Wandering the Southwest Nature Preserve, October 22nd

This year, late October is confused about whether or not it is fall. Today at Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington, the bright sunshine brought temperatures to the upper 70’s while the trees were beginning to shed leaves and the sumac was a mix of green and red. It was a perfect day for a walk.

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Eastern cross timbers woodland at the preserve

My first objective was to attempt to sneak up on a couple of red-eared sliders basking on a downed section of willow in one of the smaller ponds. One turtle was melanistic, meaning that its colors have been replaced by a sort of charcoal hue on its shell, head, and legs, obscuring the green lines on its body and red patches that should be present toward the back of the head, like two crimson “ears.” The second, smaller turtle seemed to be following in its companion’s footsteps, though it had a little visible pattern on the shell. I took a couple of photos, the last of which caught the big turtle as it pivoted and began to drop into the water.

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The larger slider is in the process of “sliding” off her basking spot and into the water

Pond turtles spend a lot of time basking. They haul themselves out of the water and up on a snag, such as a partly submerged log. Here, they sunbathe to warm themselves and become dry, which may discourage parasites and algae that attach to their bodies or shells. They absorb the ultraviolet-B radiation from the sun, which most turtles need in order to have adequate levels of vitamin D. This vitamin, in turn, allows the turtle to make use of calcium. No wonder pond turtles bask in the sun so much – it’s important for their health in a number of ways. And the choice of logs and branches in the water is a perfect strategy, allowing them to quickly drop into the water and swim down to some hiding place when danger threatens.

Climbing away from the pond and up to the main trail, I was passed by a couple of monarch butterflies, busily working their way southward on their seasonal migration to Mexico. I also noticed some of the other species that I’m beginning to recognize, with Clint’s help. A pearl crescent butterfly visited several small flowers. One of the sulphurs flew by, dancing around in a dizzying flight as I watched to see where it might land. Several tiny moths moved about in the low vegetation. I don’t think it has ever occurred to me how the early fall is a wonderful time to see butterflies and moths, but it certainly occurred to me today!

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A crescent butterfly, probably a pearl crescent

Following the trail up past a series of boulders, a small tuft of grass caught my eye. There, in a crack in the boulder, a few grass seeds had taken root and seemed to be doing well, with one of the plants sending up a tall stalk. It is amazing that the periodic rainfall, the minerals from the rock and tiny accumulated amount of soil could support this little micro garden of grasses!

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A tiny garden of grass on the rock

Further along, I saw a “nest” or comb of paper wasps. These wasps search for caterpillars, cut them up, and feed the pieces to the wasp grubs in the cells of the nest. The development of young wasps is probably finished for the year, and I suppose they will look for shelter when cold weather arrives, overwintering beneath tree bark or in other places that may protect from the harshest cold. This colony was pretty clearly in the genus Polistes, and may have been Polistes exclamans. I like to think that may be the species, because exclamans seems pretty apt for what I’d be doing if I got too close! It is a Latin word, meaning to exclaim or shout.

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Paper wasps

My afternoon would include other members of the order Hymenoptera, but this time it would be Comanche harvester ants. Most Texans’ familiarity with the harvester ant is limited to the “red” harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus. The Comanche harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex comanche) specializes in open, sandy prairies, and one spot at the Southwest Nature Preserve is an open area of deep sand, perfect for this species. These ants dig colonies that possibly extend six or seven feet below the surface, according to Ann Mayo, who studies Comanche harvester ants. Today, the ants were busily coming and going, perhaps “harvesting” seeds and storing them for the coming winter. They graciously allowed me to take a couple of photos; Mayo describes them as mostly nonaggressive, but has commented that when they do sting, it is memorably painful!

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Comanche harvester ants

My wandering took me out of the sandy meadow and back up into the woodland, where I spotted a wary little Texas spiny lizard, sitting on a small log and watching my approach carefully. A telephoto lens is definitely helpful for capturing an image of this little reptile, which may sit still up to a point and then dash off to the nearest shelter, or up a nearby tree trunk. This one was a young one, possibly a young male. Female Texas spiny lizards are one of our larger native lizards, growing up to 11 inches long (with the tail making up a little over half that length). Males are smaller. To get as close as I could to him, I moved slowly and did not face directly toward him, trying to give the impression that “I don’t see you, no reason to be alarmed.” As I took a photo or two, he looked over his shoulder at me, watching closely. And then, somewhere, I crossed a line that was just too close, and he darted under the log.

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A small Texas spiny lizard

One more encounter lay ahead, with a creature I feared as a child and continue to have a little ambivalence toward. I came around the bend of the trail, and at the base of an oak tree, a haze formed itself into a funnel leading back into a hollow in the tree, and at the doorway to this chamber she sat, perfectly motionless. It was Shelob, the giant spider from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. But it wasn’t, really. In the real world, it was a big funnel web spider, those shy spiders that weave funnels and skitter back into them when a human approaches. This one held her ground, even when I approached with my camera, using the short lens after the telephoto, from a safe distance, failed to produce a good image. I moved the camera in close, my rational self reminding my arachnophobic child-self that the spider was not going to jump on my hand, and in any case posed no danger to me. In fact, Shelob never moved, during or after the photos I took.

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A funnel web spider (family Agelenidae, not the Australian funnel web spider)

I had made the loop around the preserve, seeing a part of it but certainly not all of it. I was tempted to stay, as the sun got lower and the slanting rays gave the woodlands and ponds that distinctive light that comes on sunny days toward the end of the year. Living near this patch of crosstimbers, I visit frequently and have seen it in every season. It is becoming like an old friend, with a rich and treasured history. Like that time Casey and I saw a roadrunner that kept approaching us and would not take “no” for an answer until we let him pass. Like that time Nic and I surveyed the pond, sinking into the muck practically neck deep, ridiculously trying to maneuver a seine around to catch something. Like that magical day up on the ridge when the oak leaves were flaming reds and oranges until you would think the place was on fire. Like the quiet, dark surface of the pond on a winter’s day. Like a hundred other experiences that live in my memory of this wonderful place.

The Owl & the Cat

The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must                                                                                – Thucydides, the Melian Dialogue

A great horned owl has taken up residence in my backyard.  He calls most nights during the late summer, questioning with ghostly voice, always interrogating: “whooo-whooo?”  he calls, pausing only briefly, impatient for the answer, I suppose.  “Not us!” pray the rabbits, perhaps… but before long one will be disproven.  A rabbit is a fairly silent creature, not prone to much vocalization, but its screams are loud and shrill and long when it is dying.  The great horned owl is a stealthy shadow, with masterful nocturnal vision. He enjoys a grandiose view that my own eyes cannot see as he sits perched twenty five feet above me on the electric pole that skirts the southwestern edge of my property, almost completely concealed in darkness were it not for the dim halogen glow of the porch light.  He calls to the night but answers to no-one.  The owl doubtlessly hails from the thick mass of post oaks and black jacks that lie some three hundred yards away, over a pond on a grazed field he cuts across, death on the wing.

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Great horned owl (photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, photo by Peter Manidis)

I never see him arrive but before the sun slides behind the low hills his silhouette is usually there.  For all his restless complaint the owl is anything but impatient.  Appearing to be doing nothing, just parked up there like a feathered gargoyle, moving only his head in that remarkable way specific to owls, talons gripped firmly into the dead wood.  Nothing escapes his observation.  Something suddenly grabs his attention; my ears do not pick it up but the owl’s round tufted head swivels away towards the field and he takes to the air, lifting up and out and swooping down like a diagonally-fired missile, his massive five foot tree-trunk grey wingspan making not so much as a whoosh.  In the span of five seconds he is gone, as if he had never been.  I sit on the porch and wonder what may have grabbed his attention.  The faintest squeak of a hispid cotton rat, perhaps.  Or the often raucous, growl-snuffle foraging pattern of the striped skunk.  Great horned owls are one of the only predators of the notoriously and formidably equipped mustelid.  Some scientists have attributed this to the owl’s poor sense of smell, but I like to think of the apex predator as so full of scarcely contained energy, violent indifference, and avian intelligence, that it pays no heed to the skunk’s potent arsenal.  In the same way it would swoop down and scoop up a rattlesnake, not bothering to dodge the venomous strikes of the reptile as it sets about tearing it into bite size pieces with merciless talons and lethal hooked bill.

The owl is gone for the night.  Had he not successfully found and killed and eaten the source of whatever sound that had caused his departure, I suppose he would have returned, although once he leaves he seldom returns until the next night, sometimes two or three.

There is a purring behind me now as I stare up into that starless black space atop the pole where the great horned owl just stood.  I turn, swiveling my own waist and shoulders because I cannot turn like he can.  It is my cat, Traveling Jones.  Jones has been hanging around for years.  My wife found him tearing into the trash one night, a yellow kitten smothered in orange marmalade.  She bought him a can of cat food and thus he has since ever remained with us.  A whining, purring, gentle animal, neutered by some previous owner and so for the most part fully domesticated.  Traveling Jones is my ode to hypocrisy.  He lives outside, although he dreams of coming in, which he gets to do from time to time.  But for the most part he lives out there in the field, the woods, that wide open acreage of bare exposed grass.  The domain of the great horned owl.  Innocuous enough by day.

Jones (or “Mr. Jones,” as my son calls him) gives full credit to the old adage “scaredy-cat.”  Although he catches mice from time to time, depositing their wet blood-grizzled limp forms lying like grim trophies on our door mat, he seems to have otherwise skipped the instruction manual on proper feline behavior.  I have never seen him place any interest in the numerous frogs, birds, and lizards that inhabit our yard.  The killdeer chicks, soft round brown and white balls of unkempt feathers that peep over the low ground in late spring, they should be oh-so-tempting to a cat.  They do not gain so much as a twitch from the whiskers of Mr. Jones.  And he is terrified of snakes, so much so that the extension cord I drag across the lawn to hook up my black lights always cause him to pause, rigid with fear, on one of his routine nocturnal strolls across the yard. “This wasn’t here the night before…oh, no!” The cat lifts a single paw, batting at the air in a series of rapid pats, far enough away as to be more than comical.  After receiving no counterattack of whirring coils and curved fangs, he deems the object of offense harmless and steps over it, albeit cautiously, stepping nervously higher than usual.

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Traveling Jones

Jones is a tamed beast, but he is far from stupid.  He knows that the owl rules this kingdom of shadows.  An unusually vocal cat by day who begs for food incessantly, howls to be let in daily, and seems to mumble in his weird series of mews, as if talking to himself as he goes along, he is silent on owl nights.  And for good reason. To the great horned owl he is just a skunk without a stink and a stripe.  A tender morsel to be dropped down upon with uncanny stealth and relative ease before being converted into proteins and then energy.   The owl is purity.  But he is not partial; it’s all dinner to him.

Jones thus is ever-cautious.  Ever-cautious, yes, but older and slower than he was the year before.  He is mostly safe atop his own comparatively meager scratch box on the porch, where an overhang shields him well from most sets of predatory eyes.  But he must leave to relieve himself in the high grass at yard’s edge eventually, and this increases his vulnerability.  I am fairly certain the great horned owl is aware of this.  My cat’s days seem numbered.  Eventually the owl will probably win out, because to nature they’re all just predators and prey.

Traveling Jones is no herbivore.  In spite of his species’ centuries of domestication he has not been robbed completely of defense.  He has agility, an excellent nocturnal vision of his own, needle-sharp teeth and retractable equally sharp claws.  But he his no match for a fully grown great horned owl and will more than likely never know what hit him.  It will be over in the span of a fraction of a moment.  That age old dance of life and death, ruthless and unbiased, cold and primeval on its surface and yet so beautifully played out nightly and daily in so many unseen scenarios on a limitless scale, purity and perfection as it has been for eons. Vicious circle.

I rise from my post where I have been sitting cross-legged for the better part of an hour.  The owl has been gone for a while, probably retired back to some dried out hole in the gnarled trunk in the midnight black canopy of an ancient oak in the middle of the woods to the south.  Jones has gone off to the edge of the fence, still silent but eager to explore now that the death from above is out of sight and there is a lull in the previously electric air of danger.  My legs are numb, tingling as the dammed off blood flow begins to recirculate.  “Goodnight, Jones,” I say as I turn the knob on the back door and prepare for sleep.  He gives no reply. Somewhere in the distance far away across the field, beyond the pond, and out into that thick belt of cross timbers, the faintest call of a great horned owl resonates, barely audible but there nevertheless.  Somewhere…”whoo?! whoo!?”

The cat freezes.  The sound does not escape his ears either.  They are set atop his head and erected in such a way as to allow him much more keen aural detection than the flat, lobed ones on the sides of my head can.

Again the predator calls, this time closer, or maybe it is just our imaginations.  “WHOO..WHOOO??!!”  “Not me,” Jones says to himself as he bolts for the sanctuary of the porch.  No, not him.  At least not tonight.

El Chupacabra at Black Gap

(I used to write Halloween stories when I was newsletter editor of the Dallas-Fort Worth Herpetological Society. Several October issues contained some sort of story from the field with a frightening twist. After a Trans-Pecos trip in 2006, I wrote this story. Clint and I had indeed driven Black Gap with storms around us, and discovered a rattlesnake someone had recently killed and mutilated, although we had seen no one on the road with us. This, and an overactive imagination, resulted in the following story. Happy Halloween!)

We walked the rock cuts a little way before the entrance to Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, with Clint scrambling up the broken rock face like a spider to reach the top, while I walked along at the bottom.  I examined crevices and hiding spots, and Clint flipped rocks at the summit.  Both of us hoped to find rock rattlesnakes, long-nosed snakes, or any of a number of other reptile species that live in the desert hills and flats of the Big Bend region.

“Watch out for stuff falling, possibly including me,” Clint yelled from about twenty feet up, as a few rocks tumbled down the rock face to the edge of the road.

“Just be careful, the edge there is crumbly,” I said, as he turned rocks only inches from the precipice.  I knew that he had plenty of west Texas experience with rock cuts, cacti, and venomous wildlife, but I also knew that we were a long way from help, should he fall.

Here at sunset, it was quiet along this ridge in the desert just to the east of Big Bend National Park.  It was early October, and so it was warm but not hot, and a breeze was blowing.  Looking off toward the south, a wide expanse of dagger plants and creosote bush, prickly pear, and lechuguilla stretched between this and the next hill, with mountains off to the right.  Soon it would be dark, and we hoped to see plenty of the creatures that emerge from hiding after the sun goes down.

We had already seen quite a few reptiles and a few amphibians on this trip.  Driving west from Sanderson, we had stopped for gopher snakes and rattlesnakes that were dead on the road.  Over the past couple of days we had seen gopher snakes killed north of Marathon, and we had looked at many garter snakes, gopher snakes, and rattlesnakes run over on highway 118 that runs from Alpine down to the National Park.  Inside the park itself, we had found a young Mojave rattlesnake lying dead on the road, and patch-nosed snakes, Trans-Pecos rat snakes, and more gopher snakes run over.

Walking around on the dagger flats in the eastern part of the park, it was reassuring to see some lizards darting between cacti and creosote bushes across the rocky ground.  At least there were some living reptiles here, we thought.  Clint pointed out a dome-shaped interlaced structure like a crown of thorns, where a barrel-shaped cactus had died and returned to the desert, all but the tough thorns.  This was a place of blistering heat in the summer, with periods of little rainfall punctuated by violent storms.  To live here is to defy challenges and embrace extremes.  The Big Bend is a place of awe-inspiring beauty, and some of the awe is that there can be beauty here at all.

At the beginning of this night, Clint and I were excited to be apparently the only ones out here, with warm temperatures and a storm front approaching; very favorable conditions for seeing snakes on the road.  Driving the 40 miles south from Marathon, all the cars had been coming out of the area.  Then we turned on Ranch Road 2627, a two-lane road that runs about another 30 miles southeast to the border with Mexico.  The pavement cut across the floor of the desert, hugged the edges of ridges and hills, and dipped down into dry washes, and nowhere did we see another human.  As it got darker, lightning became more visible behind the hills and mountains around us.

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Northern black-tailed rattlesnake

We found a few rattlesnakes on the way down, including a beautiful black-tailed rattlesnake a little over three feet long.  These snakes are potentially quite dangerous, but they are usually easygoing in encounters such as this.  We photographed it, and then moved it off the road.  The snake balanced on the hook and tongue-flicked in curiosity.  It did not rattle, and seemed to accept being moved around.  Clint and I were overjoyed to see snakes that were alive, and finding a live black-tail was one of the high points of the trip so far.

We examined rock cuts and moved on through the darkness, a breeze scattering a few grasses across the road surface.  Lightning became brighter and a little closer, though not so close that we heard much thunder.  Looking up into the night sky, flashes of lightning would illuminate the towering clouds, making a surreal landscape in the heavens to mirror the earthbound mountains along the horizon.

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Sunset at Black Gap

At the end of Ranch Road 2627 the pavement widens to allow vehicles to turn around, because there is no other way out.  Visiting in past years, there has never been a light to signal the presence of another human being.  This night was different: up on the ridge just above the road, a light emanated from something.  A lantern?  Who would camp out here on the desolate, wild ridge top amid the cactus and scorpions?  Sitting there with windows down and the low rumble of thunder in the distance, there was something acrid in the air, like the sulfur of a burned match head.  A chill ran up my back.

The two of us drove a quarter mile or so back up the road, glad to be away from these odd sensations.  Clint and I settled back into the routine of scanning the road surface for snakes, and we soon found another little rattlesnake.  We stopped and got out to take a quick look and move it off the road.  And then, we each noticed a brief buzzing sound, broken and interrupted, but clearly a rattlesnake.  Clint shifted his light in the direction of the sound, and dropped his flashlight with a gasp.  My light found the spot, jerking and shaking but focused on a long, reptilian form impaled on the long spiked leaves of a dagger plant.

It was a big diamondback rattlesnake; its five feet stretched out vertically and pierced in several places by the rigid, sharp leaves.  At the bottom, its rattle vibrated in fits and starts as life ebbed from its body.  Its belly faced outward, and its neck and first third of the body had been sliced and torn (down to about where the heart would be, it occurred to me).  Its ribs had been forced outward, flared in a hideous mockery of a cobra’s hood.  The rattlesnake’s head faced forward, mouth open and fangs rotated down.  It would have stared out at any who approached it, but for the fact that the snake’s eyes had been gouged out and were gone.  The whole body tried to bend a little in a serpentine fashion, but the cruel daggers and the snake’s fading strength prevented all but the slightest motion.

“My God,” I choked out, as both of us realized that this mutilation had happened only minutes before, and we had seen no one, no car lights, nothing else but a lantern and a whiff of sulfur.  We were more than fifty miles from the nearest town, alone in the desert.

“The car – come on!” was Clint’s reply, and we turned toward the only way out of there.

It was not where we thought it was.  Somehow we had walked thirty or more feet before finding the horror on the dagger plant, and now we broke into a run toward the vehicle.  Off to the side, we became aware of a clattering like the shaking of dry bones and shells, and a belligerent hiss.  Something was moving, pacing us as we ran.  A lightning flash lit the desert, and we saw brush and century plants and dagger plants being pushed aside as something raced ahead.  We sprinted on in panic.

Before we could reach the car, a figure leapt from the vegetation, clearing at least fifteen feet and landing on my windshield with a loud pop of fracturing glass.  It hopped to the ground in front of us, a dark gargoyle from some medieval nightmare with bright glowing eyes.  It struck me that this must be what the Mexicans call the “chupacabra,” a monster out of folk legend that kills and mutilates animals.

Two orange-red eyes like glowing coals shifted from Clint to me, and back again.  Although I do not remember heat, sulfurous vapor came off the thing in waves that made the air shimmer.  It shifted and crouched a little, preparing to jump toward us.  Clint and I each ran in a different direction.

“The road is no good,” I thought, “it can catch me in one or two jumps.”  I kept thinking of the windshield-shattering impact as it landed.  I ran into the desert, weaving between yuccas and bushes, dimly aware of sharp pains as my legs hit patches of cactus.  Behind me, a rattling like dry bones and shells.  Just another leap from that monster, I thought, and it will be over.  I wondered if I would be impaled on long, dagger-like leaves, trying to twist and bend and get free?

It leapt over me with a long, groaning wail like a rusty iron hinge.  I instinctively ducked and at that moment I lost my balance and tumbled down into a dry wash.  The world spun around and I passed into blackness and insensibility.

The next thing I remembered was Clint pulling me up into a sitting position.  Pain from a hundred cactus spines and bruises from my fall made it very hard to move.

“What happened – why did you run out here?” he asked, “You just took off like you’d gone nuts.  I yelled but you didn’t answer.”

I could not reply through the pain and confusion.  With Clint’s help, I limped back toward where he said the car was.  We made our way around dagger plants and patches of cactus, as lightning flashed on three sides around us.  The car came into view, but my sense of relief was snatched away by the sight of the circle of broken glass in the windshield.  I turned to look at Clint, but he did not notice.

“What’s that smell?” he said, wrinkling his nose.  “Like sulfur.”

A short distance away, I thought I could hear the rattling of bones and shells.