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.

IMG_1172

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

bullsnake-juv-1

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.

MS-Pituophis-catenifer-sayi9-Menard

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.