Hanging Out with Master Naturalists – II

This past week, I taught the herpetology section of the training for an incoming group of Master Naturalists. I’ve done this several times before, and it is an honor – and it’s fun. For twenty years, the Texas Master Naturalist program has trained and supported a great many volunteers who do all kinds of good things for the wild places and wildlife of Texas. Some of them are experts about one or more subjects, and their training is designed to make sure that they become literate across a broad range of natural history topics. What a great thing that is, to be among people who understand the natural world like they do.

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The classroom training happened at the Hardwicke Center, Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge

On the evening of the eleventh, they sat through three hours of photos and discussion of everything from turtle skeletal structure to the various strategies herps use to find food and defend themselves from predators. They listened to some of my stories from the field and how urgent the conservation needs of herps are (along with most other species of plants and animals). They stuck with me and asked some great questions. Talking with them was a blast!

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Bottomland forest near the marsh

Then came the “field trip” portion of the training, yesterday at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. The class was divided in two groups, with half of them canoeing with Michael Perez while the other half spent about 90 short minutes with me at the marsh boardwalk and the bottomlands near the marsh (and then they switched places and the other half spent time with me). They were ready to see herps and not shy about picking their way through the deadfall and leaf litter of the forest floor. We had talked about cottonmouths, emphasizing their nonaggressive nature as well as the respect and caution that their venom should inspire. I try to get people to be careful and alert without being afraid, and I didn’t see anyone who looked afraid. And unfortunately, we did not see any cottonmouths on that particular day.

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Toad with some characteristics of both Woodhouse’s and Central Plains toads

They were certainly alert, spotting lots of things in the leaf litter that most people would miss. We found just-metamorphed toadlets and cricket frogs. Someone came up with a rough earth snake, and another spotted a baby Dekay’s brownsnake. One of the toads we saw had spots suggesting that it was a hybrid between the Central Plains toad (previously the Gulf Coast toad) and Woodhouse’s toad. Even though it requires a pairing between not just two species but two different genera, such hybrids do happen, and it was cool to see one.

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Green treefrog

The boardwalk was wonderfully productive. Each group got to see and photograph green treefrogs resting on leaves and stalks of the big Phragmites grasses, and one observant person spotted a young ribbonsnake basking on some vegetation. Looking at the photograph later, I saw that it was digesting a meal, possibly an unlucky green treefrog.

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Western ribbonsnake, digesting a meal

In a world preoccupied with … well, with things that seem less than wonderful, it is a privilege to spend time in forests and marshes with people who get excited about finding a small skink in the leaf litter or finding a particularly diverse group of lichens growing on a fallen branch.

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Lichens

The Clouds Tease, and the Lizards Have a Party

The afternoon sunshine was cooking some clouds, and to the south and then to the east the cumulus grew to cumulonimbus with blue-gray around the base and some curtains of rain here and there. It was sunny at Southwest Nature Preserve but it seemed likely that the surrounding clouds would keep the temperatures down. If I didn’t mind getting wet, the outflow winds from an approaching storm would really feel good – and then when it started to rain, well, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad either. So I parked the car and walked down to the fishing pond to see if recent rains had brought the water level up.

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Maximilian Sunflower

One of the pleasures of walking to that pond is all the Maximilian Sunflower along the way. I was first introduced to this native prairie flower when Jim Eidson showed me around Clymer Meadow (a Nature Conservancy property in the Blackland Prairie). The plant sends up tall, unbranching stems with long, narrow leaves folded lengthwise into a sort of “V” and produces beautiful yellow flowers.

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A young Green Heron

The water level had come up a little, and as I walked the boardwalk, I spooked a medium-sized bird that flew to the opposite bank and stood there (perhaps grumbling, “see, you made me miss a perfectly good little sunfish; I almost had it). Luckily, I got a workable photo so that I could go through the books – and Cornell’s “All About Birds” website – to identify it. My conclusion was that it was a young Green Heron, and my ID, posted on iNaturalist, was confirmed. It is said to be one of the smallest North American herons, and it prowls the banks of wetlands looking for fish, frogs, crayfish, insects, or just about anything. Adults are much less streaked than the bird I saw; they have what is described as a deep green (almost charcoal) back and crown with a reddish chestnut chest.

My next visit was to the smallest pond, where an egret was walking around the far bank. I recorded a small video clip of it entering the water under a willow, rather elegantly walking through the water. (I’m afraid I didn’t have a tripod or even a stick to balance the camera, so it is not as steady as I would like.)

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Clouds to the east, hinting of rain

I walked the trails through the woodland and up to the ridge while watching the clouds and picking up a few little muffled drumbeats of thunder. It was sunny, humid, and therefore hot, and the preserve’s lizards were having a party. I saw several dart off the trail and into the leaves or behind brush. They were almost surely Texas spiny lizards who had been chasing insects but headed for the nearest tree as I approached. As I was coming down from the ridge, I was suddenly confronted by a Texas spiny lizard sitting on a small cut stump, facing me. I looked at him; he looked at me. These lizards are wary and fast, and he didn’t lose any time getting off the stump and running into nearby brush. Another one, further down the trail, stopped on a fallen branch and did a great imitation of a patch of bark stuck on the wood.

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Texas Spiny Lizard, camouflaged like a little patch of rough bark

When not seeing birds, reptiles, or other animal life, the preserve never fails to offer up something beautiful. One such offering was a collection of rounded, red-orange shelf fungi growing on a downed branch. Moments like this make a hot, muggy walk really worthwhile.

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Shelf fungus

Late Summer, Reaching Ahead to Fall

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Marsh, FWNCR

I visited the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge today, seeing how it was doing with the rain and more moderate temperatures. Since higher humidity meant a higher heat index even with temperatures in the 80’s, it was a little sultry, but nice. It has been dry, and the cracked and drying mud in parts of the marsh shows it. The marsh is almost always an inviting place, the only exception being the time over fifteen years ago when it completely dried except for some small pools, and Carl Franklin and I hopped down to the dry mud and walked across it. In one upstream pool we found a swirling pit where a number of trapped gar were swimming, gulping air, and wondering why their world was shrinking so dangerously small. Compared to that year, the marsh always looks good.

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Another view of the marsh

I walked a little through the nearby woodland at the crest of a hill that drops down into bottomland forest. It was warm and damp and green, close and thick, guarding its secrets: invertebrates that work endlessly within the leaf litter, creating new soil, and skinks that slither within the layers of leaves and thin the ranks of spiders and insects.

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Woods just above the bottomland

In a nearby pocket prairie, the little bluestem stood in brush-strokes of blue-green with a line of trees behind it. Little bluestem is perhaps my favorite prairie grass. The seasonal change from blue-green to rusty orange is a big part of the beauty of the prairies.

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Little bluestem (with some forbs in the foreground)

I’ve seen several references to fall lately, as if the beginning of another school year and the changing of the calendar to September means that the season has changed. Today was a late summer day; fall does not arrive until September 22, at the equinox when the length of day and night are roughly equal. I am looking forward to fall. It seems like every year, it becomes more of a favorite season, as temperatures drop and sunny days come with that low slanting light. I want the memory of 114-degree (F) days to fade, and I’m ready for the leaves to turn (hopefully some color other than brown). But while I’m waiting, the nature center today was a beautiful place to be.

Prairie on the Plains

Epitaph

Over the past few years the prairies, forests, marshes and deserts of my beloved Texas have provided me with countless natural treasures and memories in the field in pursuit of material for the upcoming book, Herping Texas. I have enjoyed sharing some of these and other adventures with readers, but the time has come to move on, and I am hereby ceasing all connection, contributions and affiliations with the Great Rattlesnake Highway blog and Texas Field Notes. I will also cease publication on my accompanying blog, Coleopteraholic. I have several reasons for this decision, one being the pursuit of an education in Biology. I have enjoyed a good cruise down the Great Rattlesnake Highway, writing about my adventures afield and sharing them with an unparalleled audience of naturalists. Thank you all for your time, advice, comments, readership, and loyalty.
I would not feel justified in the aforementioned changes without contributing one final article, so I have written on Crotalus viridis, the prairie rattlesnake, which has always been one of my favorite snake species, and was the reason I first headed down the actual Great Rattlesnake Highway all those years ago. That transmogrified into a symbol for herping Texas, and I felt there would be none better to conclude with. I hope you enjoy it.
This being said, I won’t draw out these goodbyes any longer than necessary. Thank you all again. Enjoy and appreciate your own great highways, wherever they may take you. Happy herping.

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Prairie on the Plains

A full, late moon hung low in the sky like a glowing orb, governing the mesquite-dense  hills of Haskell County. Darkness engulfed the land, but my headlights cut through it with twin cones of illumination that fell upon the tubular form of a serpent on the highway. It was unexpected to see anything out and about in the grip of this relentless high pressure-laden drought that plagued these dog days of late July. The air was hot and arid, the ponds and stock tanks reduced to concave depressions of red clay, cracked and peeling in irregular squares.  The yellowed mesquite tops and dried stalks of Indiangrass, their withered heads bent in submission to the heat en masse, like a congregation of tormented mourners, provided a testament to the area’s dire need of some serious rainfall. The mercury had soared to 104 degrees Fahrenheit earlier, another day of baking, indifferent sunshine. I had been cruising down the Great Rattlesnake Highway at a low rate of speed, hoping to attract Palo Verde root borers (Genus Derobrachus) to the headlights, which is an easy method for collecting this largest of North American longhorned beetles. I had not seen a snake in several weeks, and had assumed everything had gone underground to estivate until the cooler weather of fall was in the air.
I spun the truck around and doubled back, and when the snake came into view I noticed it was not a western diamondback (Crotalus atrox)  as I had suspected due to the species’ incredible abundance in this region, but something else. Western diamondbacks are instantly recognizable in the beam of the headlights by their brightly banded black and white tails, which, like most species of rattlesnakes, they typically hold aloft while crawling. I couldn’t see any rings on this one, which narrowed the possibilities down to either of the two other species native to the rolling plains, the western massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus tergeminus) or the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). The massasauga, while not as common as the diamondback, is nevertheless quite prolific here, although it is a comparatively diminutive serpent, rarely exceeding twenty-four inches in length. The snake in question was around three feet long, and while I occasionally come across massasaugas of this size, it is rare enough to make it highly unlikely, especially on this hot, dry night under a full moon when nothing else seemed to be moving.
As I put the truck in park and exited the vehicle with flashlight in hand I noticed the distinct dark-hued basal segment of the rattle, which is yellowish in western diamondbacks and the same color as the other segments in massasaugas. I could also see the raised supraocular scales above the eyes that seem to somehow give this species a permanently angry scowl. I didn’t need to get close enough to locate the three or more internasal scales which meet against the rostral plate that distinguishes the prairie rattler from all other Texas rattlesnake species. The aforementioned characteristics, coupled with the oblong, slightly irregular chestnut-brown blotches edged in cream and fading to a series of pallid bands toward the tail was enough for me to know exactly what I was looking at.

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The prairie rattlesnake is one of North America’s most widespread serpents, ranging across most of the central-western United States, from Montana south into Wyoming, eastern Colorado, and most of New Mexico. It is the predominant rattlesnake species on the Great Plains to the east as well, from southwestern North Dakota, Nebraska, western Kansas, and the Oklahoma Panhandle. In Texas it is found in grassland habitats, from the high plains in the panhandle, south to the isolated desert grasslands of northeastern Brewster County in the upper Chihuahauan Desert region (Stebbins, 1966). It is quite cold-tolerant, enough so to occupy such northern latitudes as eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan, Canada, an area where few other snakes are able to survive. Here, it congregates in winter hibernacula in large numbers, although in Texas it is more prone to gathering in smaller groups in abandoned mammal burrows or in the broken, heat-cracked labyrinths on the eastern slopes of canyons (Savage, 2004). In my earliest days of snake hunting post-high school, the prairie rattlesnake was at the top of my bucket list of hopefuls, especially after learning of its occurrence in the form of a handful of museum records at the eastern end of its Texas range, in the shortgrass mesquite and prickly pear dominant rolling plains of Haskell and Throckmorton Counties (Werler & Dixon, 2000). So I set out for the open road, and spent countless nights cruising the blacktop with red eyes and iron will. Eventually I chanced upon a DOR (dead-on-road) specimen in western Throckmorton County, and this served to goad my fanatical search into overdrive. Over the coming years I would find many prairie rattlesnakes in Texas, my first half-dozen or so around the Lubbock area some two hours to the west, and a few more in the Trans-Pecos east of Alpine, but it would be over a decade before I would finally find my first live Haskell County viridis. After that blessed, long-awaited day, I turned up a DOR in neighboring Stonewall County, which ended up being a county record and is now floating in a jar of formalin somewhere in the bowels of the University of Texas at Arlington’s Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center. The current snake in front of me was my second Haskell County specimen, and one of only four that I have ever found east of the Lubbock area.

 

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In Situ photograph of my first live Crotalus viridis, taken in May of 2003 in Garza County east of Lubbock
All this talk of isolated records and localities is hardly reflective of the species as a whole. In fact, generally speaking, it is one of the most abundant serpents across much of its range, especially in the Great Plains, where it has been reported to outnumber all other large snake species in some areas. Here in Texas, though, prairie rattlesnakes are only locally common at best, and even then only when the habitat is optimal. This particular population clings determinedly to the eastern margins of its shortgrass habitat, encircled by ever-expanding acres of cotton and winter wheat. These areas are comparatively easily occupied by the prairie rattlesnake’s cousin, the western diamondback, which I have found as consistently in cultivated areas as I have unaltered landscapes. It seems that, while able to withstand and survive seemingly inhospitable temperature extremes the western diamondback is incapable of, the prairie rattler is much more susceptible to habitat alteration. It needs its prairie, and when the prairie is gone, it undoubtedly will go as well. Unfortunately this habitat is disappearing at an astonishing rate, and prairie rattlesnakes are not the only species being affected. In the 2016 Plowprint Report by the World Wildlife Fund, the statement is made that temperate grassland ecosystems are offered less protection than any other biome in the world, and that their destruction affects species on a level equivalent with rainforest loss, as well as the unique services they provide, such as carbon sequestration, which stores carbon dioxide and slows atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases (WWF, 2016). According to the report original grasslands have been reduced to fifty percent of their former size, with over fifty million acres put beneath the plow for cropland in the last decade. (Gaworecki, 2016).

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The eastern edge of the Rolling Plains, taken on one of my first trips to the area in April of 2003

On what remains of the High and Rolling Plains in Texas, prairie rattlesnakes continue to survive in the looming face of “progressive” expansion. They are highly evolved, formidable predators of mammals and birds, from small mice and kangaroo rats to larger species such as prairie dogs and young quail and pheasants (Werler & Dixon, 2000). Lizards are also fair game, especially in the case of younger snakes, whose smaller girth restricts their mammalian diet to only the youngest rodents. In fact, Werler and Dixon refer to several field reports of almost exclusive lacertilian predation by neonate and juvenile prairie rattlesnakes (Hamilton, 1950; Hayes & Duvall, 1991).
The darkness was all around, save for the blue-white glow of my flashlight, which fell upon the prairie rattlesnake some six feet in front of me. It lay motionless, stretched out in the rectilinear fashion typical of rattlesnakes, with the high yellow grama and bunchgrass all around it, the crumbling red clay soil and interloping black asphalt beneath, and the endless plains sky above. I took a moment to observe the intricate aesthetic details that make it unique: the closely-spaced, elongate russet blotches on a mottled beige background, beset laterally by alternating spots of light and dark brown. I caught a glimpse of the nuchal blotch behind the venom-swollen cheeks, ending in a point shaped like a crude arrow; I thought of the potent cocktail of proteins and peptides within, a concoction which is reported to be two and a half times more toxic than that of the western diamondback, although the venom yield is only roughly 1/7th that of the diamondback (Klauber, 1956). I admired the chocolate brown stripe that ran diagonally from behind each eye, their margins traced by the same cream-white that bordered the pattern on the body. It was a truly remarkable and amazing work of creation, admired by some and loathed by many others, but demanding respect regardless.
As if to remind me of this, the snake sprang into sudden action, as most prairie rattlers are eventually prone to do if not promptly left alone. With rattles whirring it threw itself into a twisted coil, full of electricity, its tongue curled up over its nose in a smooth, menacing gesture that left little doubt as to its intentions should I advance any closer. Prairie rattlesnakes are like badgers. They put up with little provocation and display an almost characteristic pugnacious form of self-defense, showing no quarter. While western diamondbacks, massasaugas, and all other species of rattlesnakes I have encountered over the years tend to display a variable range of personality, from placid to aggressive, every prairie rattler I have crossed paths with has exhibited this same line of behavior. They sit still for a minute or two, then suddenly spring into hyperdrive, exploding into restless, sinuous coils, with rattles buzzing, always facing me, daring me to come closer and reap the dire consequences of my foolishness.

According to a statistical study conducted at the University of Florida based on hospital records of snakebite cases, pit vipers were shown to give “dry” bites (bites where one or more fangs punctured the skin but did not deliver any venom) 20-25 % of the time (Johnson, 2012). It would be interesting to break this down even further to species level, as nothing about the demeanor or suggestive body language of a prairie rattlesnake has ever given me the insinuation that they were considering the possibility of dry-biting. In fact, several years ago an acquaintance of mine who regularly handles prairie rattlesnakes in the Lubbock area was accidentally bitten on the pad of the thumb with both fangs by an adult specimen and described trying unsuccessfully to shake the snake loose while watching both venom glands expand and contract, pumping the full load of venom into his system. As reported in Werler & Dixon, he experienced many of the typical symptoms of envenomation by this pit viper, including the metallic taste in the mouth and tingling sensation in the digits, face and tongue. The venom contains a complex blend of both hemotoxic and neurotoxic properties, which can vary between populations, with certain localities being “hotter” than others. Cardiotoxins have been identified in prairie rattlesnake venom as well, and in some populations these combined with significant neurotoxins can lead to paralysis and heart failure. While fortunate in this regard, my acquaintance did lose his entire thumb after a week-long hospital stay and acquired several hundred thousand dollars in medical bills.
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While definitely not seeming to entertain the idea of either fleeing or putting up with any guff, the irascible prairie rattlesnake posed defiantly as I took pictures, a subject worthy of a Gadsden flag emblem and a doubtless testament to its ability to survive for thousands of years in an ecosystem dominated by large herding ungulates, be they native bison or today’s cattle. If it was having any thoughts of turning tail and fleeing it was doing a good job of disguising them. With no hook available in which to move the rattlesnake to the safety of the roadside grass (remember, I had been looking for beetles, assuming snakes were out of the question) I simply backed away slowly and left it to the deserted highway to resume its nocturnal business. I wished it well as I flicked off the flashlight and its form was swallowed up in darkness, the rattle still singing that melancholy death song that has struck fear in the hearts of man and beast for so many centuries. In the dark of the night it sounded even more sinister and foreboding.
“Good luck you little devil”, I told him. “Try to find you a nice place to hide before the sunrise. It’s supposed to be another hot one.”
I closed the door of the truck and put it in drive, leaving the prairie rattlesnake to the rolling plains, and headed back down the Great Rattlesnake Highway, eager for the next adventure.
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Stebbins, Robert C.; A Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians; Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, 1966
Savage, Candace; Prairie: A Natural History; Greystone Books D& M Publishing; 2nd Ed; 2011 (orig 2004)
Werler, John E. & Dixon, James R.; Texas Snakes; University of Texas at Austin Press: 2000
Klauber, Laurence M.; Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, & Influence on Mankind; Vol. II, 3rd Edition; University of California Press; 1997 (orig. 1956)
Rubio, Manny; Rattlesnake: Portrait of a Predator; Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998
Hayes, William K. & Duvall, David; A field study of prairie rattlesnake predatory strikes; Herpetologica Vol. 47, No. 1 (Mar, 1991) pp. 78-81; Allen Press
Murphy, B.P., Andersen, A.N., & Parr, C.L. The underestimated biodiversity of tropical grassy biomes; Phil. Trans. R.Soc.B; 2016
http://www.canadianherpetology.com
http://naturalhistorymag.com
http://uta.edu
Gaworecki, Mike; Grasslands in U.S. Great Plains are being destroyed at an “alarming rate”; 2016; http://news.mongabay.com
Plow print Report (World Wildlife Fund); http://www.worldwildlife.org
http://ccsassociation.org
Johnson, Steve A.; Venomous snake FAQs; Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation; University of Florida; 2012; http://ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu

Two Short Walks in a Midsummer Heat Wave

A high pressure ridge sits over this part of the country, sealing in the heat. That, plus a jacked-up climate, has resulted in weather that is like God’s own convection oven set for “broil.” Despite the record heat, the nearby Southwest Nature Preserve pulls at me like an arcade game for a little kid, and the weekend could not pass without my wanting to play it just a couple of times.

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The moon, over a shrinking pond

Yesterday, July 21st, I decided that surely a walk at sunset would be OK, so I walked the perimeter of the preserve from about 8:30 to 9:30pm. According to my car, the starting temperature was about 101F. I made my way down the trail to the pond at the northwest corner, where the diameter is shrinking toward hot tub size and the water temperature is just right for that. Walking down onto the spongy exposed mud, there was no sign of the leopard frogs I recently saw, but I did surprise a bullfrog that jumped into the hot tub with a splash. Above the pond, several swifts flew their typical aerobatic, twisting dance, and I hope they caught plenty of insects.

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Sunset through the leaves of a giant oak

The insects were the living things most in evidence. Grasshoppers jumped and flew ahead of my steps, and cicadas droned in the background. I walked around to the yucca meadow, and searched the sand by flashlight. I’m guessing that the Comanche harvester ants had been sheltering deep in their colonies, but I did find one solitary ant, carrying a fragment of something and presumably searching for the opening down to join her sisters.

Back in the woods, I checked Weather Underground, which reported the Arlington temperature as 98F, at 9:00pm. The walk back was quiet; the woods were still and the sumacs were wilted, and no Chuck Will’s Widow graced the evening with its beautiful calls. It seemed that everything except the cicadas had retreated into shelters to wait out the heat.

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The little pond, ringed by water primrose

This evening, in a fit of lunacy, I decided I wanted to see what the place was like in the full flowering of the broiling sun. When I arrived, about 6:40pm, Weather Underground said that Arlington was enjoying 112 degrees of late afternoon sun. I walked down to the smallest pond to see if any water remained. As it turned out, the drying of the pond has been a bonanza for the water primrose, which had an ever-widening band of muddy bank which it has covered in luxuriant growth. The center of the pond still has some water, for now.

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A common whitetail dragonfly perches for a moment on a cattail stalk

I walked over to the biggest pond and saw a little blue heron flying off over the water. Dragonflies were active all throughout the preserve, but the big pond was Odonate Central. I stood on the bank, with no turtles to see and no cricket frogs hopping to safety, trying to zoom my iPhone in for a satisfactory photo of one of these acrobatic little predators. I suppose I felt I had to photograph something.

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The late afternoon sun shining through grass seed

Walking back, I spotted a group of several northern cardinals in a group of oaks and understory plants. I got a good look at a male, and caught glimpses of others through the leaves. I did not linger to see when they would move on; it had been a tough couple of walks, and I was only good for about a half hour today, with the temperature still at 104F when I left. Life goes on at Southwest Nature Preserve, sheltering from the worst of the heat or (in the case of the dragonflies) flying in complete defiance of it. Good for them. I’m headed for shelter.

 

Poolside and Under a Tree, on the Fourth of July

fullsizeoutput_169cIt has been a hot and dry spring, and the beginning of summer looks no different. Rainfall totals for Dallas-Fort Worth ranged from 0.77 inches in April to 1.87 and 1.27 in May and June, respectively. We got only a little over three-quarters of an inch of rain in April. The previous three Aprils had rainfall from 3.4 to 5.6 inches (all these numbers from the National Weather Service). I headed for the Southwest Nature Preserve knowing it would be hot and dry – what else should I expect on the fourth of July?

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Texas spiny lizard

Right away there was a rustle in the leaves, and a brightly-marked Texas spiny lizard stopped at the base of a tree, looking over his shoulder to see if I was going to cause trouble. As my hands moved to the camera, he climbed up the tree a couple of feet. When I moved a little closer he scrambled to the other side, in the typical spiny lizard fashion, always staying two steps ahead. Further down the trail I found another of these lizards, hanging head-down and clinging to the bark, tail curving away from the trunk in a slight arc. Here was one way to get through the heat of the day, hunting insects in the shade of an oak tree.

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The second Texas spiny lizard

The pond on the northwest side of the preserve is one of my favorite spots to visit, and today it had not dried up, but was certainly shrinking. Along the water’s edge, a new generation of leopard frogs hopped to safety in large numbers. There were little ones not much bigger than the tadpoles that they were last month, and some that must have made the transition from tadpole stage much earlier in the spring. Here at poolside, a frog doesn’t let the heat bother him or her much. There’s always a quick dip in the water to cool off, and plenty of shade under plants such as the water primrose.

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Southern leopard frog

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Water primrose

Dragonflies patrol the skies over the preserve, and a well-focused image of those delicate, veined wings and wrap-around compound eyes is always worth trying for. I got a couple of passable images today, one that appears to be a widow skimmer and another that was identified on iNaturalist as a common whitetail.

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Widow skimmer dragonfly

I also stopped to admire the lichen on a fallen branch. This working partnership between algae (or cyanobacteria) and fungi always seems to produce a sort of abstract art, and it’s always worth a look.

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Lichen – or abstract art – or both

That was my celebration of the 4thof July, a short walk focused on a love of the land and the wisdom of those who set aside places like this to remain in a fairly natural state. In Woody Guthrie’s words: “From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters / This land was made for you and me.”

Treasures in the Trans-Pecos

This past Monday found my family and I, along with Michael Smith, staying in Alpine, Texas in the upper Chihuahuan Desert, and it was here, on a walk from the hotel pool to the room, I stopped to pick up a small yellow-orange scarab that was lying on the ground by the entrance door. It was Euphoria castleberryi, one of the rarest beetles in Texas. Few naturalists have ever heard of it, and far fewer have laid eyes on one. It is so uncommon that an image search on bugguide.net will show only three specimens, all found in neighboring Jeff Davis county. The included literature states that 21 specimens occur in collections from the month of June, “plus a few July-August records”, with the type reference dating back to 1937. It also states that “Texas Parks & Wildlife considers this to be a species of greatest conservation need.”

While I was aware of the beetle’s existence here, I had never dreamed that I would actually get to see one, let alone stumble across one without even looking for it on an otherwise insignificant walk to change out of my swim trunks. It is moments like this that can turn even every-day, mundane activities into moments of wonder for a naturalist: a bird that has somehow escaped years on your lifelist suddenly winging its way from one place to another as you glance up at the sky in the grocery store parking lot; a rare orchid growing at trailside on a hike in a place you have visited a hundred times; a tropical migrant butterfly on a bloom in your flowerbed. Trips can be planned and sightings predicted by scrutinous study of habitat, season of peak activity, and habits of the species desired, but it is little spontaneous moments of unexpected discovery that really add flavor to a naturalist’s life.

Ironically, I could have made reservations at the Davis Mountains Resort (the sited locale of the few specimens of Castleberry’s flower scarab previously collected), hiked across the landscape in the heat of the day, poring over flowers with my eyes burning and squinted, attempting to pick out their inconspicuous pattern, repeating the process for days, with my chances at success minimal at best, and most likely walked away still not having seen a single one. Heaven knows I have planned entire week-long trips searching for other creatures in just such fashion. Yet the random decision to take my son for a swim instead of going hiking at all brought me into direct contact with one, and in a hotel parking lot of all places.

Euphoria castleberryi, Alpine Texas

On the other end of the spectrum, the evening found us hiking the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains, with my compulsive desire to locate two additional species of scarabs now in full swing after the Castleberry’s discovery. The higher elevations of the montane regions of Texas provide a specialized habitat where certain species of organisms exist that do not occur on the desert floor. These areas, collectively known as “sky islands”, typically enjoy a cooler, wetter, and more verdant isolation from the typical dry heat and aridity of the desert. Conifers such as pinyon pine and alligator juniper thrive in these conditions, as does a particular species of beetle that feeds on them. This is Chrysina gloriosa, a member of the genus of Ruteline beetles known as jewel scarabs. It has been described as “the most beautiful beetle in North America” in Simon & Schuster’s ‘Insects of the World’, and is highly sought by collectors for both its beauty and localized distribution. I had found its cousin, the larger and fluorescent green Wood’s jeweled scarab (Chrysina woodi), on several occasions in the Davis and Guadalupe mountains to the north, but never had I laid my eyes on a gloriosa.

Montane habitat on the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains

But today I was determined to change that. While I hadn’t included them in the original itinerary when planning the trip (we had actually headed to the Trans-Pecos after abandoning the lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas due to an extensive drought that had made wildlife viewing dismally meager) they had certainly come to mind when deciding where we should hike earlier that morning. After all, it was June, their peak season, and the Lost Mine trail was prime habitat. So while Michael took his typical leisurely stroll along the trail, taking advantage of the benches and birdsong, Amber and Zev and I climbed toward the summit, scanning the outer branches of the trailside junipers for the elusive glorious scarab. Amber possesses a particularly keen eye for detail, as well as some type of supernatural ability to find uncommon species, and in a very short time she had picked up a couple of pieces of some glorious scarabs that birds had left over from breakfast on the trail. These were the worst of teasers, but they atleast confirmed the beetles’ presence here, and served to further goad my search into top gear.

A wing cover from the illustrious beetle in question, found along the Lost Mine Trail

As the trail began to ascend to steeper heights, I saw a glimmer of blue flash from a bush in the setting sunlight, and soon had another spectacular species of scarab in hand. This was Euphoria fuscocyanea, a frequenter of fermenting fruit that we had found with some regularity on this same trail last year. While some entomologists consider this to be only a color variant of the more common Euphoria fulgida, others consider this localized montane variety as a separate species. Whatever the taxonomy, it was a welcome find.

Euphoria fuscocyanea as viewed in situ and in hand in optimal sunlight

Eventually the sun fell behind the mountaintops, and we turned back and headed down the path in an attempt to make it back to the trailhead before it got completely dark. We continued seeing wildlife, even more so as dusk took over, and stopped to observe southwestern fence lizards and birds among the trees and rock scree. At one point Zev and I sat atop a large boulder overlooking the valley below, where the mountains of Mexico stood in the distance, their silhouettes enshrouded in the foggy haze of light brought on by the setting sun. We offered up a prayer of gratitude to the Creator for this place and moment and time, and I think I remember throwing in something about finding gloriosa as well, if it wasn’t too much trouble.

We found Michael sitting on a bench some distance up from the trailhead, writing in his notebook and enjoying the solitude. By this time it was past nine o’clock, and I was scanning the juniper branches by aide of flashlight. Fifteen minutes later the trail began to wind back down towards the parking lot, and as we rounded the last bend my truck came into view. I had all but given up hope when I saw a flying beetle circle lazily around the lower branches of the very last juniper, flashes of silver and emerald glinting from its extended wing covers in the dying afterglow of the sun.

“Gloriosa!” I shouted. “Get the aerial net!”

I know. I know. It is frowned upon, ill advised, and probably not entirely legal to sweep a beetle out of the air with a net in the Big Bend National Park, but I really didn’t see much harm in it. It wasn’t like I had toted the net along on the trail. It just so happened to be in the back of my truck, and Amber and Zev were already there. I hadn’t come all this way and done so much searching just to see a glimpse of a gloriosa, so I threw caution to the wind and netted the beetle easily out of the air. Before I could fish it out two more appeared from the surrounding foliage and circled around the tree. It was a gloriosa bonanza!

I reached down into the net and my fingers closed at long last upon the “most beautiful beetle in North America.” It had been on my life list since I was in elementary school, and now here it was in the flesh, the bright green exoskeleton striped with indented vertical strips of silver that literally looked indistinguishable from highly polished metal. It was even more magnificent in real life. Everyone crowded around this remarkable, unmatched jewel of coleopteran perfection, marveling at its beauty before taking photos. Then Zev and I took it back to the juniper tree to rejoin its brethren.

Chrysina gloriosa, diamond of the Lost Mine

From an unplanned encounter with the rare Castleberry’s scarab to a first class ticket to a gloriosa party around the juniper tree at the trailhead of the Lost Mine, it had been an exciting day in the Big Bend region of Texas, an area that never fails to provide the naturalist with moments of elation and discovery.

Thankfulness on the Lost Mine Trail

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Chisos Mountains, a view from the Lost Mine Trail

In one of Beethoven’s final string quartets (Op. 132), he wrote a slow, hymn-like movement titled, “Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity,” expressing his gratitude as he recovered from a serious illness. (An absolutely mind-blowing deconstruction and analysis of what Beethoven does in this incredible movement can be seen and heard here.) It is a profound, beautiful hymn, not sweet or sentimental, but exactly as I imagine how his soul would examine what it means to be alive in the full realization of how easily life could be gone.

I am hearing the opening notes of that quartet movement now, sitting on a bench in the Chisos Mountains. I have not had a close brush with death such as Beethoven had, but I do have deep gratitude for experiences like today’s walk up the Lost Mine Trail. Here, there is a sense of connection and healing of things that are broken, in a sanctuary where troubles cannot reach. No gift could be more appreciated than this.

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Within the mountain woodland

It is completely quiet except for occasional distant thunder, birdsong here and there, and the beginning sounds of insects here at the end of the day. I keep returning to this theme, how genuine quiet brings such tranquility. That is especially true here in the calm mountain woodland just before sunset. The hikers have gone. Even the knowledge that black bears live on these slopes does not cause concern, perhaps because it is one more indication of how raw and unspoiled this place is.

Here I am, after sixty-seven years still able to climb this trail – not that it is an especially difficult feat – and sit in the silence, watching the shadows lengthen and listening to the song of this earth, uninterrupted by noise. It is a rare privilege in a world that spins and spins, this opportunity to sit still.

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Blue-green spikes of Havard agaves on the mountain slopes

A thunderhead builds, and I watch it expand and drift this way. The thunder is still distant, one of those sounds that can be so relaxing from afar. The long, slanting rays of the sun highlight the tops of piñon pine and Emory oak. A nearby solitary bird trills and occasionally chirps, as the clouds turn rose-colored and the last light glows on the mountaintops. Soon it will be dark, and I will have to go, but I will remember these moments of solitude in the Chisos Mountains.IMG_3030

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At Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

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A trail at Santa Ana NWR

Santa Ana was certainly greener than the Sabal Palms Sanctuary had been, and it had recently rained here, based on the clumps of wet leaves and chaff on the initial paved trail and the slightly muddy dirt trails. That was encouraging. The downside was that the refuge was a hot, wet sauna, and my camera lens needed wiping several times before it would quit fogging.

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Dekay’s brown snakes, courting

I needed that camera lens to be clear, right at the outset of our walk. Amber, whose observation skills are first-rate, immediately found a pair of Dekay’s brownsnakes preparing for mating, right outside the visitor center. These are handsome but unassuming little relatives of the gartersnakes, and they generally live around leaf litter and places where they can find slugs and earthworms to eat. The little pool in the shade of the entrance to the refuge must have seemed the perfect place for a nice pair of brownsnakes to raise a family. I was determined to get a photo, despite the fog on the lens that seemed to say, “Come on, would you give these guys some privacy?”

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A snail on the mesquite bark

Along the trail we walked, mesquites grew alongside a few other trees, and the trunks of the mesquites were dotted with numerous snails with banded or pale conical shells, presumably breakfasting on whatever algae grow on the damp, rough mesquite bark.

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Rose-bellied lizard

Last fall we found that the rose-bellied lizard was very common here, and on this day we saw at least a half-dozen. In overall form they are like a small version of the familiar Texas spiny lizard, and in their skill at tree climbing they are as accomplished as their bigger cousins. I have memories of catching rose-bellied lizards as a teenager in Corpus Christi, and I always associate them with mesquite branches several feet off the ground. The patterns of females are paler, while males sport light-edged dark spots on either side of the back, bordered by a light stripe.

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Texas spotted whiptail lizard

The other common lizard at Santa Ana NWR stays on the ground, often sunning on the trail and running off among the fallen branches and undergrowth off the trail. It is the Texas spotted whiptail lizard, and several of them were busily hunting insects or sunning in the open, eight or ten feet ahead of us. The one I photographed on this day was a big male, the pinkish color under his chin and the blue-black patches of color on the belly scales just visible at the edges. Seven or eight light stripes run down the backs of these lizards, with rows of light spots between the stripes.

We did not hike extensively at Santa Ana. Despite whatever rains had visited the place, most of the ponds were dry and wildlife activity was limited, and with the heat and the relative humidity in the 90’s, our motivation was flagging. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to visit again, as the 2,088-acre refuge still faces the possibility of being cut off from the rest of the country by the proposed border wall. The levee on which the wall would be built runs right behind the refuge entrance, and a fence would consign the place into a sort of “no-man’s-land” between fence and the Rio Grande. You can read more about the threat to the refuge in “Slicing a Corridor in Two: A Report from Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge” from the Wildlands Network blog.

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Black witch moth

Back at the visitor center, we saw a black witch moth, like the two we saw in our visit last year. These big, dark moths have wonderfully subtle patterns on their wings, but as they flutter around, they simply look big and dark. In parts of Mexico this moth is known as la mariposa de la muerte, or “the butterfly of death,” and the myth is that if it enters a house where someone is sick, that person will die. In that context, the frequency with which this insect arrives at the visitor center is a little ominous. But, here is a thought: It is not the refuge that is sick, and there are a lot of people who won’t let it die.

For the Sabal Palms, No Sanctuary From Drought

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Sabal Palm frond, turning yellow

The second stop on our Lower Rio Grande Valley trip was to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, 527 acres of relict sabal palm habitat tucked away in a bend of the Rio Grande just south of Brownsville. We had visited in October of last year (and blogged about it here), and we looked forward to seeing it again so soon. There was the prospect of seeing a regal black-striped snake, perhaps in the fallen palm fronds and other material on the forest floor, or finding a Texas indigo snake cruising among the acacias and palm trees. The sanctuary is a subtropical wonderland like no other place in Texas (except perhaps the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve, located next door).

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On the trail to the resaca

However, as we followed the trail into the old butterfly garden, it was hard to recognize the garden plots and little pond that formed a little pollinator oasis in previous years. The plots were still there, with withered pollinator plants shedding most of their leaves under the similarly dessicated trees that usually provide dappled shade. Bees landed on the duckweed-choked puddle that had been part of a man-made pool provided for the butterflies. The trail led away past triangle cactus whose green color stood out against the brown grass and dead leaves, making the cactus seem much more prominent than its usual role, tucked away among dozens of species of green plants.

The promise of water in the resaca pulled us forward; if there was any water in the little oxbow pond, we could focus on wildlife around that little oasis. The margins were still green, but the water was gone, and so was the wildlife except for a green anole lizard and one swallowtail butterfly.

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A resaca, still green but dry

Call it inadequate planning (we could have checked recent rainfall patterns better) or the luck of the draw in a place where rainfall is inconsistent and the climate arid. Outside the immediate area of the river delta is the thorn scrub of south Texas and northeastern Mexico, places that can alternate between desert aridity and pulses of tropical moisture. Clint has visited the Sabal Palms Sanctuary more often than I have, and he said he has never seen it this dry and seemingly lifeless. The one significant finding, one that burns my fingers in envy to type it, is this: While Clint, Zev, and I were making our way to the dry resaca, Amber observed a groove-billed ani on the trail. This is one of those tropical bird species that birders travel to see in south Texas, considering any day when they see a groove-billed ani a lucky day indeed. Meanwhile, the rest of us will try to be content with our sighting of a green anole!

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Green anole, in its brown color at the moment