A Fall Visit to Shackelford County

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The Rolling Plains, with a harvester ant mound in the foreground

In Shackelford County, just beyond the reach of the Cross Timbers ecoregion and into the Rolling Plains, the stands of oak trees give way to mesquite and open scrub land, with red dirt and plenty of cacti. In some places, open fields of broom weed cover the landscape in knee-high rounded domes. Here and there, a spot of bare earth is marked with a small circle of gravel indicating a harvester ant colony, with little cleared paths branching out from the center. The ants come and go along these little highways, searching for seeds and other food to bring down into the underground chambers. And of course, where there are harvester ants, there may be horned lizards, waiting in ambush along the ant highways to lap up the unlucky insects.

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A Texas horned lizard seen in 2013

Clint and I have found the Texas horned lizard here, although it may not be very common. We found one on my first trip to the ranch land where Clint has permission to roam around looking for herps, insects, and Native American artifacts. In early spring of 2013 we saw a big male Texas horned lizard, and he waited patiently while we took photos. He probably hoped his pattern of sandy brown and yellowish color, broken up by a thin white stripe running down his back, would conceal him like just some chunk of dirt with dead grasses or pebbles. This camouflage had nearly kept us from spotting him, but once your eyes lock in on the spikey head and flattened body with a fringe of spines, the horned lizard image is unmistakable.

Today we visited the ranchland at the other end of the annual season, in autumn when days were still sunny and quite warm, even on October 30. A year with good rainfall had produced lots of plant growth, and I barely recognized the place. The grasses had grown high, but more striking were the thickets of some shrubby plant growing to seven or eight feet and weaving themselves into impenetrable barriers. And these bushes were blooming, attracting a profusion of bees, wasps, and butterflies.

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A bullfrog floats on the pond surface

Our first stop was along a cattle tank, a small, man-made pond that was home to lots of frogs. It was hard to spot them before they spotted us, and in my walk around the pond I saw many of them hop into the water and disappear before I could identify them. However, some of them appeared at the surface shortly afterwards, and these were all bullfrogs. They would float in leisurely fashion, their bulbous eyes and green snouts above the water, watching the strange visitor to their world. Further around the edge of the pond, I spotted a butterfly that I initially thought was a monarch but was really a queen, as I later learned from Clint.

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Queen butterfly

The muddy edges of the pond were hopping – and some of the activity was jumping grasshoppers, while the rest came from cricket frogs. These little relatives of the treefrogs are nearly invisible as they sit still, and populations often come to resemble the substrate they live on. Those that inhabit dark, bottomland soil are usually dark with little splashes of green, while those living on limestone and clay typically a gray color. When something gets too close and disturbs them, they typically hop into deeper vegetation or else dive into the shallow water, only to double back and dig into some place of concealment. Cricket frogs are nimble and quick, but even the quickest often fall prey to shore birds and other predators, including ribbonsnakes.

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A cricket frog on dried mud

Ribbonsnakes specialize in the same water’s edge habitat as the cricket frogs, and the snake has a sharp eye for movement. The slender striped snake cruises along until it flushes the frog, and then the chase is on. When the frog stops and freezes, the snake may stop as well, its body tense and ready for when it detects the slightest movement from the frog. When the frog makes its move, the snake instantly responds. There is hardly anything more graceful and beautiful than a ribbonsnake swimming and threading its way through streamside vegetation. Many of them, especially in central Texas, have a dorsal stripe that starts as a deep orange-red, becoming more pale toward the tail. Along the gulf coast, that dorsal stripe is a rich, butter-yellow. In some localities, this stripe (and the two others along the snake’s sides) have a bluish cast. When they swim, their slender bodies undulate in symmetrical curves, like a ribbon with three stripes propelling itself rapidly across the water.

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Juvenile ribbonsnake

Today, however, I found a muddy little ribbonsnake, motionless on the mud at the water’s edge. Its central stripe was red enough under a little film of sediment, but when I first spotted it, it hardly looked much different from the surrounding mud. After I took a couple of photos and moved in a little too close, it took off into the water in tight little undulations, shooting down into the muddy depths to hide.

After a while, I set off to explore the brushy landscape that led up toward a hillside I remember exploring with Clint on that trip three years ago. I chose my steps carefully, since the treacherous pencil cholla (or Christmas cholla) is one of the cacti growing in almost any spot near a clump of trees on this ranch. While you can accidentally step on a pad of prickly pear and it won’t penetrate your boot, the slender, jointed segments of this cactus grow up to three feet or higher and can send you on your way with barbed spines in your jeans or your arm.

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A pencil cholla in the foreground, framed by mesquite and prickly pear behind it

On my walk toward the hillside, I came upon another, smaller cattle tank bulldozed out of the red soil. Another group of frogs called this oversized puddle home, and each step toward it brought another “plunk” as another frog jumped in. On a couple of sides, this little oasis was at the bottom of a steep three or four-foot embankment. As I walked near the edge, the grasses and broom weed moved as one frog after another hopped from several feet away, plunged off the edge and dropped to the water. I was a little surprised, as it was mid-afternoon and quite warm, but I suppose these frogs were foraging for insects under the sparse shade of the low vegetation, some distance from the water. Most of these frogs were plains leopard frogs, with big spots and two light dorsolateral folds running down their backs. On spring nights, the calls of the males are a mixture of chuckles and grunts, calling out to females who may be ready to lay eggs in the water, needing only to find a suitable male to fertilize the eggs.

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A plains leopard frog

At the end of the afternoon, turning from a dirt road onto a paved farm road, we found the only other snake we saw on this day, a juvenile Texas patch-nosed snake. They are fast like racers, and the only reason Clint was able to capture it for a few moments was that it was surprised on the pavement, where the serpentine curves of its body could find only very small irregularities to push against. On rocky ground, in grass, or among the other objects in its typical habitat, its strong and lithe body finds plenty of places where it can push forward, and it disappears quickly. Once captured, this pugnacious little snake gaped and bit with its tiny, recurved teeth, to no avail. We took a couple of photos and then released it to go on its way.

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Juvenile Texas patch-nosed snake, unwilling to sit still for a more naturalistic photo

It had been very nice little October 30th road trip, trick or treat a day early, and the Rolling Plains had bestowed plenty of treats on this day. Maybe no Texas horned lizard this time, but there’s always next time!

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