas endemics and traveled about 710 miles.


Dr. Shailendra Singh holding two Texas endemic turtles.
Texas cooter and the Texas Map turtle

Together with Carl Franklin, I presented about Texas turtles for the Cross Timbers Master Naturalists. After that Carl, Andrew Brinker and I traveled to Austin to speak to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. We were there with others to advocate ending the commercial collection of Texas turtles. To our delight, it passed unanimously!

The fall months continued with more herping and turtling. It was a very rainy year so our trapping had to slow down at times due to such high water levels.

Now with these winter days shorter and colder, I spend this time not only reflecting but thinking about many other things relating to ecology and natural history of Texas turtles and herps in general.

“So WHY turtles?”

One question that many of us get asked is, “So WHY turtles?” and “What is your favorite turtle?”

My favorite turtle is any turtle! However, there are a few species that have a special place in my heart. They are not the most flashy, extravagant, or even elusive. One of them is probably the most “common” of our turtles.  That common (and neat, to me) turtle is the melanistic male red-eared slider. These melanistic males are so handsome, from the shape of their shell, the color change that happens to the shell, to the darkening and even blackening of their face. I have seen them from chocolate brown, olive green, grayish to completely black. Perhaps my fondness is because this was one of the first turtles I found as a kid. Perhaps I am just curious about when the dark pigments begin to take over and the whole package that comes with them being melanistic. What is the overall function or advantage in them being melanistic? We still have so much more to learn!  We see them so frequently it is easy to write them off, saying “Eh more sliders” as we scan the water looking for whichever may be the target species for that day. They are certainly the most requested ID on Texas Turtles Facebook page that is run by Carl Franklin and me. The Facebook page is associated with the Texas Turtles website, a source for lots of information about our native chelonians.

After a day of turtling when I am processing and looking through the turtle pictures from that day, I stop on the images of these “old man” sliders which are fascinating to me. I have made a few observations with these guys here at the end of this year, perhaps I will be able to document and look into them in 2019…..

On to 2019….. Have a turtly awesome New year!

Thanks for reading!
Love,
Viviana

aka Mother of Turtles

 

She Speaks for Turtles!

You remember last month, I posted an account of a trip taken by Viviana Ricardez and me to Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area (“Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek”). I’m happy to say that Viviana will join us as a contributor, and she will have lots to contribute! She speaks for turtles, sort of like the Lorax speaks for trees (for those of you who have read The Lorax – and if you haven’t, why not?).

Viviana-MacrochelysViviana speaks for turtles, and more than that. She is a dedicated supporter of the wonderful group of kids in the Spring Lake Adventure Club – which she’ll tell you about – and of other herp nerds and turtle folk who belong to that branch of the naturalist clan. Stay tuned!

First Day of Winter, Southwest Nature Preserve, 12/22/2018

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The north pond

It was sunny all day, with barely a wisp of clouds and little breeze. Weather Underground reports that it reached 68F in Arlington today; I did not have a thermometer at the preserve but it’s safe to say that it reached the mid-60’s.


I haven’t written a lot about Southwest Nature Preserve lately, but it is one of my two “homes away from home.” It is a surprising and fortunate thing that these 58 acres of Eastern Cross Timbers habitat have been saved, right here in the metroplex. The rocky hillsides with Woodbine Formation sandstone and blackjack and post oak woods mixed with juniper are prime examples of the Eastern Cross Timbers. The little “pocket prairies” of little bluestem and other native grasses fit right in. There are lots of other little treasures and surprises among the plants: Glen Rose yucca, false indigo, and farkleberry can be found there. And a meadow dominated by yucca, Texas bull nettle, and other plants has the deep sand needed for the Comanche harvester ant to have multiple colonies. Four ponds provide a home for what seems to me like a great diversity of dragonflies and damselflies. The ponds also support cricket frogs, leopard frogs, some watersnakes, and an assortment of sliders and cooters, which are a source of delight for herpers like me.

fullsizeoutput_1786There is something to delight the soul of a naturalist all the year round, and I never regret a single walk there, even after what I’m sure are hundreds of times I’ve walked up to the ridge on “Kennedale Mountain,” visited the ponds, and passed through the little prairies. I was there yesterday at sunset to mark the winter solstice and returned today to enjoy the first afternoon of winter there.

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Red-eared slider

The red-eared sliders were sunning at the ponds, one with the characteristic yellow and green pattern and red patches on the head, and at least one that was an old melanistic male.

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Two turtles at the north pond

Some insects are hiding and dormant, others may have died with the brief spells of freezing we had a while back. Others were out and about, winter or not. A dragonfly skipped around and landed in front of me, bringing a particular bit of scarlet magic to the hillside.

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Dragonfly

Among the leftovers from the fall were a few clusters of oak leaves holding on to red color, and in places the sunlight shining through them was like flame on the woodland floor. The little bluestem still have seeds clinging to the stems, catching the sunlight as if the tiniest white birds had brushed against them and left little white feathers there.

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A cluster of red post oak leaves

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Bluestem seeds

The north end of the preserve has its share of honey locust trees with clusters of long thorns, each with a cross piece of two additional thorns. Their seed pods are long and flat and are often twisted. One tree still held several of these pods.

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Honey locust seed pods

One additional treat waited at the pond at the southwest corner of the preserve, where a boardwalk skirts one edge of it and extends out over the water for fishing. A great egret was looking for something to eat, but straightened and watched me carefully. Despite my slow approach, the bird would not stay, and I was able to take a couple of photos as it flew away.

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Great egret

It was a good start to a winter that I hope provides lots of opportunities for visiting all the preserves and natural places in north Texas.

Hibernating Herps and the Wintertime Search for Salamanders

I talked about hibernation today with a small group at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I love doing anything that may connect people to the natural world to a greater extent, either through knowledge, discovery, or “losing” oneself in a place of peace and beauty. Maybe we did a little of all that today, at least I hope so.

It’s fun to consider “where do they go when winter comes?” It’s fascinating to talk about what it really means to be “cold-blooded” and think about the different strategies herps use to protect themselves from excessive cold. And then it was time to go for a walk, in bright sunshine and temperatures that climbed into the low 60’s.

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West Fork Trinity River

We walked the Crosstimbers trail, starting along the banks of the West Fork Trinity River and then bending to the west and into Cross Timbers woodland, dropping into a bottomland forest along a slough. The river usually provides some wintertime sightings of sliders or cooters, and sure enough, pulled out on a tree branch that had fallen into the water were a red-eared slider and a river cooter. Both turtles have somewhat similar overall forms. Among the differences, one of the easiest to spot is the red patch toward the back of the head of the red-eared slider, which river cooters do not have. However, some red-ears, like the one we saw today, are old dark melanistic males.

IMG_3136In the woods, we talked about possible wintertime shelters for the western ratsnakes, five-lined skinks, and other herps that live in the Cross Timbers. The downed trees or standing dead trees may have cavities that stay above freezing, and burrows beneath the leaves and soil can protect from freezing.

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Flooded bottomland

We also discussed salamanders, and the small-mouthed salamander that used to be seen more often in our area. Why wouldn’t we find them now, when late fall and winter in flooded bottomlands is when and where you would expect them? The refuge has some wonderful bottomland habitat, as well as patches of prairie with small ponds. And yet, there don’t seem to be any records in recent years of small-mouthed (or other) salamanders at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.

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Leaves beneath the water, overlaid by reflections of trees

The entry about the small-mouthed salamander in James Petranka’s Salamanders of the United States and Canadaindicates that breeding takes place after rains between January and February at about our latitude, and that they favor completely fish-less pools and ditches for breeding (since fish readily eat the larvae). More than some other mole salamanders, these can make use of very shallow pools, sometimes with depths no more than a few centimeters. In the section about conservation, he mentions loss of bottomland habitat as a threat.

So maybe this is the winter to pay more attention to possible salamanders in this part of north Texas. We had a very wet fall and we continue to have some rainfall, and so perhaps we will find one, or discover developing larvae in some ephemeral pool, sometime between February and May. It would sure be fun to go looking!

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Small-mouthed salamander, seen in another place, at another time

Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek

You may recall that Clint and I visited the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area last spring (Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands) and had all good intentions of returning to this Anderson County location during the summer. After all, it is a place with velvety-black eastern coachwhips, the occasional box turtle, plenty of five-lined skinks, and it has its share of copperheads and cottonmouths. What could be better? However, I missed traveling to this spot except for a brief visit with Carl Franklin on September 29 where we were able to photograph a very nice cottonmouth.

Now that winter is approaching, we have had some cold weather, and the leaves are dropping from the trees in the bottomlands at Gus Engeling, my thoughts turn to salamanders. And so yesterday, Viviana Ricardez and I rolled the dice (and a few logs) to see if we might spot a salamander or two.

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A flooded patch of bottomland at Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area

According to the Texas Amphibians field guide (Tipton, et al., 2012), The western part of Anderson County should be within the range of the small-mouthed salamander, the eastern tiger salamander, and the dwarf salamander, and we’d be within rock-throwing range of at least one more, the marbled salamander. Because of the extraordinarily wet autumn this season (you may recall the record rainfall and flooding in north and central Texas within the past two months), it seemed possible that some salamander breeding might already have taken place and there could be larvae in some of the pools. Low places that temporarily fill with water are great for amphibian breeding because they don’t have fish that would eat the eggs and larvae. In any case, a visit to this patch of the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion on a fine late autumn day seemed like a great idea.IMG_3086

Viviana is a veteran of lots of turtle field work, though she is ready to see any herp species that come her way. She told me of a trip to Pennsylvania during which she saw several salamander species, including our biggest, baddest, most wonderful salamander, the hellbender. We could not possibly top that on this walk, but we would have fun seeing what we could find.

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A tiny crayfish from our net

We sampled several pools, pulling a dip net across the bottom and investigating the leaves, twigs, and whatever critters it might catch. Larval salamanders would look a little like tadpoles, but longer and with a feathery frill of external gills behind the head. Late in their development they would have the four small legs typical of the salamanders of the genera Ambystoma (small-mouthed and tiger salamanders as well as others) or Eurycea (including the dwarf salamander). Instead, what we found in the dip net included a few freshwater shrimp a some tiny juvenile crayfish.

IMG_3099We also visited some upland areas, and one beautiful pond that, as Viviana pointed out, had few snags for turtles to pull out on and bask. Otherwise, it was a delightful spot that should harbor all kinds of herps. I won’t say that Viviana is single-minded in her devotion to turtles, but if she was a character in Game of Thrones, she would be known as the Mother of Turtles. In fact, some do call her that!

We walked through a patch of cut and burned land that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is attempting to restore to the savannah that was once typical in this part of Texas. Some native grasses are attempting to come back, although the shrubby growth that swallows up parts of the WMA are trying their best to reclaim this spot. Before this part of Texas was tamed, periodic fires helped keep the woody plants down and helped grasses dominate the spaces between the trees. Small, prescribed fires are the best friend this patch of habitat could have.

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Returning grassland, with the forest edge in the background

We returned to the bottomlands, and as we walked the sand and clay road toward a tributary of Catfish Creek, there was Old Man Turtle, to greet Viviana. The old man was a red-eared slider, with the typical pattern of greens and yellows now gone and replaced by dark pigment. Old male sliders often become melanistic in this way, with the carapace (upper shell) a sort of charcoal or vaguely olive-gray color with black borders of the scutes of the carapace. The head, neck, and limbs similarly darken, with the thin green lines breaking up into dots and dashes of darker and lighter gray or olive.

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The Old Man – a melanistic male red-eared slider

Viviana, of course, spotted him first, and she picked him up to examine the details of his shell and pattern. There was a notch, an old injury, on his marginals just a little to the right of center near his neck. There were subtle but lovely shades of yellow darkening to gray on his forelimbs and parts of the shell.img_3089.jpg

His response might have been, “Good day, Khaleesi – to what do I owe the honor of your examining me?” Truly, you would think that this would be the only fitting response to Viviana’s joy and respect when she handles any of these turtles. However, he was not thrilled with being interrupted in his walk to the nearby creek tributary, and his opened mouth was not exactly a grin.

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An exchange of gestures

After a series of photos of this delightful old turtle, we let him finish his trek across the road, plunging into the creek and immediately vanishing into the dark water. We were grateful to make his acquaintance, and happy to see him return to his watery domain as a free turtle.

We did not find salamanders, but we got to walk through some wonderful autumn woodlands and savannah, and meet Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek!

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Leopard Frogs and “Horse-Apple Soccer”

Two years ago I took a co-worker, her daughter Embry, and Embry’s friend Maddy on a walk through the bottomland forests at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. We had fun and some good discussion about the things that live in the forest. Here are my notes:

We had barely started our walk down the old trail down through the bottomland forest when the girls froze in surprise and fascination. Ahead of us, a whitetail buck stared back at us, his head up and alert and ready to bolt away through the quiet woods. After a moment, he turned and disappeared behind a ridge, leaving Embry and Maddy fumbling for cameras. We walked toward where he disappeared, with as much stealth as we could, and peered around the ridge, but the deer had gone. These moments, even with a common animal like this, are magical and evanescent; one moment he is present, with his black, shining nose, dark eyes, and rack of antlers, and the next moment he has vanished.

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Embry and Maddy

We walked further down the wide track that cuts through the cottonwoods, burr oak, beech, and bois d’arc in this bottomland near a marsh within the refuge. Despite the abnormally warm autumn, many of the leaves were yellowing and some were falling, evidence that the trees knew the significance of the shorter days despite the warmth. Embry and Maddy, alert to every movement in the sedges and leaves, spotted wolf spiders and one that might have been a rather dull six-spotted fishing spider (my spider identification skills were not up to the task). I reassured them that these spiders held no danger and were trying to get out of our way. This was an odd role for me – if I ran into a web with one of the big orb-weaving spiders, I’m sure I would freak out as much as they would. The experience of having a spider on me overwhelms any objective knowledge of their benefits and general harmlessness.

At the edge of the path, I turned a section of fallen log and at one end, head tucked a little beneath an elm leaf, was a southern leopard frog. Its color was dark, with the spots practically obscured along its three to four-inch body. When more alert, they are often brighter and some have areas of pretty green color. At night, they snap up a great many insects, and jump away in long leaps if disturbed. Embry stepped in for a closer photo, positioning her phone over the frog to take a shot. Then I reached down, hoping to capture the frog for a moment and show its bright eyes and powerful legs, but at that moment it made its getaway.

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Leopard frog

At some point we came to a pool of water, four or five feet across, with tiny disturbances in the surface of the water here and there. What could this be? We talked about how bottomland forests flood from time to time, and the rain-swollen river and marsh stretch out to cover the ground where we stood. The flood waters carry fish along, and when the waters subside, smaller fish may be trapped in pools like this. A couple of dozen mosquitofish swam among the leaves and along the surface of the water, creating little disturbances when they suddenly turned or darted away. The girls showed a slight revulsion when I mentioned “mosquitofish,” until I explained that they were small fish that ate mosquito larvae. Embry was determined to catch one, circling around and trying to ambush one. Her mom commented, “You won’t catch it,” correctly judging that human hands are not effective tools for catching such a lightning-fast little fish. Nevertheless, it was delightful to watch Embry spot one and then another of these fish and make a quick grab into the water. Her enthusiasm made this common little fish new and exciting.

Isn’t this one of the things we treasure about children? I might have walked past this pool and noted that there were mosquitofish in it, with little reaction. Thanks to Maddy and Embry, I remembered what it is like to want to see them close up, and try my hand at grabbing one, in the process learning a great deal about how fast fins can propel streamlined bodies through the water. I once again see the crosshatched pattern of fish scales on a partly translucent body, and the iridescent blue that these fish show in the right light. I promised myself to bring a dip net on the next walk through the bottomlands.

They taught us the same lesson regarding the lowly bois d’arc tree, also known as the Osage orange or “horse apple” tree. They are medium-sized, somewhat thorny trees that grow well in deep, moist bottomland soil. The iron-tough wood was prized by Native Americans for making bows (thus the French “bois d’arc” or “bow-wood”). And, as most kids used to know when we spent more time in the woods, they produce a green, wrinkled fruit that roughly resembles a green orange or maybe a bumpy green apple. Just the right size for throwing, but completely unsuitable for eating. They are a fibrous, spherical collection of seeds that oozes a milky substance if cut. But the girls knew another thing that you could do with these horse apples. They could be kicked like soccer balls!

And so, there was an impromptu soccer game in the woods, with Maddy crowding Embry out to move the ball to the goal (under the fallen log over there), and Embry giving one a little side-kick to position it for the goal shot. Horse apples rolled over a layer of leaves, between downed logs, and past stately cottonwoods and oaks. It was great!

We also encountered several places where feral hogs had rooted the ground up to find things to eat, and we talked about how these animals didn’t really belong here but a few might do only minimal harm. Turning the soil might even be seen as a plus, but these hogs reproduce quickly and there is little to hold their population in check. Large groups simply tear up habitat and eat everything in sight, and a sow, surprised with her piglets, can be quite dangerous. So can any hog in close quarters, so we would certainly not want to approach them if we saw any.

Cottonmouths were another species that we might have run into in the bottomlands. These venomous snakes are common in the bottomlands around Lake Worth, and on an autumn day with temperatures in the 70s, it would not have been surprising to see one. Embry and Maddy were on board with looking for snakes, but were not so sure about cottonmouths. That is hardly surprising, as many stories as people tell about being chased or attacked by these snakes, which are really quite nonaggressive if left alone. I told them there should be no problem as long as we saw it first and avoided stepping on it, and I said it was my job to spot them. That settled, we resumed our walk, the girls confidently in the lead as we explored the woods.MS-willow-FWNCR-5Nov16

IMG_0699At the farthest extent of our walk, at a very old, twisted willow at the edge of the marsh, we found and photographed a gigantic black ant on the tree, which discouraged some climbing that the girls had considered. Embry had no hesitation to bring the phone in close, finding the ant at the end of my finger (I pointed but did not touch!). Afterwards, I asked each one if they had any thoughts about today’s experience.

“At first, I thought about whether there might be something that could hurt me,” Embry offered, “but then I knew it was OK.” She had enjoyed a walk through these woods with curiosity and confidence. Maddy added that the things that lived in this place really did not want to hurt you. I loved hearing that. This was a place that offered beauty, tranquility, and fascination, along with a few things that needed a little watchfulness and care. Even the “creepy” things turned out to be fascinating. I hope that they will carry this and a hundred (or a thousand!) experiences of nature with them through their lives. Maybe they will hold on to that sense of wonder at seeing fish in a pool, or a frog hiding under a log. I hope, as adults, that they can still be playful with horse apples and bring their own kids to walk through the woods and have the delightful surprise of seeing a whitetail deer staring back at them along a forest trail.

Autumn

fullsizeoutput_172eIt is autumn, a time to be in the woods. Time to be attuned to colors, smells, the chill in the breeze that seems to carry some lost recollection, just beyond memory. The leaves that partitioned the woods into a series of intimate rooms now fall to become a soft carpet, opening the view through the trees.

fullsizeoutput_172cBut before falling, the leaves can turn brilliant colors. In a year like this one, with rainfall in the last month or so and some early low temperatures, the woods can become a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, burgundy and orange. The work of the leaves is done, the green chlorophyll breaks down, exposing the other leaf pigments. The tree prepares the leaves to drop, and for a time the woods is painted with thousands of dabs of color.

fullsizeoutput_1047An evergreen like the juniper stands silently, keeping its green amid all this changing color. It can get through winter with its needle-like leaves intact, and so it remains like a dark green sentinel as the deciduous trees strip down to trunks and branches.

IMG_2820Sunlight comes at a slanting angle as our patch of earth tilts away from the sun. The quality of light on a bright November afternoon in the woods is part of the essence of autumn. The light filters through branches and creates long shadows, making a quiet afternoon even more contemplative. The life of another year in the woods is wrapping up; it is a time to reflect on where you have been, and what it meant.

Days keep getting shorter. The afternoon shadows deepen, the woods become dark. Time accelerates, the sunset comes when it seems it should still be afternoon. What is left to be done in this year had better be done soon. A reminder that nothing lasts forever, neither years nor lives. Make the time count. There’s not a moment to waste.Cp%yXthiSjWxYFqLM2cy9w

Why Did We Do It?

Why did we write Herping Texas, and travel around to all those places? I’m sure that some people would wonder why two grown men would keep chasing after snakes and frogs long after the time when you “should” outgrow such things. So I guess it’s a fair question, and I will offer a few answers.

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A guy who still chases snakes and frogs

One answer is that Texas is full of beautiful places, if you go out of your way to seek them out. The reptiles and amphibians that we wanted to see are most interesting, natural, and beautiful when you see them in places that are relatively undisturbed. That’s our opinion, anyway. As a result, we planned trips to preserves, national parks, refuges, private land, and wildlife management areas. All (except the private land) were accessible to most Texans and a few, like the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, were at the edge of cities. Even Big Bend or Guadalupe Mountains National Parks are no more than a day’s drive from most places in Texas.

The Texas Banded Gecko is a pretty common lizard in parts of the Trans-Pecos, but the one we found on a night walk in the Chihuahuan Desert might have been the best one of its kind I had ever seen. It was very quiet except for a light breeze and the occasional rumble of distant thunder rolling across the desert. It was also very, very dark, with a brilliant field of stars overhead. The little lizard was beautiful, especially in that context.

Additionally, we wanted to visit each of Texas’ ten or so ecoregions. The boundaries between them are sometimes indistinct, but each one is like a different country. Obviously the dry desert flats and mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos are different from the woodlands and wetlands of the Piney Woods. Even across north Texas’ grasslands and woods, the Rolling Plains are very different from the Cross Timbers, the Blackland Prairies, and the Post Oak Savannah. You might find a Marbled Salamander under logs or leaf litter in a bottomland forest on a sunny winter day in the Post Oak Savannah, but on such a day a walk out on the Rolling Plains may be windy, colder, and will turn up no Marbled Salamanders.

Another reason is that the past seventeen or eighteen years have provided us quite a natural history education about herps and their habitats. Maybe it has been more like a practicum course, after reading field guides, natural history books, and journal articles. There was no better place than the Big Thicket to see just how persistent a male snake like a tan racer can be in courting a female, even one who has been killed on the roadway. I cannot imagine a better way of seeing how a mother alligator can be protective of her babies while remaining calm and watchful than in a coastal marsh at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. All that time in the field and the experiences that we wrote about were priceless. We still have plenty to learn, but a large part of what we do know, we learned during our travels.

I have often noticed how safe these places feel, even in the desert at night in the company of Mohave rattlesnakes, or on the slopes of the Guadalupe Mountains. Maybe some of this is related to the sense of peace and well-being that comes from doing something you love in a beautiful setting. It is true that if you want to prove to yourself how dangerous such places can be, you can do it fairly easily. However, with some preparation and experience, common sense, and a desire to watch and learn (rather than a desire to prove something about yourself), you can visit the wild places of Texas free of worry. I feel safer in any of those places than I do in the malls and on the streets of Texas cities.

We could have traveled and experienced all this without writing a book. However, I want to carry all this with me in future years, past the time when I might not be able to hike the Chisos Mountains or wander through the bottomland forest along the Sabine River. I want these memories and photographs in case some of the places disappear, for reasons that could include fracking, being sold off, or being walled off at the border. But the absolutely most important reason is to pass the experiences along to others who may want to go there, or who may want to live it through the pages of a book. Nothing could be more gratifying than to hear someone say, “After reading what you wrote, I had to go visit,” or “Your book made me think of reptiles and amphibians more positively.” We want the book to be an invitation into a world we know and love.

That’s why the dedication of the book is “to all young herpers and naturalists who follow their dreams into the field.”