Bumbling Around the Partridge Pea

I needed to get out, regardless of the steamy pattern of rain and heat this weekend, and so I headed to the Southwest Nature Preserve for a short walk. Somewhere along the sidewalk there was a large patch of what I’m reasonably sure is partridge pea (and if I’m wrong I trust my fellow naturalists will correct me), its yellow flowers being visited by an assortment of honeybees, bumblebees, wasps, and butterflies. I decided to take a few photos and brief video of the American bumblebee doing its thing. These big furry bees don’t seem bothered when approached, though I suppose if you stumbled into one or swatted at it, things could get a little tense.

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South end of a northbound bumblebee

It was a great, though brief, escape from a nightmarish weekend for our country. All this hymenopteran buzzing and busy-ness was soothing in its shifting patterns of yellow, black, and green.

One of these American bumblebees devoted quite a bit of energy to what appeared to be scraping pollen onto the large mounds already collected on its back legs. At one point she appeared to be hanging from the flower by one leg as she scraped and scraped.

It is amazing to watch these bumblebees in flight, as they hover and drop slowly into tangled branches and flowers, then take off and maneuver easily around the stems and leaves. (Well, it looks easy to me; they do bump into stuff at times!)

The bumblebees also took advantage of the Maximilian sunflower blooming all around the walkway. And not just bumblebees – I got a workable iPhone photo of a small bee that Clint thought might be a leafcutter bee.

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Might this be a leafcutter bee (genus Megachile)?

It was a nice visit – I’m never disappointed when I visit this preserve!fullsizeoutput_fda

 

For the Love of Copperheads

Photo: Michael Smith

“Be sure you marry someone who loves copperheads,” said no parent to their child ever. “You’re going to have to find someone willing to put up with venomous snakes, which is not going to be easy,” I rather recall my own saying. Fortunately, after a string of failed experiments in the matter, I found both. When an unfortunate rattlesnake bite on our second date landed me temporarily in the hospital and the girl stood by my side, telling me to hurry up and shake off the effects of the venom so we could get back out into the field, I knew I had at last found “the one.”  

Amber likes copperheads almost as much as I do. So much so that she has hit “copperhead road” (a little-traveled backroad near our house that still sustains a healthy population of the abundant little pit vipers) by herself whenever I am out of town on herp trips, and has been suggesting I do an article on them for some time now. So Amber, this one’s for you. 

Second-date snakebite: the Litmus Test?


I have shared my life with the greatly misunderstood, feared, and generally underappreciated copperhead since as far back as I can remember. When my family first moved to Wise County back in the mid-80s I distinctly remember my mother showing me a dead one that had been flattened by a car near our house. My love for snakes was well-evident even back then (I couldn’t have been more than four or five) and I remember her warning me. ‘If you ever see a snake that looks like that don’t pick it up!’ (the warning not to pick up any snakes had long since been abolished due to repeated acts of noncompliance). I also distinctly recall thinking ‘Wow! That’s the prettiest snake I have ever seen!’  Nice try, Mom. 

Later that summer my dad, who used to take me on backroad “snake hunts” showed me my first live copperhead. The beautiful chestnut crossbands alternating across a background of burnt orange that faded laterally to pinkish-grey still stand out vividly in my mind. I remember my dad (who was afraid of nothing) toeing the snake to the roadside grass with his leather boot, which neither provoked it to strike or crawl quickly away. My brother and I watched it slowly disappear with wide eyes, its body blending in with the tall grass and leaf litter in a remarkable display of camouflage. 

My earliest existing copperhead photo, taken by the side of our house in the early nineties


Fast forward five or six years and my dad would take me with him to one of his friend’s houses which was located in that vast section of red dirt canyonland mixed with oak and mesquite that lies between Jacksboro and Lake Bridgeport in western Wise County. Charlie was a backwoods mechanic and bachelor who lived alone on some acreage, and he and my father would spend hours shooting the breeze over cans of Coors while I ran wild through the fields. Charlie even made me my first pair of tongs, and even encouraged me to ‘catch all the copperheads you want and get’em off my property!’  While diamondbacks were plentiful around his house and barn, he treated them with comparative indifference. It was the copperheads alone that Charlie feared. “They look just like the damn leaves”, he said on more than one occasion, to which my dad would raise his beer can in a silent gesture of affirmation. “And they don’t give a warning before they bite.  I dread raking leaves every fall. I always find two or three.”  This would always get me started on a thorough survey of Charlie’s yard, where I would ‘rake’ leaves with my tongs ever at the ready. I never did find a single specimen, although Charlie continued to find many and eventually gave me a juvenile he had managed to somehow coaxe into a pickle jar, I assume as payment for all that fruitless leaf-raking.  That was the first venomous snake I ever owned, for a full 24 hours, until my mom found out about it and hit the ceiling. “Get rid of it!” was the verdict after what I deemed an unfair trial in which my court-appointed lawyer must have been sleeping with the judge. The next day was a school day, and the little snake was exiled to the porch until I could find it a proper home (apparently Charlie held no return policy when it came to copperheads). Fortunately my English teacher had a brother that worked at the Dallas Zoo and I was able to make a trade: a small copperhead for a lively little problematic green iguana, which introduced me to all the subsequent miseries involved in their husbandry. Ironically, the iguana ended up giving me a case of salmonella poisoning, which proved more dangerous than the copperhead. 

A nine year old me with a Texas rat snake (note the bloody shirt!)


“No venomous snakes in the house!” was mom’s proverbial cry as I hit my teen years. With a driver’s license and truck , I was now free to go on my own road cruises in search of snakes. The first night out I got fourteen copperheads on “Copperhead Road”, and of course brought them all home,where they shared a homemade wood and plexiglass cage on the front porch that I assured my mother was full of rat snakes. I guess I made the viewing window a little too large, because after a week or so mom peeped in and once again I was summoned back to court, found guilty of endangering my own life and the lives of others, and sentenced to “get rid of those things now!”

My Box of Copperheads, pre-trial


I Was a Teenage Snakehunter: more Tx rats with the herp-mobile in the background


I must admit I treated copperheads with less respect than they were due during my early years as a teenage snakehunter. I would frequently catch them by the tail or (I hate to admit this now) with a swift grab behind the head while “distracting” them with my free hand.  All that changed when I received my first copperhead bite, whereupon I soon found out that “the least venomous of our native pit vipers”  was nevertheless quite venomous indeed. The bite was through a pillowcase, a single fang to the knuckle of my left hand, by an adult copperhead. It left me in 24 hours of unrelenting pain as my hand and wrist swelled to 13 cm in circumference. It stayed that way for a full month before it finally began to recede, and I lost all feeling in the finger below the bite for four years. My days of disrespecting and underestimating the lowly copperhead were over! It was hooks, tongs, and reliable buckets with screw-on lids from then on out! I have always loved copperheads, but one kiss was enough to last a lifetime!

Copperhead bite:20 minutes in

Copperhead bite: 4 hours-30 days…


As the years passed I shared my life with countless copperheads. My travels afield gave me the opportunity to meet what were then recognized as many subspecies of Agkistrodon contortrix. Brazos County’s “Peach Creek” , before it fell to the bulldozer of “progress”, gave me my first taste of the southern copperhead..33 in a single night, to be exact. These were more pinkish than the broadbanded variety that frequented my stomping grounds in the cross-timbers, with wider more hourglass-shaped crossbands. Later excursions into the Big Thicket and Sabine National Forest of east Texas would provide even more opportunities to view this beautiful variant. 

My first southern copperhead, taken back when cameras still had film & parts of Peach Creek still had sand


A trip to Kansas in 2004 introduced me to the lovely little osage copperhead. Around the shores of Lake Perry north of the city of Lawrence, it seemed every other rock seemed to relinquish one of these beauties. Ten years later, on a return trip, I found them just as common as I remembered. 

Adult Osage found around Lake Perry

Juvenile osage: Lake Perry


I didn’t find my first Trans Pecos copperheads until the summer of last year, after they had been absorbed into the all-inclusive species A. c. contortrix, although I had spent fifteen years searching for them in the Chihuahuan Desert. Fellow herpers assured me they were fairly common in certain locales, but they somehow always managed to elude me. Then, on a single fateful night on the River Road in southern Brewster County, Michael Smith and I happened upon a “pictigaster party”. We found three specimens in the span of perhaps five minutes on the road and nearby banks of the Rio Grande. 

Now that mom no longer governs my collection: a pair of Trans Pecos copperheads


To tell of all the copperheads, or even the notable ones, for that matter, who have crawled across my path over the years would fill up far more space than this blog has to offer. There were the threevmy friend Scott Robinson saw hidden in the leaf litter between my legs as I squatted on my haunches to photograph a western diamondback den in Montague County. There was the hypomelanistic specimen I accidentally ran over on the LBJ Grasslands, which my wife never forgave me for, and the one that got out in my parents’ house and found the only non-snake-proof area in my snake room, a tiny 1/2″ crack beneath the sink I had missed with the caulk gun (I remedied this by sealing it up in the void between the sink unit and floor for a week or so and then removing the caulk and coaxing it out with a water dish in the center of the room, which luckily worked like a charm but soon found me seeking other means of habitation).  I could go on forever…


By now I am past all hope (sorry Mom!) All those tall tales told at family reunions meant to dissuade a young herper from venturing over to the Dark Side and pursuing that bane of the north Texas country folk apparently fell upon deaf ears and seems to have faded into obscurity. My lifelong romance with the copperhead has left me with more memorable field experiences than I can count and (sorry again) it looks like the fever was a contagious one, catching on to my wife and even my young son. Many “family nights” have been shared in a unanimous decision to forsake the Yahtzee board or latest cinema flick for an evening on “copperhead road.”  I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to my father, who never lacked faith in my knowledge, ability and maturity when it came to living among venomous snakes (even when those traits seemed to be lacking!) and also to my wife, who never once batted an eye when it came to sharing her home with copperheads, rattlesnakes, and a host of other species that neither of us were ever naiive enough to consider “pets”.  And to my poor mother, too, for maintaining her sanity over the years. (My experience with copperheads came in handy when I removed the one that had slithered out from the fire pit and coiled itself on the porch between her and the grill during an outdoor cookout).  But most of all I owe it to the copperhead itself, without which, of course, none of this would have even been possible. 

Wildlife Through the Window

By Clint King

As some of you who read my Coleopteraholic blog already know, I fell victim to an untimely work injury in mid-June that resulted in some broken ribs and both feet, fracturing the right one and reducing the left one to bone, tendon, and muscle soup beneath the skin. This ultimately resulted in my temporary disability, putting me on six month work leave with doctor’s orders to remain as immobile as possible, which, to a hyperactive naturalist such as myself, has proven near-impossible. Fortunately I was able to put a minimal amount of weight on my right foot, and thus do a small amount of walking with the aide of crutches, but the bulk of my mobility is severely limited, quenching all hopes of hitting the road/trails/forests/prairies etc for this year. Some weeks later (after workman’s comp agreed to foot the bill, no doubt) the surgeon had to go in and do a bimacular repair surgery, which involved rebulding the remnants of my shattered ankle with rods, plates, and screws. He then warned me to not even think about walking until atleast September, and then only after intensive rehabilitative therapy with the aide of a cane. The complete healing process could take up to eighteen months, blah-blah-blah. But as many who know me can attest, there is simply no way I’m throwing in the towel when it comes to including natural history observation and fielding in my daily regimen. 

This should make a good centipede tattoo someday…


During the first four weeks following the incident I was completely bound to bed or chair. My wife was finishing up a semester at college, so my mom graciously allowed me to stay at her house during the day until Amber got out of class and could pick me up. Even simple tasks such as getting a glass of water or making something to eat were impossible without reliance on someone else, and I was flung into a state of dependence. While I couldn’t go outside yet, I could look from the window of the car in the mornings and evenings and observe whatever wildlife happened to cross our path during the ten minute drive to and from our house to my mom’s. Like the use of my legs, all those common creatures I had once taken for granted began to gain more importance as they became my only source of connectedness to the outside world. I saw grey squirrels, cottontails, blacktailed jack rabbits, and skunks in the mornings, not to mention an array of local ornithofauna: northern mockingbirds and cardinals, loggerhead shrikes, scissortailed flycatchers, and sparrows of which I am unqualified to identify to species, all in a new light.  Perhaps my favorites were the painted buntings, little feathered works of art, the males of which look like their Designer couldn’t decide if He wanted to paint them red, green, purple, blue, or yellow.  The buntings are always busy around the roadsides beneath thick draperies of wild grape that adorn the fence rows, with their comparatively drab olive green female counterparts always at their side. A flock of wild turkeys made their daily morning arrival like clockwork, the big male leading his harem with a confident strut across the road and under the barbed wire fence on the other side. On other, less frequent occasions I saw barred owls as they sat on their perches in the lower canopy of the oak mottes after winding down their all-nighters. 

Killdeer as seen from a Pontiac G6


The evening’s drive home presented another mixed assortment of creatures, in spite of the typically oppressive June heat. Racerunners and spiny lizards darted across the roadway, and turkey and black vultures soared overhead, presumably waiting for me to die. Redtail and redshouldered hawks dominated the tops of telephone poles, while their smaller cousins the Mississippi kites stood on fenceposts and power lines. 

Post oak motte off the county road


Sometimes we would hang out at my mom’s until sunset, and on those drives home we saw an even greater abundance of crepuscular animals that call the Wilson Prairie where I live home. As the temps cooled with the setting sun, wildlife came out to take advantage of it, gearing up for their nightly forays. Small herds of whitetail deer grazed in open areas. Raccoons made their comical high-speed shuffles of panic across the road. And leopard frogs and Woodhouse toads leapt and hopped from one side to the other. Nightjars filled the sky, snatching up insects on boomerang-shaped wings. Once, our passing disturbed a young great horned owl as it had just settled into the top of a post oak to engage in its nightly survey of roadside rabbits. 

A pair of the ever-present Woodhouse toads, on nightly bug duty


Unfortunately I could not ride in the car for more than fifteen or twenty minutes without being in great pain, so roadcruising for herps was out of the question. But these little morning and evening drives, brief as they may have been, provided me with plenty of daily opportunities to catch glimpses of the wildlife all around me, as well as a rush of endorphins no amount of opioid-based pharmaceutical concoction could touch. 

The car window wasn’t the only chance I had to view wildlife. When I oversaw the plans for our house construction in 2015 I had two large double windows installed in the living room that allowed me to view wildlife from the comfort of my recliner. It paid off in full this summer, as I was forced to keep my legs elevated for the first few weeks of recovery. I have an open front porch, with an overhanging eave beam where swallows and eastern phoebes build their nests of mud and straw, respectively. Hummingbirds often take a break from their incessant flight here on the beams, and a special multi-faceted cylindrical porch light turns an everyday halogen bulb into a nocturnal beacon calling all flying insects!  Needless to say, the door beside it wasn’t painted white for aesthetic purposes, as its reflective glare brings in an all manner of moths and beetles.  To make matters better (or worse, my wife might argue) opening the door for a few seconds gave me an instant indoor insect show. 

One of many paper wasp colonies under the eaves


The lights also call up one of my favorite local residents with which we share the property, the ubiquitous little grey tree frog, which seems to show up like magic on hot, dry summer nights to take advantage of the insect smorgasbord. 

Swallows begin nest construction under the eaves


What I can’t see from the window my wife and son help by bringing photos to me of wild treasures they have found. Amber frequently sends pictures of snakes she comes across, and Zev is always bringing me beetles to identify. On two occasions he has brought in ornate box turtles, a species that is in rapid decline over most of its range. I am fortunate enough to be able to remember a time when they were much more common, but am glad that my son still has a chance to enjoy them, snap a photo, then let them go again where he found them. 

Ornate box turtle, photo by Zev King


When you live in the country sometimes you don’t even have to look through the window to enjoy wildlife. One of our tenants is the little striped bark scorpion. These turn up almost daily in our house, creeping across the floor or up a curtain with the menacing tail arched, or sitting still in a corner beneath a stray t-shirt. The fact that in the two years we have lived here we have only been stung twice is a testament to these creatures’ general reluctance to sting. Still, the thought of one crawling into my cast and hammering me relentlessly was a thought that kept me checking the blankets to make sure they weren’t dragging the floor during those first few weeks post-surgery when I was confined to the couch. 

Mesquite borer Zev found at the front door


Now that nearly eight weeks have passed since my accident I have a little more mobility. This has allowed me to do some limited hobbling around outdoors on crutches. I have found a crutch doubles as a good beating stick with which to survey foliage for arboreal insects. We even joked about modifying them to include an aerial net on one and a snake hook on the other, and equipping my wheelchair with two high powered LED flashlights so I could wheel it down the paved backroads for a little cruising. I could only imagine the hilarity that would ensue if I were to have to explain myself to a game warden. 

One way I have been able to engage in my continuously ongoing beetle research has been through the use of bait traps. While my ‘little house on the prairie ‘ is devoid of any trees close enough to be accessible by crutch or wheelchair, my mom’s 1/2 acre mini-forest of Texas ash and slippery elms we planted when I was a kid is within easy hobbling distance. These trees now stand twenty five plus feet tall, with massive trunks and bifurcated limbs that provide homemade swings and climbing opportunities for my son and his cousins. They have also given me a chance to hang some traps for my beloved longhorn beetles, which are most often found in arboreal situations. The traps consist of a mixture of red wine and molasses mixed with yeast and tap water and are placed into 2 liter pitchers, which are then suspended from the trees via hooks fashioned from coat hangers. 

A waste of good wine? Not for a bug nerd! (As far as I know it’s illegal to waste beer in this way in Texas)


While not all species of longhorn beetles are attracted to the bait, which mimics the fermenting fruit and sap they normally come to in nature, the ones that are show up in phenomenal numbers. My mom’s neighbors, who own a large section of private land consisting of oak motte/mesquite savanna, also gave me permission to put out a few traps, and with the aide of a driver (Amber? Mom? Uber? Anybody…) I have been able to expand my traps to a total of seven in two different habitats. As a result I have brought in nearly 300 specimens of longhorn beetle representing 15 different species, not to mention the click beetles, scarabs, wasps and other insects attracted to the bait. What is even more phenomenal is the abundance of longhorn beetles in these habitats in general, as these huge numbers represent only a fraction of the individuals found on single trees. When viewed from this light, it underlines the importance of wood-destroying insects to the forest ecosystem, as most species only feed on trees already stressed from branch dieback or woodrot caused by outlying factors, proving their beneficiality. 

Soup’s on! Straining the beetles from the bait


This has kept me busy laboriously pinning and mounting a series of specimens of which I hope to eventually use in a dissertation I plan on writing on the beneficiality of wood-boring species in my pursuit of an entomological degree. 

As I write this I am sitting in my recliner, my booted broken feet propped up on the extended footrest and the spasms of my atrophying back muscles screaming to be taken out to the field and stretched with some good old fashioned rock flipping. The curtains and shades are drawn back to provide me with an unobstructed view of the cross-timbers that lies in front of, behind, and all around me. There is a baby blue sky overhead, dotted by puffy patches of snow-white clouds like cottonballs. A high wall of sugarberry, mulberry, post oak and honey mesquite lord over an understory of juniper, hawthorn and gum bumelia. Paper wasps bump haphazardly across the window screen, while a hungry jumping spider eyes them, biding his time. In a few hours night will fall, and with the windows raised I will be able to enjoy the nightly chorus of our resident coyotes, the distinct cry of the whippoorwill, and the melodious mixed trills of the frogs in the pond behind the house as they take over where the dogday cicadas have winded down. A fork-tailed bush katydid will undoubtedly buzz from somewhere beneath the porchlight, and the luminescent glow of fireflies will blink on and off, calling their mates with their mysterious, still-yet-to-be-completely-explained cold light. I will enjoy all the natural gifts I can from the window, knowing they will provide sustenance until I can get back on my feet and out into the field. 

Bee assassin, found at my feet during a backyard hobble

A Summer Sunset at That Pond

In January of this year, I sat for an hour at the edge of a pond at Southwest Nature Preserve and then wrote about what I saw. I sat there again in March, taking note of the changes as spring progressed. On July 21st, it was time to do it again, but I went with some misgivings. There had been heat advisories during recent days, with the humidity making the heat index very uncomfortable. I took plenty of water!

IMG_1171It was a great day for Orthopterans and Odonates. The grasshoppers scattered out of the dry grass in front of me as I walked to the pond, and then when I arrived the dragonflies hovered and flitted around the water’s surface. Pondhawks settled on twigs and stems at the pond’s edge, and skimmers floated on the air, then quickly darted to the water’s surface. Whoever gives names to these Odonates seems to have more of a descriptive or whimsical sense than do herpetologists. We give names like “plain-bellied watersnake” or “Texas brownsnake,” while they use words like “blue-eyed darner,” “red saddlebags,” or “Halloween pennant,” invoking a sort of poetic sense with names that describe these fantastic insects.

I settled in beside the black willow where I have sat in each of these visits, putting out a small thermometer that soon reached 90 degrees in the shade of the willow, a big improvement from the high of 100. Periodically, a light breeze stirred things. The pond had grown a huge crop of some submerged plant that might be sago pondweed or maybe southern naiad, thin strands with filamentous leaves forming big clumps or mats. It brushed the surface of the water all around, from the edge toward the center, leaving a circular area in the center of the pond where none of it was evident. In that central area, two or perhaps three pond turtles’ heads surfaced, they paddled along briefly, and then submerged. One day I will learn to keep binoculars in the pack; if I had brought them, I might have been able to identify the turtles, which were almost surely red-eared sliders.

What would a hot summer evening be without the calls of cricket frogs? One of them soon began to call from somewhere to my right along the pond’s edge, with that gradually accelerating “grick-grick-grick” cutting through the hazy summer air. On my walk around part of the water’s edge, there were many of them hopping into the water or back into the surrounding vegetation. I did not see bullfrogs or leopard frogs, just dozens of little cricket frogs.

As the light began to fade, swallows began to appear, gracefully flying over the pond and engaging in all sorts of acrobatic maneuvers as they chased insects. I would imagine that they were barn swallows, but again, where were those binoculars? In any case, it was a quiet and peaceful few minutes there at the close of the day, with the sun sinking below the horizon and the dark silhouettes of the swallows cutting across a dimming pastel sky.

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Just before dark. The central part of the pond that was free of vegetation is visible here.

A Giant Serpent of the Prairies? A Bull That’s No Bull!

A few years ago, driving along a back road in Parker County, a long, uneven dark line came into view on the pale caliche road. I pulled up closer on a four-foot snake stretched out in its sunset wanderings, nervously eyeing the human that was walking up to it. The bullsnake flattened its neck and tongue-flicked to check whatever scent it could pick up in the air, but tolerated my approach. There was a big scar along the right side of its face, probably the result of a near-fatal encounter with a predator or maybe a human. For a few moments it warily put up with my crouching beside it and I admired its allowing me to be there despite the glowering, don’t-tread-on-me expression on its face. And then, it was time for it to move on into the grasses and wildflowers, making its way along to wherever it was going. This was a treasured encounter in which the snake made no panicked attempt at escape or big defensive display, and I sought only to share a moment with the snake, without trying to collect it or harm it. I could almost make the case for it being marked by mutual respect, though the bullsnake probably just regarded it as a near-miss with something that could hurt it.

The bullsnake is one of our largest nonvenomous snakes, routinely growing to four or five feet in length. The record length is nearly nine feet long (Werler & Dixon, 2000). It is not so slender as a coachwhip, but smaller in girth than the western diamond-backed rattlesnake. The bullsnake has a pattern of dark blotches on a lighter sandy or tan background, with the darker blotches becoming more ring-like toward the tail. Its head is not as flat as is the case with other larger snakes such as the ratsnakes, and the snout is vertically flattened a little. At the tip of the snout, the rostral scale is taller than it is wide, and is somewhat raised from the surrounding scales. The structure of the underlying skull is more rigid than that of most snakes. Taken together, the head shape and skull rigidity enable the bullsnake to be very skilled at digging and excavating.

bullsnake-head

Bullsnake head, showing the vertically flattened snout and slightly raised rostral scale

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A young bullsnake, from Parker County

The bullsnake’s skills as an excavator were described by Carpenter (1982), who tested eight bullsnakes in an enclosure with sand substrate. The snakes generally began prodding the sand next to a stable object, and began digging sand with sideways movements of the head. Then, the snake bent its head to the side to scoop loosened sand and move it away. A loop of the neck continued to push the sand backward. In further testing, bullsnakes were seen to excavate tunnels up to a meter long. Additionally, Carpenter examined whether bullsnakes would recognize pocket gopher mounds, and showed that these snakes actively explore and excavate pocket gopher burrows in attempt to eat the gophers.

The diet of the bullsnake includes various rodent species, birds and their eggs, and the occasional lizard. Werler & Dixon (2000) reviewed literature suggesting that they may eat burrowing rodents such as gophers in greater numbers than species such as the hispid cotton rat that spend more time above ground.  Rodriguez-Robles (1998) examined published reports of stomach contents of Pituophis catenifer (including gophersnakes and bullsnakes), finding that mammals constituted 77% of prey items.

Their range in Texas includes central and west Texas with an eastern boundary that includes Lamar, Henderson, McClennan, Bastrop, and Victoria Counties (Dixon, 2013). That is, the eastern boundary of their range runs a little east of a line from Dallas down through Waco, Austin, and Corpus Christi. This means that the blackland prairie and parts of the adjacent post oak savannah serve as the eastern boundary of the bullsnake’s Texas range.  In west Texas, the bullsnake shades into the Sonoran gophersnake subspecies around the Pecos River. Bullsnakes occupy niches within the south Texas plains, the hill country, the cross timbers, rolling plains, and high plains. They make use of open habitats such as prairies and plains, but can also be found in rocky hillsides and bluffs in the hill country. A study of bullsnakes in Wisconsin found that the snakes preferred south-facing open canopy bluffs but mostly avoided agricultural lands (Kapfer, et al., 2008). They examined the relationship between amount of preferred habitat and home range size, and concluded that where there are large patches of good habitat, bullsnakes can live within smaller home ranges. Where preferred habitat (such as grassland and savannah) is broken up by farmland and other less-usable land, they travel over larger areas and do not survive as well. Werler & Dixon (2000) noted that researchers in Nebraska reported bullsnake home range sizes of 10 to 42.5 acres.

Predators of bullsnakes undoubtedly include birds of prey such as the red-tailed hawk, as well as coyotes and other medium-sized carnivores. It seems very likely that people are a significant source of bullsnake mortality. Because they are large snakes that are sometimes active during the day and frequently cross roads, they are more easily seen and targeted by humans who may kill them or run over them in cars. Additionally, the slight resemblance of bullsnakes to rattlesnakes undoubtedly increases the number of deaths at the hands of humans. Bullsnakes have a very intimidating threat display when cornered or caught, raising the head and first part of the body in preparation for striking, hissing loudly, and vibrating the tail. The hissing has been described as like the sound of escaping steam, and it shares a little similarity to the high-pitched buzz of an enraged rattlesnake. The particular sound quality is the result of a small band of tissue (the epiglottis) positioned vertically just at the opening of the airway (the glottis). When air is forced around it, a loud hissing sound is created. A large bullsnake that is aroused in such a way gives the impression that it could be quite dangerous, although it is not. Instead of frightening the person away, it’s likely that this behavior often leads to the snake being killed.

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The glottis is the opening just behind the tongue, and the epiglottis is the vertical strip of tissue just in front of it

Many of us, at least in north central Texas, would report seeing fewer bullsnakes than we used to. Decades ago, I remember finding them much more often, but the cities were smaller then and there was more prairie and ranchland around the edges of Fort Worth. However, bullsnakes are not considered to be imperiled overall. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes that the bullsnake has not yet been assessed for the Red List of Threatened Species. It is not listed in the Species of Greatest Conservation Need compiled by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Overall, the status of the bullsnake in Texas has not been identified as a concern, but like many other species of herpetofauna, we may not know just how secure it is. I hope that bullsnakes continue to live in healthy populations wherever there is enough good prairie and savannah habitat. When I think of the prairie out west of Fort Worth, the image of the bullsnake comes to mind along with images of grasses and forbs, pale yellow yucca blooms, little massasauga rattlesnakes, and the beautiful calls of doves and chuck-will’s-widows in the evenings. It is a wonderful, shrinking ecosystem, and I hope we save it in places here and there. And it would not be the same without the bullsnake.

Carpenter, C.C. 1982. The bullsnake as an excavator. Journal of Herpetology, 16(4), Pp. 394-401.

Dixon, J.R. 2013. Amphibians and Reptiles of Texas (3rd Ed.) College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Internet). http://www.iucnredlist.org/search (accessed 2/12/17)

Kapfer, J.M., J.R. Coggins and R. Hay. 2008. Spatial ecology and habitat selection of bullsnakes (Pituophis catenifer sayi) at the northern periphery of their geographic range. Copeia 2008(4), Pp. 815-826.

Rodriguez-Robles, J.A. 1998. Alternative perspectives on the diet of gopher snakes (Pituophis catenifer, Colubridae): Literature records versus stomach contents of wild and museum specimens. Copeia, 1998(2), Pp. 463-466.

Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Texas Conservation Action Plan: Species of Greatest Conservation Need.  http://tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/tcap/sgcn.phtml  (accessed 2/12/17)

Werler, J.E., and J.R. Dixon. 2000. Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution, and Natural History. Austin: University of Texas Press.

The Woods at Ray Roberts Lake State Park

It was time to search for more areas within the eastern cross timbers, which are blackjack and post oak woodlands dotted with small “pocket” prairies and meadows. Clint and I both want to get to know the woodlands and prairies of north Texas more completely. We both grew up here, but it is surprising how you can get to know some areas so that they become familiar friends while completely missing other places.

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Portion of a map showing the eastern cross timbers (29b) and western cross timbers (29c). Map citation:  Griffith, G.E., S.A. Bryce, J.M. Omernik, J.A. Comstock, A.C. Rogers, B. Harrison, S.L. Hatch, and D. Bezanson, 2004, Ecoregions of Texas, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Corvallis, OR.

In north-central Texas, two belts of oak-dominated woodland extend down from the Red River, ending just above Waco in the east (the eastern cross timbers) and around the Colorado River in the west (the western cross timbers). The eastern cross timbers is skinnier and smaller, and running underneath it is Woodbine sandstone, which makes for reddish sandy soil. The patch of eastern cross timbers that I know best, at Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington, has outcrops of iron-rich sandstone along with smaller rocks on the surface of the sandy soil. As the years progress, more of these woodlands disappear under the bulldozer in the metroplex and all up and down the I-35 corridor. But looking at a map and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department website, it seemed that the “Isle du Bois” unit of Ray Roberts Lake State Park would contain a good remnant of eastern cross timbers.

Lake Ray Roberts is a little bit northeast of Denton, and along the eastern shore of the lake there is a knob of park land that juts out into the lake. This is the Isle du Bois unit. We decided to meet there, and circumstances dictated that it would be in the middle of a pretty hot day. I got there about noon and began walking from a spot near the Quail Run campsites.

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Two juvenile red-eared sliders

Early in the walk, an interpretive sign pointed back to an ephemeral pond partly hidden within the trees. I looked around the margins, expecting that I might find a watersnake, and I did see a couple of baby red-eared sliders that probably hatched last year. I always love seeing wetlands, but my goal was further upland. Soon I was seeing open patches of prairie grasses surrounded by oak woodland. I heard from Clint and his family, and they joined me soon afterward.

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small prairie or meadow within the Isle du Bois unit

A good part of our walk was on a “sidewalk” that winds up through the woodlands and glades, but eventually we found a small dirt trail to follow further back into the oak forest. Sure enough, the occasional sandstone broke through the grasses in woodland glades, and much of the soil was red sand. Blackjack oak was everywhere, and it was easy to imagine this being a continuous, unbroken ecosystem extending down to the Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington.

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Three views of the cross timbers woodland

This walk was a good introduction to a place we want to return to and get to know better.

The Big Bend Country as a Refuge for the Soul

This summer, I plan another trip to the deserts and mountains west of the Pecos River. If it was anywhere else, I might have had enough of it by now, but it looks like I’ll never get enough of the Big Bend country. Cool mountain meadows and bright expanses of rocky desert haunt my imagination. I need time “out west” on a regular basis.

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In the Chisos Mountains, a view from the Lost Mine Trail

Those of us for whom nature is like an essential nutrient (as Richard Louv puts it, “Vitamin N”) spend time seeking out places to roam like starving people searching for a scrap of food. Urban nature refuges are wonderful, but often have unavoidable noise from highways and airplanes, and everything from discarded beer cans to fast food wrappers. These nature centers are essential and beloved oases in a sea of sprawl, despite the reminders of their urban surroundings. In fact, they are particularly loved and needed because of their urban surroundings.

Outside of these preserves, life is paved. We get from place to place on roaring highways or in glacial traffic jams. We commute from crowded hives buzzing in towering glass buildings, past urban blight and Wal Mart, to rows of boxy houses. Do we want to be constantly surrounded by our stuff? Everywhere we turn, confronted with mirrors reflecting us, our things, what we have done? Being so immersed in ourselves, our products, our excretia, we are distracted from the fact that we are part of nature. We live as if we were the beginning and the end of all things. We are not.

Out in the Big Bend country, much of our self-focused distraction is stripped away. The sky stretches away, limitless and quiet. Ancient mountain ranges are reminders of beginnings long before the earliest human memory. Life depends on rainfall, and on the aquifers flowing beneath the desert. Water, soil (however thin and rocky), green plants, and the bright, burning, radiant sun – these things support life in the Chihuahuan Desert. Wandering among the mountains, grasslands, and desert even for a short time reveals a rich diversity of life that has found ingenious ways of living in places we would consider harsh. It is reassuring that even the arid, sun-baked rocky arroyos of the desert floor provide opportunities for life to thrive. The earth is good and generous in every corner; even this place is a garden.

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Chihuahuan Desert, within Big Bend National Park

For many of us, this garden – the Big Bend – is a refuge for the soul. It is one of the rare places where we can walk in real solitude. Stepping out of the overly human-centered world feels to many of us like a healthier perspective. People comment about the Big Bend being “bigger than us,” or “not made by us,” as if the scale and wildness of the place puts us in the right perspective, participating in our surroundings but not controlling them, not overwhelming them. It is as if nature is more trustworthy than human schemes and ambitions, and we need its predictability and its resilience in the face of human folly. When talking with others about this place, I have said that I never feel safer anywhere than I do in the Big Bend. How factually true is that statement? There are no guarantees of safety in the Chihuahuan Desert. An unprepared visitor could become dehydrated and overheated, could fall off a mountain, or could have some sort of emergency and be too far away from help to get through it. My internal feeling of safety comes from the sense of peace, beauty, and trustworthiness of the desert and mountains.

Not surprisingly, those of us who love the Big Bend feel protective of it, and the news that it is under assault by the petroleum industry is very troubling. If those for whom the Big Bend is nothing but a business opportunity get their way, how much of this place will become nothing more than an industrial park? Already, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline is a reality, intending to send fracked natural gas to Mexico, for export on to Asia. The first wells are already pumping in the newly-discovered Alpine High oilfield, a large area between the Davis Mountains and Balmorhea that is thought to contain 15 billion barrels of oil and gas. Those wells are not producing as much as expected, but more wells may be coming, with more roads, trucks, fracking pollution, and methane releases.

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The Davis Mountains, with no wells or trucks

Will we lose the peace and beauty of the Trans-Pecos region? Will the nighttime desert landscape be lit by wells flaring methane gas, and will travelers have to dodge speeding wastewater trucks roaring down two-lane highways? Will the beautiful springs at Balmorhea be poisoned by toxic fracking water? Will the pipeline scar across the desert ever heal? I have no answers.

Bug-Hunting ‘Round the Redbud Family Tree

(Bringing family together through Buprestids)

I played with grim determination, Jim – Warren Zevon

As an ardent student of entomology I have seldom been accused of being either humble or shy when it comes to finding beetles, especially once my mind has fixated on a target species. From driving back roads for hours until I find a certain tree or microhabitat, to knocking on doors and asking for property permission, to searching lights at gas stations while suspicious customers look on between their cars and the pumps with concerned, confused expressions – as my wife often puts it, “I know no lows.” And so when my heart fell upon the desire to acquire a series of specimens of Ptosima laeta, the brilliantly-marked wood boring beetle that occurs only on Texas redbud trees (Cercis canadiensis) I thought nothing of exploiting my own family tree to get them.

While identifying most insects usually comes relatively easy to me, this is unfortunately not the case when it comes to botany. And while Texas redbud is one of our most familiar natives when in bloom (showing up as an unmistakable purple-painted tree in late February or early March, when almost everything else is still brown and lifeless), it was mid-April and the trees had already shed their magnificent coats, blending back into the now-flourishing growth, inconspicuous. Of course the heart- shaped leaves with their distinct teardrop points are easily recognizable up close, but I had no idea where to find one off the top of my head. Then, as I was heading out of Fort Worth from my weekly meeting with the hand therapist, my wife and I drove past the entrance to the Botanical Gardens.

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Redbud leaves and seed pods

“Pull in there!” I yelled as the lightbulb went off in my brain. The redbuds may not be blooming, but I was reasonably sure I could find a few in there. After all, they would be marked with an identifying sign. So with wife and son alongside me we parked and headed for the Texas native exhibit, which was still in the process of construction. As we walked my wife berated my hyper-enthusiasm.

“I think this place could technically be considered a refuge,” she remarked. “I’m sure they would frown upon you abandoning the marked trails to hoover up bugs.”

“I’ll collect sparingly, as always,” I assured her. “And I’ll tread lightly on the mulch. And by the way, I doubt the green thumbs that keep this place in operation will object to my removal of a small amount of wood-destructive pests. If anything they’d probably thank me.”

“I can see it now,” she said, “a plaque on the wall in the visitor’s center with your long-haired mug on it: For Single-handedly Removing Every Wood-Boring Beetle in the Botanical Gardens.

“Not single-handedly,” I reminded her. “I’m counting on you guys to help.”

“Great, we’ll look like perverts peeping between the branches of redbuds while people are trying to take wedding pictures… at least you didn’t bring the nets and beating sheets.”

“No need when you have six good hands and eyes for detail.”

I did not mean that lightly either. In spite of her nonchalant general disinterest in insects and the like, Amber has found me more rare and unusual specimens than I can sometimes believe. She is a lucky rabbit’s foot in the field, and her fondness for arrowhead hunting has trained her well in picking out slight differences in colors and shapes against similarly hued backgrounds. She is even credited with the finding of a blue and black metallic buprestid I still haven’t been able to identify, although her tendency to “live and let live” is often maddening when she sends me the pictures or text descriptions of imperial moths, Prionus beetles, and cerambycids with the caption: “I let it go..(smiley-face emoji).” And my son is a veritable walking amateur entomologist, among other “ologies” that strike his fancy, which ranges from bugs to space (which he knows more about than I do) to weather to rocks and on and on. A true and rare well-rounded scientist in the making, he has likewise gained an eagle’s eye in the field, although he is even more adamant than my wife that everything be granted its freedom. In actuality this is a very admirable and uncommon ideology, and when it extends even to scorpions and black widows and paper wasps found in and around the house I am assured without a doubt that I have a true future conservationist on my hands.

It didn’t take long to find a redbud. Behind and slightly to the right of a park bench, where a young couple sat basking in the glow of the spring sunshine in the puppy love of adolescence, a bronze plaque reading ‘Texas Redbud, Cercis canadiensis’ seemed to take on a golden glow. It shouldn’t be long now.

“Ok, you guys know what to do”, I said. “Check the foliage, also the outer twigs, trunk, and br…”

But they were gone, Amber behind me on the trail, pointing to the sign that read ‘Please Stay On The Trail,’ and Zev in deep study of the colorful aquatic residents of the koi pond. “Oh well,” I thought. “So much for free labor.” I began by scanning the outermost leaves, looking for a bit of black and orange in a world of green and brown. At a quarter to a half-inch in length, even an insect as brightly colored as Ptosima is easily overlooked. I began to part the branches to investigate the tree’s interior, and in so doing happened to look up and notice the necking love birds had become aware of my presence and were getting nervous, casting wide-eyed glances over their shoulder at the tackily-dressed bum with the bandaged hand who seemed to be lurking in the bushes like Gargamel. Luckily for them, on the next teardrop-shaped leaf sat my beetle, its boldly marked elytra standing out in radiance. It was a sunny day, and the creature was warmed up, so it lifted its wing covers and prepared to take flight. I made a quick assessment of where to place my hands (above and slightly in front of – the key to success when hand-catching the flighty, alert jewel beetles) and grabbed. At last, Ptosima was mine! I slipped a vial from my pocket, popped the specimen inside, and set off to find my family and tell them the good news.

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The target of the bug-hunt: Ptosima laeta

A week later, on my next follow-up appointment, which I had this time intentionally scheduled to allow time for optimal beetle hunting afterwards, I found myself standing in front of this same group of redbuds, this time with my mother, who had been so kind as to chauffeur me to the hand clinic. Unknowingly, she was the next in line to fall victim to my coleopteran schemings.

“How long has it been since you visited the Botanical Gardens?” I asked her over lunch at the Spiral Diner.

“Many years,” she replied. “Not since your dad worked for the city in the seventies.”

“Well, I’ve allotted time in our schedule to change all that. After all, it’s a beautiful place to visit this time of year, when all the flowers are in bloom.”

“Why, what bug are you looking for now?” she said. (Mothers, it seems, are hard to B.S.)IMG_20170418_135501

Once again we parked and made for the redbuds. This time I found a Ptosima instantly, a large specimen on the topside of a leaf, its silhouette given away by the beaming sun as I looked upward from the base of the trunk.

“That didn’t take long,” my mom remarked as a group of people walked by, no doubt wondering at our strange behavior. My mom is always amused by the fact that my quarry is often so small and (at least to her) unremarkable. But she was pretty good at finding insects on the leaves. Soldier beetles, ladybugs larvae, and caterpillars were all pointed out as soon as she had gotten focused on where to look, and as we hunted we spent some time discussing what makes her weird son’s world tick, on the same old inquisitive electricity it had run on since I was my son’s age. In the span of an hour we had the good fortune of finding three beetles, and while some caretakers who were blowing leaves from the trail gave us questionable glances, they only shrugged as they walked by, saying nothing. Another day another vial of borers. By this time it was nearing 3:30, and we had to leave to pick up my son from the school bus stop.

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Mom joins the bug hunt

But the day, as it turned out, was not quite over. At the bus stop we ran into my aunt, whom I knew to possess a large yard full of a variety of well-kept trees, shrubs, and flowers.

“Do you happen to know where any redbud trees are?” I asked.
 As it turned out, she had one growing in her back yard. “Feel free to come over any time and check it out,” she added after I had described the nature of my inquisition.

“Excellent. How does ten minutes from now sound?”

We picked up Zev (who is always eager and willing to go on a bug hunt at a moment’s notice) and got my mom to drive us down to her sister’s house. This time I was free to use my beating sheet, and while I didn’t have one on me, I MacGyvered one out of an old piece of wire-rimmed tent tarp I found stuck on a barb wire fence and set about giving the poor redbud a sound whipping.

Spiders, ladybugs, leaves and loose pods came raining down onto the sheet as I shook and rapped the foliage with a dried stick, but after several rounds of no success I gave up and declared the tree borer-less, in spite of the telltale bb-sized holes on the trunk that marked the emergence points of the adults from their larval chambers.

“Let me take a look,” Zev said, and in the span off ten seconds pointed at an upraised knot on the trunk. “Is that one?”

Sure enough, there sat a Ptosima, perched atop the knot. If it had possessed a tongue it would have probably been sticking it out at me in defiance. “Unbelievable,” I remarked, shaking my head as I ruffled Zev’s hair. “Good job, kid!”

I was now the proud owner of five new redbud borers on my collection of jewel beetles, where a week before there had only been a single one, found dead on the ground some fifteen years ago. And I had owed it all to the cooperative support of my family members, whom I had once again unashamedly exploited for my own selfish interests. But they hadn’t seemed to mind, and so no harm was done, except to the beetles themselves, who, of course, ended up skewered to # 0 rust-resistant insect pins over an acid-free label. But the series was still not complete. I needed a few more samples from a few more locales, as well as examples of the other three species in the genus, P. idolynae, P. gibbicollis, and P. walshii.

The next evening was Physics night at the college I attend, and on my break I took a stroll outside to see what I could turn up in the ten minutes of free time I had on my hands before getting back to a lecture on sound waves. As I passed the break table I glanced at the two trees planted on either side of the entrance doors and much to my surprise discovered they were examples of the now-familiar Texas redbud! There were no family members around this time, and the few students who had congregated around the table didn’t look like likely recruits for a bug hunt. I wondered what the professor was doing after class? After all, I believed I remembered him saying he had a biology major. There was only one way to find out, shameless and beguiling as ever. A borrowed lab smock sure would make a good beating sheet…after all, if there is one thing I have learned, it never hurts to ask….

April 9th: Rattlesnakes on the Rolling Plains

Jacksboro was an hour behind us now, and the oak trees had been replaced mostly by mesquite as we made our way west on the Great Rattlesnake Highway into the Rolling Plains. Secure in a locking bucket in the back were three small rattlesnakes that Clint had taken in rather than see them killed. Now it was spring, and the time had come to take them to a spot near where they came from and release them. Deciding where to release rescued snakes is tricky. On the one hand, relocated reptiles often don’t settle down in a new place, and many do not survive. On the other hand, when facing certain death in the form of a human with a hoe or a gun, almost anything seems like a better option. And when the reptile in question is a rattlesnake, the idea is to find a place where it will come to no harm and also not inflict any harm if possible.

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The Great Rattlesnake Highway

The smallest of the three little western diamond-backs had already inflicted some harm, biting a finger of Clint’s left hand (as chronicled earlier in this blog). Nevertheless, he wanted this little snake to find a suitable home and live out its life. After all, the little serpent had simply done what it was designed to do, protecting itself against an animal vastly bigger than itself, having no way to know that the big animal was a snake-loving human who meant no harm.

It was a beautiful, warm day out on the plains halfway to Lubbock, and we hoped to see other reptiles and amphibians once we released the rattlesnakes. Our destination was an old railroad right of way, with rails removed and wooden railroad ties scattered along what was now a wide path. The ties were in various stages of decomposition, but provided excellent cover for such things as snakes, lizards, and toads tucked away beneath the thick chunks of wood. And, not surprisingly, the jumbled ties and thickly grown grass provided both basking spots and hiding places for more rattlesnakes. This would be a very careful walk, looking twice before stepping, and thinking at least twice about how to safely turn the ties over to look beneath them.fullsizeoutput_f4c

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Clint and the “princess”

Our first task was to release the trio of little rattlesnakes, and we took a moment to photograph the little princess whose kiss had destroyed the tip of Clint’s ring finger. She was the picture of scaly innocence, neither rattling nor striking while I took a couple of photos. The task accomplished, we moved on to see what else we could see.

As it happened, the first thing we found was another rattlesnake, a bigger one coiled beneath a railroad tie. I stepped over to get a photo, but the snake took off just as I was focusing, and it threaded its way through grass clumps and other objects until coiling at the base of a mesquite. Only then was I able to get a picture, after using the snake hook to gently wipe some spider web off the snake’s snout. The rattler politely allowed me to do this without protest.

A few minutes later, we flushed a male checkered gartersnake from beneath one of the ties. Like many gartersnakes, he was pretty easygoing about being gently captured and examined. I love these snakes and never tire of their bold black checked pattern, yellow dorsal stripe, and the pattern of olive, black, and cream color on their faces.

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Checkered gartersnake

Under a nearby railroad tie, we discovered a drab little snake tucked away, with brown spots separated by light crossbars. It was a Texas nightsnake, one of the relatively few harmless snakes in Texas that has elliptical, or cat-like pupils. A mild venom helps subdue their prey, chewed into small lizards or snakes with enlarged teeth in the back of the nightsnake’s mouth. But Clint demonstrated another aspect of nightsnake behavior that I had not seen. When pestered, this nightsnake curled into a tight spiral with its head at the center of its coils. Presumably, coiling into a compact disc with the head at the center offers less exposed surface that could be attacked by a predator.

A little after 2:30pm, Clint flipped a railroad tie and called out, “Long-nose!” Here was a west Texas treasure that many of us have only seen on the roads at night. Long-nosed snakes tend to prowl at night, poking around in burrows and crevices in search of sleeping lizards or nests of mice. The species has a somewhat long and pointed snout, resulting in its common name. Down this snake’s back is a series of black saddles separated by red, and with speckles along the side that are cream colored in the black saddles but black in the red areas. The belly is a whitish-cream color, occasionally with some scattered blocks of black color. And, underneath the tail the scales are not divided; the “subcaudal” scales beneath the tail are divided in other nonvenomous snakes in North America. However, the pit-vipers such as copperheads also have single subcaudal scales. Long-nosed snakes apparently wanted to be pit-viper wannabes when it comes to tail scales, but they are related to kingsnakes and are perfectly harmless.

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Long-nosed snake

And going somewhere with Clint means a bug-hunt is part of the action. He picked up a series of beetles along the railroad right-of-way, and we saw probably a half-dozen of the big Scolopendra heros centipedes, known as the giant red-headed centipede. The biggest of these was probably eight inches long, and they are all pretty fast. Later, as we walked along a dirt road looking for horned lizards, I snapped a photo of a pretty little blister beetle, Nemognatha piazata bicolor, emerging from a flower.

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Blister beetle

Rattlesnakes, centipedes, blister beetles – if that doesn’t sound like heaven, I don’t know what would! And yet, when you’re out there, all the irony drops away from that statement. It was a beautiful day, and when done carefully, a walk like ours is a real delight. The snakes, and the red-headed centipedes, too, were like works of art, and we were privileged to take a stroll through a west Texas gallery.

Nature’s VIP Pass: A Lesson In Gratitude

Nature is full of surprises. It is one of the most intriguing reasons for getting out in the field.  You never know what you might find; what small portion of another organism’s life you may get the privilege of being witness to.  Even simple, common events such as territorial displays and the wonderful efficiency of camouflage can bring little moments of awe.  For those of us who are inclined to get out more often than most, we become accustomed to much of this, and take a lot of it for granted.  Squirrels chattering from the boughs of a post oak, crows cawing at our presence, nature’s alarms that warn other creatures that danger is near.  A caterpillar munching on its host leaf, a chorus of frogs, a basking turtle.  We see these things so often that we forget how fortunate we are to be able to share our world with such a diverse and magnificent spectrum of living things.  But take a child who has never been out in the woods (or an inquisitive adult, for that matter) and watch them become immersed in this new world of birdsong and greenery and vibrance that had always gone on somewhere in their own background, formerly unbeknownst to them, and it will serve us as a good reminder to remain grateful for the chance to be out in those wild places for the simple sake of being there, even if we don’t happen to find that sought-after holy grail species we’re targeting.

Such a realization dawned on me yesterday as I was searching for buprestids around a brush pile on my property in Parker county.  It was late afternoon and as I was walking through the high grass, my eye on a dead Craetegus branch that would hopefully harbor one of my constantly coveted jewel beetles, I saw a flash of black raise up above the grassline.  This was followed by the high pitched squeak of a rodent in distress.  As I walked up cautiously to further investigate this unexpected new mystery, I was delighted to find the coils of a large Texas ratsnake in the process of constricting a rat.  The snake’s head was covered by a thick loop of its muscular trunk, and thus I was able to observe it at close range without alerting it to my presence.  From such a front row seat to nature’s theatre I could see the last dying gasps of the rodent as the snake’s body squeezed tighter and tighter, a tiny drop of blood forced out of the nose as the lungs collapsed, welcoming it to the impartial food chain.  The muscles beneath the snake’s keeled black and orange blotched scales seemed to flex, forcing the final breath of life from its victim.  As if sensing it had expired, the snake then poked its head up and looked directly at me, the pearl white chin graced by its red and black forked tongue as it tested the air to identify this interloper.  I quickly backed up, not wanting to disturb its hard earned dinner, and resumed my search for beetles on the other side of the brush pile. TXrat+rat

I didn’t find what I was looking for, but in fact came away with a much greater feeling of satisfaction.  The Texas ratsnake, while one of the most common of finds for a cross timbers naturalist, was a delight and highlight of my day.  It is a rare treat to be able to witness one kill and constrict a rat, and I felt blessed by the fact that I had happened to be in the right place at the right time to see it go down.  These are the moments naturalists really live for, or really should live for at least.  For all the time and thought and attention to the minute details of an individual species’ natural history that go into searching for the rare and obscure, it was a refreshing and eye opening experience to see two very common organisms engaged in such a rarely witnessed part of their lives that goes on all around us and yet we seldom get the opportunity to see.  And while I didn’t have a decent camera onhand and was able only to get a few shots with my phone, the memory I took back with me was irreplaceable.