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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.

Gratitude and Discovery On the Wilson Prairie at the Tail End of Winter

Blessings come in the form of warm days on the end of this mixed winter. An alternating cycle of frigid wind and premature blossoms that beget premature butterflies. My son Zev and I found ourselves at the threshold of just such a blessing as March began to cover the tracks of February.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he comments. I know what is on his mind, and I won’t take too many pains to argue. We are going cocooning.

The early evening sun beams down full and bright on this post-work, post-school walk across the field from our house, where a familiar lot full of greenbriar-skirted post oaks grows, a huddle of stately sentinels of the cross timbers, their budding sprigs washing the branches with a pastel hue that suggests a restoration of life to the western edge of the Wilson Prairie. My back yard. A thick crackling carpet of ochres and sepias and mahoganies accumulates over the tops of our shoes. There are cocoons mixed in with them somewhere. And not just any cocoons, but special ones. They are the winter-dormant pupae of the great Polyphemus moth.

A Polyphemus has a lifelong romance with these oaks. From the hard, round eggs, scarcely larger than a pinhead, adhered to the leaves quite generously, to the ravenous larvae, lime-green and built like a three-inch-long living accordion, through the pupal stage spent enclosed in silken protection among the leaves, to the magnificent adult with the wingspan that stretches from palm to fingertips, back to the egg again. Blessed cycle.


Zev, looking among the leaves

Zev makes for the deadfall, the wild crop of curly hair he inherited from his mother bouncing as he goes forth in unbridled joy, energy, and enthusiasm. A pang of loss for my own naïve, blissful youth is vanquished only by the gratitude of being able to share in his. His sharp eyes scan the ground for anything suspect. A description is all he goes by, for while he has found many a cocoon in his eight years, never before a Polyphemus.

“Look for something the size, color, and shape of a rat snake’s egg,” I suggest, “a fuzzy, ovaline object wrapped in silk, off-white to manila, sometimes hidden in a curled brown leaf.” At first, everything is suspect. He pounces upon mushroom caps, an oak gall, a stray chunk of Styrofoam, with false hope fueled by faith and anticipation. But when he actually does find one he has no doubts. “This has to be one!” he exclaims. “Come quick!”

It is. At the base of a young oak tree with a trunk no wider than my thigh, tucked away safely in the carpet of leaves, the little lepidopteran gift waits with seemingly timeless patience.

MS-Polyphemus cocoon.jpg

A Polyphemus cocoon

“I found one!” Zev cries, as if its profession marks the point at which anticipation births reality. Carefully, he picks it up, taking care not to roll it from its original position, a testament to the gentleness of his spirit.

“When will it emerge?” he asks as he draws it up close to his face, studying the detail.

“When it is ready,” I tell him. “Most likely in three or four weeks, perhaps longer.” He hands it to me, this newfound little treasure that has just turned the key to a previously undiscovered world that has suddenly joined with his own. I place it in the pocket of my shirt and we continue on our walk beneath the skeletal branches, between the rugose trunks, among the death-dry filings of last year.

The advent of springtime is like medicine to our winter-weary hearts. How many frigid days and windswept crisp nights we have spent over books and the dreaded television, our eyes gazing out past the here and now through the front window, eager for these first green brush strokes of life to come splashing onto the sullen earthen hues of pause and stillness and dormancy. How eager we are now to pluck them up, drink them in in all their diverse wonder.

A little brown skink weaves its way among the substrate, a coppery flash of scales in the sun that delights our eyes for only the briefest of moments before slipping back into the private obscurity of its shy, hidden existence. The cucumber-green, spine-laced tip of a prairie nipple cactus, that tallgrass succulent that looks so out of place here in this oak motte, reaches up for the sunshine from the midst of the sea of leaf litter.

“A cactus! Look, dad!” Nothing great or small escapes the observation of my son, whose senses are in hyper-drive at this point.

A pair of fruit trees, planted by the hand of man, stand in our path, their early blossoms ablaze with a mixture of the pastel hues of soft roseate purple-pink (a peach) and buttercream white (a pear). The day is warm and bright, the scent and color of the blossoms invoke a convention of insects to reap the benefits of their sweet pollen. I take this opportunity to stop in my tracks and study, poring over the bunches of blooms one by one, inspecting each in detail, and in doing so am rewarded by life rejuvenated and celebrated in its amazing diversity. Lady beetles, some familiar orange-spotted-black and others unicolored, scramble over flower heads, their ever-ravenous appetites gobbling up aphids. Paper wasps, honeybees, and metallic bees jostle for position, nectar-drunk and too preoccupied by the bliss of sunshine to pay my presence much mind. A buckeye butterfly spreads its wings wide as it rests on a leaf, the intricately patterned eyespots of purple, blue, yellow, white casting their intricate sheen. There is a false blister beetle and then a crab spider waiting in enviable patience atop a pear blossom, its color matching to a tee, blended in so well that the next bee or butterfly to visit will never know what hit it, perhaps assuming in its final moments that the flower itself has trapped it, brief life passed back into the chain even as it had just begun to enjoy the world once again.


Buckeye butterfly

MS-checkered skipper

Checkered skipper

Zev joins me in my study but for a few minutes, but soon becomes antsy. There are cocoons at stake. He excuses himself and resumes the search around the tree bases, where the cocoons have long since dropped from their flimsy attachment to the lower twigs several months before in the wake of our first stray norther. No child was ever happier filling an Easter basket with plastic eggs, I can assure you.

We pass out of the grove now, where a gnarled, weathered wild grapevine hangs between two mature oaks, its thick, curling central stem resembling the trunk of a huge snake made of wood. To an 8-year-old it is an excellent swing, and my son takes full advantage of nature’s playground. He stands at its center, bracing himself with his arms on either side of the vine, pushing off as he stares up into the still-bare branches of the understory.

CK-Zev-grapevine“I wonder if there are any cocoons up there that haven’t fallen?” he asks, more to himself than to me. His swinging slows as his concentration quickens.

“I don’t know, I say, “it’s possible.”

Eventually the grapevine swing is abandoned for a walk out in the open field, the yellowed grass razed low by cattle. Zev’s eyes have spotted a second grove of oaks a hundred or so yards away, growing along the edge of a shallow ravine that carves an eroded trench downhill to the pond.

“More oaks!” he shouts, and the hunt is back on.

Beneath my feet, flat, dark green pads of cow-trampled, resilient prickly pear spring up in their constant greenery, with no seeming concern for season, their red-tufted spines seeking out the edges of my sneakers. Late winter grasshoppers, the proof of another mild winter, leap in front of me in discordant, gangly jumps. Zev brings me the dried husk of a dung beetle, its legs rigid. A winter casualty.

“I will add it to my collection!” he states with extended hand, and the little prize joins the cocoon in my shirt pocket. We walk the edge of the ravine, among the post oaks flanked by the greenbriar, but no cocoons are found. The ditch that runs parallel to the tree line is full of water from a recent rain. It stands in a shallow narrow pool, giving the superficial resemblance of a creek. Dense stands of dewberry with their spangled white flowers march along the water line, with the impenetrable tangle of wild plum thrust into their midst, their own tangled branches of disarray clothed in a different shade of floral white.

“Let’s make a bridge!” Zev suggests, and together we hoist a thick, heavy cover-board I have set out to encourage herps across the narrow expanse of space we find in a rare open space in the plum thicket. In no time we emerge victorious on the north side of the ravine.

I already know his plan. Seldom do we venture into this field when Zev fails to explore the coyote den. A group of coyotes graces us with their mournful, discordant singing year-round. As the sun slips over the edge of the Wilson Prairie they break out into that same dirge night after night, regardless of season, with one setting the pace in a brief solo of yips and yaps, revving the engine for what eventually becomes an orchestra of drawn out howls that have rung out across these lands for thousands of years. On warm, pleasant nights we listen from the comfort of lawn chairs beneath the porch, in total darkness. What seems to be dozens of coyotes but in reality is probably only three or four seem to rise in pitch and volume, their lonely echoing canid voices resonating all around us. We have only ever seen one in the daytime, and that less than a week ago as the hardy, grizzle-furred wild dog made its way across the open field on a Saturday morning. It had turned back to watch us with an inquisitive, suspicious glare before deeming us innocuous enough to constitute no further caution and trotting over the low ground to the security of a stand of junipers. Last summer we discovered what we suspect to be their lair, a gaping maw of excavated red earth from the side of the ravine in a tributary gully. It is wide and deep enough for my son to slink inside, and with fearless abandon he adventures in. But not today, as the rains have filled the gully on all sides of us, blocking our entrance. Likewise the coyotes seem to have abandoned this favorite shady shelter, which they probably use more for shelter from the sun than they do actual denning and pup- rearing. The only traces of their presence lie in the scattered paw-prints they have left behind in the mud.

No coyotes today, but we are suddenly delighted by the appearance of a pair of black-tailed jackrabbits as they explode from the grass at our very feet, the long ears, veined and almost translucent pink in the sunlight, twitching and falling as they bound away from us in a zig-zag pattern that has ensured their survival for countless generations.

“Whoa!” Zev shouts in excitement. “We walked right up on them. Now that’s some camouflage!”

“That camouflage is what keeps them from becoming a coyote’s dinner,” I tell him. “Although it looks like we’ve blown their cover to that guy.” I point upward, where the silhouette of a big red-tailed hawk soars like a sharp-eyed predatory kite freed from its string. Perhaps taking note of its shadow, the rabbits disappear before their luck runs thin. Their bounding suddenly stops and once again they melt into the yellow-brown hues of the prairie as if they never were.

A few more feet and we are at the pond now, with its flat, muddy banks crowned by a mass of sand willows and a wild plum thicket eight feet high and so dense one can stand in front of it and catch not so much as a glimpse of the water surface on the other side. This pond is a wonderful little mantra, teeming with an assortment of aquatic, semiaquatic, and water-dependent life that maintains its continued existence on the otherwise dry prairie. We have visited this place many times and in all seasons over the 18 months we have lived on the property. We have stalked basking water snakes in the mornings, creeping as stealthily as our field experience can muster to observe them as they sun on the drooping willow branches that overhang the water. Inevitably one of us attempts to stretch a leg or arm, sending the ever-vigilant serpents sliding effortlessly into the water with hardly a ripple. From my current vantage point I recall a time last summer when I stood on this very spot and watched in humble adoration as a cloud-rich evening masterpiece of magenta and powder-blue and tangerine was mirrored in its reflection on the surface of the water. Twin worlds, one real and the other a mirage, separated only by a thin layer of vast, flat prairie.

For now, though, the water is muddy brown and devoid of reflection, save for that of the overhanging branches of willow. Its surface is broken by a pair of water striders who skim across in expanding ripples, their bodies seeming to defy gravity as the mass of their bodies is distributed on stilt-like legs.

“Water striders,” Zev points out. Nothing goes unnoticed.

And then I get myself into a bit of trouble. “Yeep!” a startled young bullfrog calls as it plops into the water from its former position on the bank. And behind it a little brown amphibian bullet does likewise, although this one makes no noise. “There goes a cricket frog.”

“Where?!” Zev comes running and again I sense a pang of envy jolting forth from the banks of my suppressed memory, to a simple time when the presence of something as commonplace as a cricket frog could so explicitly and wonderfully grab my attention and captivate my thoughts. With the same level of enthusiasm he doted upon the Polyphemus cocoons an hour or so earlier he concentrates on the tiny anuran, who has at this point reached the water’s edge, where it throws itself in and under. Beneath the water it can barely be seen as it kicks off, its long, muscular legs propelling it forward, then pushing it back around to face us. In the work of an instant it had buried itself in the mud, out of sight. Zev takes note of its location and makes a grab, but water and mud is all he gets.

“Dang!” he yells.

It is at this point that I make my mistake: “I bet you can’t catch one,” I say to him, forgetting the dedication, vigor, and determination-fueled energy and persistence of an 8-year-old boy naturalist in the field. In fact, so non-recollective is my memory that I seal the deal on my fate. “I’ll give you two dollars for every one you catch.” These are famous last words. A four-foot tall, gangly little machine fires off into the muddy, wet domain of the cricket frog, instantly taking on their very traits himself. Pants get soaked, shoes bogged down in thick accumulation of red clay that adheres with all the affinity of gorilla glue, and Zev soon has a ball of pond mud in his fist, brandishing it under my nose before opening it up slowly.

“There!” he shouts victoriously, and sure enough, two tiny bulbous amphibian eyes stare up at me from out of the mud ball. “Two bucks, baby!” he laughs, although the joy of his recent winnings are soon overshadowed by a close study of the frog. We watch it breathe, comment on its coloration, habits, and what it might be thinking before releasing it back into the water. Then it’s all eyes back to the shoreline. In the span of a moment he spies another frog.

“Hold my hand so I don’t fall in,” he says, and I support his balance as he leans as far out as possible. Another successful grab. He is getting good at this. In my haste to encourage his exploration of all things natural I failed to include the phenomenon that a small boy can accomplish feats seemingly lost with age. Much like lizard-catching, the pursuit of cricket frogs seems like a pastime tailor- made for the vigor of youth. He catches a third and then a fourth with what has now become relative ease. From their undisclosed vantage points the resident water snakes watch with jealousy as my son turns up cricket frogs with the efficiency of an egret. Washington gives way to Hamilton as Zev nabs a 5th frog.

“Okay, demand is about to exceed supply,” I warn him, but a deal is a deal. The damn cricket frogs are everywhere. It is a plague of Biblical proportions, and I envision a scenario of myself standing on the soup line. “How’d you get here?” the guy behind me asks. “Put my life savings in two-dollar shares of cricket frog stock,” I say glumly as the ladle hovers over my bowl, from the center of which a pair of tiny bulging eyes emerges from a pool of vegetable broth.

“Oh yeah, number seven!” Zev yells, his muddy cupped hand running over with pond water. It is opened and yet another frog leaps from it, plummeting back into the pond.

“OK, that’s enough, kid. You’re definitely abusing the system. The sun is headed down anyway. Let’s head for the house before I’m forced to declare bankruptcy or take out a loan.”

“Fourteen big ones!” he says for emphasis. “A deal’s a deal, daddy-o.”

“It certainly is,” I agree.

IMG_2112.JPGAs we make our way up the embankment and point our mud-caked shoes in the direction of home, the diurnal prairie life is gearing down for bed, making way for the night shift. A gentle breeze has blown in, caressing the flowering edges of the thickets, where a bumblebee hangs on precariously as the flower she is clinging to sways first one way and then the other. Overhead, the resident great blue heron glides over the field as he does every evening like clockwork, a feathered biplane on a silent angled descent as he prepares for a little pond-side hunting of his own. Cricket frogs beware, for he is twice as stealthy as my son and has much more ominous intentions.

As we walk, Zev is reminded once again of the cocoon. “I’ve still got it in my pocket,” I assure him.

“When will it be ready to come out?” he asks again.

“In good time,” I tell him. “We’ll sit it on the back porch in a mesh tent and if we’re lucky we’ll get to see it happen, although I wouldn’t count on it. That’s the great nature of mysterious things. They go on unobserved and in secret, a thousand tiny worlds that exist alongside and yet just outside our own, right under our very noses.”

“Yep,” he nods. The daylight fades on the Wilson Prairie, and a dark world replaces that of light, making conditions ripe for secrets and mysteries to go on in the deepest cover of night. The tinkling trills of a Strecker’s chorus frog begins somewhere behind us, instigating a bevy of others to follow suit, complementing the hummed tune of elation that comes in on the wind from in front of me, where my son walks in the final fleeting rays of sunlight. Blessings of late winter on the cusp of another spring in the cross timbers.


Another Hour at the Pond

On January 22nd, I spent an hour at sunset sitting beside a pond at the Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington. I had the idea that I might return to it regularly throughout the year and see how things change, and so I spent another hour there on March 26th.


Eastern cricket frog among water primrose

One difference was immediately apparent: cricket frogs were calling. They had been active in January, but I did not hear them calling. Today their calls – a repetitive “grick-grick-grick” – were frequent but did not often overlap. There is a scale for this, developed by the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program. A Call Index of “1” shows that frogs are calling, but infrequently enough that their calls do not overlap and the frogs could be counted. Call Index “2” indicates that enough frogs are calling that their calls overlap at times. A Call Index of “3” is recorded when there is a full chorus of continuous, overlapping frog calls. And so, the Call Index at the pond today was 2. It was not hard to spot the occasional eastern cricket frog (Blanchard’s cricket frog in some sources) jumping into the water or toward the concealment of vegetation. At a couple of places along the shore, a medium-sized frog jumped from the bank into the water, and my only glimpse of them was a several-inch-long amphibian projectile, flying for a moment and entering the water. Based on their size, they were probably leopard frogs.


American bullfrog

Then, further around the pond toward the willow that was my home base in January, I spotted two eyes looking my way from just above the water, sheltered by a downed branch. Those two eyes were attached to an adult bullfrog, head above water and body resting a couple of inches below the water. I stayed as still as I could and photographed this big frog. Its green snout was mottled in black, and underwater I could see that the legs were a mottled color, too. Young bullfrogs are often a fairly plain green color, but as they get larger they often become mottled like this.

I reached the willow, now beginning to leaf out, and took in the pond and surrounding area. The clumps of little bluestem were each green around the base, as a short spray of new green leaves emerged from the dormant stalks of last year’s growth. Later, each plant will send up a handful of flowering stalks, growing to about three feet or more. Behind the bluestem was the oak woodland that had so recently been a labyrinth of bare branches, now covered with big green leaves.


The pond


Water primrose

Along the pond margin, there were short clumps of green growth, with shoots that were soft and fleshy, and when broken, were hollow tubes. In other places along the water’s edge grew a plant with rounded leaves and red stalks. This was a type of water primrose, which I’ve seen grow from under shallow water, with leaves seeming to float on the water’s surface, and I’ve also seen it growing in the mud right at the water’s edge. Here and there, whirligig beetles spun around on the water’s surface.


A pair of mallards, with the hen behind and drake in front

At one end of the pond, a pair of mallard ducks stood upon a piece of wood, the drab female looking out across the pond while the male turned his dark metallic green head and rested it in the feathers of his back. As I approached for better photographs, the female launched into the water and paddled away, followed in short order by the male.

I wondered if one of them might be the duck I saw as I walked up to the pond in January. This species winters in Texas and they pair up with a single mate each season. Do they breed in Texas? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows their summer breeding range as in a few northern states, Canada, and Alaska. A part of the U.S. is shown has having mallards year round, and that includes the Texas panhandle. John Tveten’s book, The Birds of Texas, reports that there are scattered breeding records in Texas, and perhaps this refers to the panhandle. If this pair did nest within the preserve, we would expect the male (or “drake”) to abandon the female (either “duck” or “hen”) to incubate the eggs and care for ducklings. One wonders if this would prompt the hen to use some other, less complimentary term when speaking of the drake. I suppose if single motherhood is the norm for a species, she probably takes it in stride.


Mallard drake

At one end of the pond, the hen periodically flipped tail-up in the water, her head and neck below the surface. She was “dabbling,” which is the word for tipping forward and using the flattened bill to find things to eat, such as aquatic vegetation, invertebrates, or seeds. They may eat worms, snails, and insects in greater number during breeding season, sometimes wandering the shore and feeding on items found on the ground.

In two months, the area around this pond has transformed from a semicircle of bare trees to a woodland leafing out in bright green and new growth around the bases of the bunchgrasses. The pond is coming to life with frog calls, and spring is making its presence clearly felt. How will it change as spring progresses? There will be more to this story.