Night Driving on the Rolling Plains

Out in the red dirt country, the grasslands with mesquite and prickly pear, we have seen lots of wonderful things. Clint knows this country better than I, but I have walked and driven on the part of the Rolling Plains roughly between Abilene, Wichita Falls, and Lubbock enough to love the openness, the raw and uncompromising extremes, and the wildlife in this part of Texas. There’s hardly a better place to listen to the song of the coyote, catch a glimpse of owls at nightfall, and of course to see rattlesnakes, coachwhips, long-nosed snakes, and the Texas horned lizard.

Yesterday we set out again to drive out there, Clint with his legs healing from a terrible accident at work and just now able to tolerate longer drives without elevating his feet, getting around on crutches like a pro. We chased a few rainstorms westward, getting positioned so that we would be west of Graham by sunset and ready for what we hoped would be some snakes on the move, crossing the roads. Seeing snakes is wonderful, but we both love the land, the trees and flowers, the bugs, birds, and furry things enough that we are pretty easy to please. As long as the landscape is mostly intact, only lightly altered by the hand of man, we will find things to admire and wonder about, whether reptilian or otherwise.

Past Jacksboro, Clint spotted a coyote out loping along, paying no heed to the nearby highway or to the risk posed by his being out there in the light of day for all to see. Many decades ago, I helped take care of a coyote at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum, and feel some sadness even now for the close confinement of that irritable old codger, a big old boy that paced his cage and never had the social connection and chance to roam that these animals need. When they live on ranchland, landowners might consider them pests, but much of their diet consists of rodents, fruit when it can be found, and occasional carrion. Coyotes have been amazingly resilient in and around cities. Our former governor famously shot one while out walking his dog, and some of us might have rooted for the coyote instead. They certainly could be threats to smaller dogs, but overall, coyotes are smart, elusive predators with whom we can usually coexist.

The sun was setting in shades of brilliant tangerine, and we looked for a place to take a photo. I hoped for some place where I could look out toward the horizon with no towers, storage tanks, or telephone lines in the way. We just about gave up on finding such a spot before finding a good enough location where nothing but trees were on the horizon, and the sky was golden and then shaded past orange clouds to a deepening gray-blue sky and a crescent moon overhead.

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August sunset on the Rolling Plains

We were not alone in greeting the sunset. Somewhere nearby we heard the lonely, whistling call of a chuck will’s widow. Soon this “night hawk” would be flying, catching insects and settling in some spot on the ground, maybe in the gravel off the shoulder of this highway. A little further down the road, we spotted a great horned owl sitting on a telephone line, no doubt scanning the ground for movement. A scurrying wood rat, a cottontail rabbit crouching among the grasses, or even a skunk prowling around may be preyed upon by this big owl. Its wingspan can approach 50 inches (around four feet!) and the force of a strike with those big talons is enough to break the spine or crush the skull of many prey animals.

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Great horned owl

Somewhere before Haskell we turned around and headed back. Although the temperatures were holding within the 70s, it was just not a night for significant snake movement. We did see the ghostly image of another coyote, at the edge of the reach of our headlights, trotting across the road. Then, we passed a big owl standing in the opposite lane. Perhaps it had just dropped down to claim some rodent that had ventured out on the pavement. The most amazing sight was a badger, who abruptly came into view near the center stripe of the road, apparently feasting on some road kill. In our brief glimpse, the big mustelid jumped back a little and looked as if to say, “hey, watch what yer doing!” They don’t yield an inch, even to a speeding car.

It reminded me of a day trip Clint and I took in July of 2014, driving back roads in the vicinity of Aspermont. At nightfall, we came upon a badger who was beginning to dig in an embankment. Finding himself somewhat trapped between the car and the steep wall of red dirt, he turned and faced us with a growl that was enough to make anything, animal or human, a little weak in the knee. I got a photo from within the car, but Clint was standing behind the car and trying for an even better shot. I called out something about being extremely careful; these guys are not related to wolverines for nothing! The encounter ended with no injuries – Clint got his shot and got back in the car, and we let the badger go on his way. (I don’t think we “let” the badger do anything; he decided what to do and did it. David Schmidly mentions a documented report in which one badger held off two coyotes, and I’m pretty sure this one could have kicked our butts all the way back to the metroplex.)

Stonewall Co., TX, NW of Swenson

Badger, Stonewall County

There were plenty of other joys on that trip to Aspermont in 2014, like the numerous roadrunners sprinting ahead of us or taking low, short flights to a nearby tree branch, or the coachwhip we surprised on the road. In several places, the road was bordered by a tall plant with beautiful white flowers, each with a flat ring of petals topped with a cluster of filaments. Hovering and flitting among these flowers were sphinx moths. I set the shutter speed to try to freeze the motion of their hummingbird-like wings, to capture something of their brown, pink and white striped and banded bodies.

Stonewall Co., TX, NW of Swenson

Sphinx moth

On that day, we had seen about a dozen Texas horned lizards. Watching the red dirt road carefully, we would see what looked like a chunk of that dirt run ahead a few feet and stop. We would then pull over, jump out, and take some photos of these spiny little dust-pancakes with their two dark-brown horns and alert little black eyes. Close examination of their pattern shows many of the colors we admire in fall leaves. Brown spots are surrounded by a corona of golden yellow, fading into a sandy color that can be nearly orange. This is especially the case for areas with colorful soils, as a population of Texas horned lizards will come to resemble the color tones of their surroundings, giving them a survival advantage because they blend in with the background of soil, sand, and rocks.  For those “of a certain age,” seeing horned lizards is immediately followed by the wistful recollection, “I remember when we could find those in our back yards.” And I do fondly remember those days.

Stonewall Co., TX, NW of Swenson

Texas horned lizard

But on this day, August 26, 2017, we saw no horned lizards in the remaining light before sunset. Nor did we see snakes, until nearly 9:30pm as we were driving back. On the outskirts of Throckmorton, along the shoulder, we spotted a roughly two-foot long serpent, almost surely a rattlesnake. As we pulled over, sure enough it was a young western diamond-back. Out on the Rolling Plains, these snakes are so common that we’ve been known to slow down, note what it is, and drive on. However, when it is the first snake of the night, you stop for a closer look. I took a quick iPhone photo in the glare of the flashlight, and then moved it on across the road in the direction it had been heading. Although the occasional cranky individual will pull back and even strike repeatedly when touched with the snake hook, this one had the more typical laid-back temperament of many western diamond-backs. It tried to crawl away, not frantically but as if getting away from some inconvenience, and never rattled or showed any sign of annoyance. And with that, Clint and I could claim that we had not actually gotten “skunked.” It was our only snake of the night, but how could we possibly complain about a night seeing owls, coyotes, a badger, a frog and toad or two, and one easygoing little rattler?

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Young western diamond-backed rattlesnake, near Throckmorton, TX

Manaster, J. 1997. Horned lizards. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Schmidly, David. 2004. The mammals of Texas, Revised Ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Smith, D.W. 2002. Wild bird guides: Great horned owl. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

 

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