In Memory of Mark Brown

On December 21, a friend of mine died unexpectedly, and at age 63 (a few years younger than me) it was far too soon for Mark’s span of years to be up. I had just sent him what I apologetically called an “e-card” with a Christmas-y juniper tree and holiday caption, and he sent me one of the funny cards he always sent, showing a nose-less snowman sifting through the carrot bin in the grocery store with the caption, “Right in the middle of the produce aisle, Frosty gets caught picking his nose.” Inside, he wished us a great holiday, a better 2018, and he wrote, “Maybe we can coordinate our herping schedules!” That’s how our friendship worked, long distance messages and a perennial hope to get together again out in the Big Bend or maybe the Big Thicket. We spent too little time in the field together, but we enjoyed each other’s company and our membership in a particular “tribe” of naturalists.

Mark Brown by uprooted tree

Mark, by an uprooted tree in the Big Thicket in 2006, the year after Hurricane Rita

We both shared the view that finding snakes was great, but being out in the Big Bend, or in a thousand other places where natural communities of plants and animals survived relatively undisturbed by humans, was enough. Neither of us were biologists by trade, but we trained ourselves as best we could with dozens of field guides, volumes of natural history essays and manuscripts, and by experiencing wildlife and wild places firsthand. For us, the classics of literature were written by Conant, Klauber, Greene, Kauffeld, and others like Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey.

I can name any number of others who are brothers and sisters of that tribe. They are friends who share days and nights in the field together, breathing in the magic, wading through its waters, parting its grasses, and seeing a little of how it all works together. That is a bond as powerful in its own way as a family. It is our tribe; we have been to the Holy Land together. (I borrow that figure of speech from a quote attributed to John Muir. He was talking about how a good walk in nature should be unhurried, saying “Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently.”) It’s not that being in the field is a religion, but that wild places capture something that goes beyond the science of ecology or herpetology or other “-ologies,” and speaks to us in some spiritual way.

Mark Brown was a designer in the engineering field, and you can thank him for the safety of some of the bridges that you cross. Like many of us in our tribe, he spent much of a lifetime educating himself in natural history, herpetology, and ecology, and like many of us, being in the field was his vacation, his refuge, his pilgrimage. (He had other refuges, and they involved such things as muscle cars, racing, and music. The latter was another strong source of connection for us.) He also kept a variety of herps successfully, and learned a great deal about the husbandry and behavior of several favorite rattlesnake species. Losing Mark means losing a significant repository of information about herpetoculture, as well as field herpetology in Ohio where he spent some of his early years, and certainly in his beloved Big Bend.

Mark was a smart guy, a generous and kind man, and a good friend, even if you didn’t see him all the time. He provided a light in this world, one of many sources of light and goodness. We will miss him.

His obituary notes that, in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Big Bend Conservancy.

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In the Big Bend

On Frozen Pond

Last night the temperature dropped to seventeen degrees. Some time between the ball drop in Times Square and the sunrise over the Wilson Prairie, an arctic blast swept across the prairie, freezing everything from the ponds and stock tanks to the pipes in my wellhouse. Needless to say, this first day of 2018 saw me running to the hardware store to try to improve the insulation over the well pump with more heat tape, foam fittings, a heat pad, and an incandescent bulb. After all that business was over and done, I needed a reason to appreciate the wintry conditions, so Zev and I went for a brief walk onto some property we have access to a few miles from the house. There is a particular pond here, located not too far from the fenceline, loaded with smallmouth bass, catfish and sunfish, not to mention bullfrogs, water snakes, and sliders. But with the mercury still poised at 25 degrees in spite of the blinding afternoon sun, there was little chance of seeing any of the aforementioned residents today.  What we did see were birds. A loggerhead shrike flitted between the blackjacks. House sparrows hopped noisily in the fallen leaves. A northern mockingbird watched us from the drooping outer branches of a mesquite tree, its normally ever-changing tune stilled inside it. A male American kestrel, its feathers aruffle, surveyed the prairie below its perch for something small enough to capture. In a the lowest branch of an elm, a redtail hawk watched a fox squirrel for a lapse in judgment. 


We walked across an open clearing, where a pair of killdeer piped their shrill alarms as they raced across the open ground on thin legs. Mourning doves pecked and scratched nearby, but took to wing in their sudden, explosive flight upon sensing our approach.   We passed under the rusty barbed wire fence, then walked the twenty yards south through a healthy section of little bluestem-dominant prairie to the pond. Upon first sight the scene appeared still and lifeless, a thick sheet of ice spread across the surface of the water, with the crooked black silhouettes of post oaks reflected as rippled shadows. The muted forms of submerged roots and deadfall shown opaquely from the murky brown depths, their outlines broken by sunlight reflecting off the ice in blinding patches. 


We broke through the dense stands of sugarberry that line the water’s edge, their leafless branches spotted here and there by the parasitic evergreen mistletoe. This plant, more widely known as a holiday invitation to kiss beneath, holds no such amorous intentions with the trees it uses as a host. The scientific genus name, Phoradendron, means ‘tree thief’, an befitting title for the mistletoe, which attaches itself to a tree and sends rootlike structures into the branches, which it uses to vamp up water and nutrients. While too much mistletoe can be a detriment to trees, its presence in an ecosystem is generally a healthy one, as its berries provide food for a variety of songbirds. The ovaline, waxy leaves also make choice nesting sites for these same birds, as well as food for the great purple hairstreak butterfly, a magnificently colored metallic species whose lime-green oddly wedge-shaped larvae feed exclusively on the plant. 


As we broke through the thicket, a blue-grey gnatcatcher darted in front of us. While not an uncommon bird, it is a seasonal visitor seen most often in summer here in the cross timbers. In spite of the avian diversity we were experiencing the air was devoid of birdsong, so I relied on the white-edged retrice feathers to identify this nervous species. 

As we approached the bank a great blue heron took flight with a hushed whoosh of its five foot wingspan. It must have been trying to figure out a way to go ice-fishing, although if so I doubt it was having much success, as the ice along the pond’s edge was thick enough to support my weight. 

Zev was enthralled with the icy pond, and took to casting rocks and branches across the surface. With little friction and no external force acting against them, they skated all the way to the other side. Uphill from the pond’s eastern bank a dense patch of greenbrier provided the only meager bit of verdancy to the frozen scape of browns and greys. The pallid, sea green vines, their thorns rigid and sharp, complimented the few cordate mottled leaves that remained. Shiny clusters of the greenbrier’s characteristic black berries hung from them. 



Further out in the field a group of ashe junipers grew, their branches loaded so thickly with their own powder-blue fruit that the trees appeared solid blue from a distance. All these fruiting winter evergreen species would explain the diversity of bird life we were seeing. As we watched a northern cardinal’s bright red plumage dropped down from one of the junipers and landed in the path at trailside. I pointed it out to Zev. 

 “It’s a male”, he added, which opened the door to the topic of sexual dimorphism in the animal kingdom. After giving him the definition of the word I asked if he could think of any other examples besides cardinals. 

“Cowbirds”, he said, “and cattle egrets.” 

 “That’s right”, I said, impressed with his quick response.

 “Your turn”.

“Monarch butterflies”, I said, referring to the characteristic black spot of androconial scales on the hindwings of the males.

  “Lizards”, Zev came back with. 

“What about rattlesnakes?”, I quizzed him. 

“You can tell the difference in their tails”, he replied. “Praying mantis”…

Our conversation continued as we crossed back under the fence and headed down the trail toward the gate. As we walked, a small flock of eastern meadowlarks passed overhead on swift wings. Behind us the icy pond and bare sentinel oaks and lively junipers stood as if transfixed in time, a world entombed in the grip of winter. 


A New Bird and the New Year

It was an attempt to make 2017 go out with a natural “bang,” one more walk on a bright winter day among trees and grasslands. Not long ago I was complaining about the abnormally warm, record-setting days and how I was ready for cold days and, hopefully, snow. Yesterday there was neither snow nor sunshine, but a walk through parts of Eagle Mountain Park under a deck of clouds, with temperatures in the mid-40’s, was brightened by a new avian friend. And that led to other positive things.

The park consists of 400 acres on the eastern side of Eagle Mountain Lake, and it includes woodlands and some patches of grasslands. Its sign declares that it is “where the prairies meet the timbers,” and on a map of our ecoregions, the eastern edge of the lake is indeed at the transition from the Grand Prairie to the Western Cross Timbers. A limestone ridge around the park entrance supports many live oak trees, but dropping down from there, it’s post oak (and some blackjack) all the way. It’s probably fair to say that the park is situated at the gateway to the Western Cross Timbers.

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Eagle Mountain Park

This was not my first visit; Clint, Amber and I first visited there seven years ago, almost to the day. On that particular winter day, we met a buck white-tailed deer that was completely uninterested in running away, and while we kept a little distance (no matter how unafraid, deer are not props for us to pose with), we did enjoy the close encounter. IMG_0148Further down toward the lake, we walked through open areas where beautiful waves of yellow dormant grasses stretched to the tree line some distance away. Arriving at a small inlet of the lake, we saw a basking turtle on a snag out in the water, very likely a red-eared slider. It was a reminder of how our cooters and sliders are cold-tolerant and active just about year-round.

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A patch of grassland within the park, 12/30/2010

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Turtle, basking at Eagle Mountain Lake, 12/30/2010

Yesterday’s walk was on trails that wound through the woods in a different direction, dropping down through post oaks and junipers, across a small foot bridge, and on through gently rolling woods with open glades where the reddish stems of dormant little bluestem grass add their distinctive texture and color.fullsizeoutput_14b1

I had seen a hawk soar by, and watched a turkey vulture riding whatever cold uplift could carry a big bird on a day like this. Here and there, I heard a crow calling to his buddies or scolding some annoying animal (or human). And then, flitting around the lower branches of a juniper, I spotted a small bird. It landed, then took off again, and sometimes hovered at the ends of branches almost like a hummingbird. It was a sort of dull yellow below, and the wings were dark with some wing bars or white pattern. I thought I got a momentary glimpse of a little spot of red on its crown, but was very uncertain, given this little bird’s constant motion.

The first thing was to switch lenses, and I hoped I could do it before losing the opportunity to get a photo. This is the only thing that has occasionally made me wonder if a good point-and-shoot camera would be a better choice – standing there changing lenses while the moment moves on. But I got the zoom lens on and my little friend was still nearby. Every time the bird landed and I got the autofocus going, it flitted away just as the image sharpened and I was about to take the photo. The best image I managed to get before the bird moved on to some other tree shows its back and tail in low flight over a juniper branch. Not a satisfying photo, but might it help identify the species?

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A bad photo of the kinglet as it flew away

Back home, I got out the Sibley guide and was promptly overwhelmed with the variety of warblers and other small birds with some degree of yellow with darker wing covers. The alternative was to post this crummy photo to some Internet community of birders and naturalists who might be able to help. I posted it to the Facebook page for DFW Urban Wildlife (and yes, I did later add it to iNaturalist, a fantastic resource for citizen science and sharing what we see in nature). Soon, I got an identification from a friend – the little bird was a ruby-crowned kinglet. I thought of that little red spot I thought I had seen on the crown of this bird’s head, and was more confident that I had actually seen it. Other comments within the group, as well as information from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and John Tveten’s book The Birds of Texas also matched this little kinglet. They nest far to the north but come to Texas in the winter, they flit nervously through the woods, may hover around tree foliage in search of the small insects that are their prey, and the male’s little red patch on the crown is often not visible but may be seen when agitated or courting.

I thought about how glad I am that there are communities of people who care about these things and are so willing to speak up and share information. Just in our little corner of Texas there are groups like DFW Urban Wildlife and Mark Pyle’s page, “What Kind of Snake Is This? North Texas,” with people willing to jump in and lend a hand. The California Academy of Sciences’ iNaturalist is a grand collection of local and regional projects, where any of us can easily post sightings from a smartphone or computer, providing a photo, location, and other notes, and each sighting contributes to our scientific understanding of the natural world.

In 2018, with all of its worry and difficulty, we need communities of naturalists and just plain nature-friendly folks who will support each other and support wild places. We need people who understand science and people who will contribute to science. And we urgently need every person who can look at a patch of cross timbers or prairie and see something with inherent value, beyond its monetary value as property to be developed or resources to be extracted. Such people give me some measure of courage with which to face the new year.IMG_2745

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. Ruby-crowned kinglet. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-crowned_Kinglet/id (accessed 12/30/17)

DFW Urban Wildlife (Facebook page) https://www.facebook.com/groups/726012804182335/ (accessed 12/29/17)

iNaturalist. https://www.inaturalist.org/home (accessed 12/30/17)

Tveten, J.L. 1993. The Birds of Texas. Fredericksburg: Shearer Publishing, p. 283.

What Kind of Snake is This? North Texas (Facebook page) https://www.facebook.com/groups/whatsnakeisthis/ (accessed 12/30/17)

Sunset and the Winter Solstice, 2017

I wanted to visit the Southwest Nature Preserve for a few minutes today, on the shortest day of the year. For months now, the sun’s daily climb has traced a lower path, its zenith a little lower in the sky every day. In Arlington, Texas, the sun set at 5:26pm, ending the shortest day of the year.

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Sunset at the pond, December 21st

At the preserve, I was (for a time) alone, watching the sunset on a particularly warm day.  According to Weather Underground, the high in Arlington was 73, and that is 21 degrees above the average high. In the woods, there was the scent of damp soil and leaves following yesterday’s rain. At the pond, a solitary turtle remained on a branch above the water, long after the last slanting rays of the sun were blocked by the trees. She (a slider the size of this one would be a female) turned and slipped beneath the water, but tomorrow she will be able to bask for a few seconds longer.

The solstice marks the beginning of winter. If we get more rain, I look forward to quiet bottomland forests with pools where salamanders are breeding. I hope to spend some hours looking for and maybe photographing birds among the bare branches of oaks, cottonwoods, and bois d’arcs, coffee in one hand and a field guide in the other. If I’m lucky, at some point I will be able to crunch through new snow among trees almost magically highlighted in white, in a woodland hushed and quiet as only snowfall can make it. img_1607

The days will start getting longer, and maybe colder, but there is a lot to look forward to!

December Beneath Post Oaks


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

Wood-boring beetle larvae


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

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

Silverleaf nightshade


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the common species, a broad-banded watersnake

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

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

A Walk at the Grasslands on a December Afternoon

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LBJ Grasslands, Wise County

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

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Cross Timbers woodland

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

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

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Erosion cuts through the grassland

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

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

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Blister beetle

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

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“Fire” in the forest

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

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Zev, halfway up a juniper

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

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

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Nine-banded armadillo

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

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

Holiday Homecoming in the Cross Timbers

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Light playing with oak leaves

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

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

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Live oak

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

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A patch of prairie

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

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

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

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Northern cardinal, male

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

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

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A sort of pocket prairie within the oak-juniper woodlands

Life, Death, & Coffee on the Wilson Prairie

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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