We were in Stonewall County in the middle of the Big Empty, with nothing but miles of shortgrass prairie, mesquite savannah, and low outcrops of red rock. Mark Pyle, my longtime friend and field accomplice, was manning the wheel, with me and my crutches riding shotgun and Zev in the back. I had only recently gotten out of one of my boot casts, and was eager to get out in the thick of it, crutches be damned. And here was no better place and time. As dusk gave way to the black of night great horned owls winged in from out of the darkness and perched along the telephone poles at roadside like harbingers of rodent and rabbit death. The myopic refraction of whitetail deer eyes gave away their presence just outside the realm of our headlights, and once we had to swerve a band of feral hogs that came parading across the asphalt, seemingly out of nowhere. The lead boar looked as if it could have nearly doubled me in weight, and I frowned at the thought of these unscrupulous ungulate lawnmowers razing the rocky hardpan of plants and animals alike. In the sky above a nightjar boomeranged above the car, trying to hone in on the moths drawn to our headlights. As the sun died the plains came to life.
At the Haskell County line we set up a blacklight at a familiar roadside rest stop where a row of honey mesquites draped their thorny branches over the fenceline. We would check the light at the end of the night to see what was hopping on the invertebrate scene. Late August is a great time for blacklighting. Sphinx and giant silk moths are emerging in their final brood of the year, the fall blister beetle species begin to show up, and mantids and walking sticks begin to make their annual appearance.
We drove back and forth along the mostly deserted highway for the better part of three hours, where we tallied up a sum of young-of-the-year rattlesnakes, all of them western diamondbacks. The largest of these was around two feet in length, and the rest were only months old, all of them perfect replicas of the adults, with their telltale diamond patterns etched in light colored scales and their black and white ringed tails bearing only the baby button and a single attached segment. In true western diamondback fashion they displayed a variety of temperaments, with some lying motionless and others instantly wriggling away. On a good diamondback night there is always one ornery individual, and ours took cute little snaps at Mark’s hook as he scooted it to the safety of the roadside grass.
Western diamondbacks may reach their greatest abundance in the state in this ecoregion. I have herped all over Texas and nowhere have I seen population densities so great as that area between Lubbock and Throckmorton. On a three day herpathon in mid-May of 2013 I racked up over a hundred snakes, 65 % of which had been diamondbacks. But it was 100 % on this night, and after 11:00, with the thermometer reading 71 degrees and due to drop into the low sixties by the morning, we decided to pull in the blacklight and call it quits.
The rolling plains may no longer be a home where the buffalo roam, but it serves as the eastern boundary to a species of ant lion (Vella farfax) that is the largest in the United States. Antlions are better known in their larval forms as ‘doodlebugs’, and are recognized by the familiar inverted cone shaped pitfall they use to trap ants. The adult somewhat resembles a damselfly, although with a wingspan of up to 120 mm the giant species rivals that of our largest dragonflies. These were in abundance around the headlight beams, and Zev hoped we would draw some to the blacklight, but they were strangely absent when we got there. We did, however, find a plethora of other insects. As predicted, several male mantids and a walkingstick were hanging out on the sheet, alongside several tiger beetles (Cicindela sp) and blister beetles (Pyrota concinna) who looked pre-dressed for Halloween in their vibrant orange and black warning colors that advertised their witch’s brew of cantharadin. A pair of mesquite girdlers (Oncideres cingulata) ambled across the sheet with their long antennae trailing along behind their elytra. Several feet away a checkered beetle (Enoclerus quadrisignatus) waited for one of them to deposit its eggs so it could parasitize them with its own voracious larvae.
The baby diamondbacks were still running strong as we made our way to the tiny town of Aspermont a little after midnight. There are only two motels there to choose from, but the one with the grey fox dining on crickets beneath the security light seemed appropriate, so we pulled in to get a little rest. It wasn’t the ritz, but with my leg throbbing and aching as I pulled it out of the accursed boot and into the bed, it beat a kicked back car seat or a sleeping bag under a mesquite tree by a long shot.
We awoke to a cool calm morning in the mid-sixties, and after an Allsups breakfast of granola bars and iced coffee (Mark had milk as he insists he’ll never stoop to drinking burned beans as I’ll never stoop to drinking from the mammary glands of another species…our lines are drawn) we broke once again for the wide open plains.
Part of the reason behind our mini-trip ( at least the part we used to explain to our wives involving its absolute necessity) was to photograph a coiled western diamondback for the cover shot of the book Michael and I were still in the process of publishing, and Mark had brought along a robust, photogenic four-footer for just such purpose. The goal was to get a good shot of the highway fading away to a central focal point on the horizon line, with the snake buzzing in the classic position in the foreground. We wanted to get this done in the cool of the morning if possible, and after a brief hunt for the “perfect spot” we did a short photo shoot just north of the town of Jermyn in nearby Kent County. It took about 20 minutes, and during that period the sun came out and the temp began to climb. This brought the day crew out. The previous night’s owl posts were relieved of duty by redtail hawks; bobwhite quail bobbed along in their curious, synchronized huddles, and a trio of roadrunners peered at the car from beneath a mesquite as we passed by, their concentration only momentarily broken from the morning’s lizard hunt.
We hadn’t gone far when we saw the high domed carapace of an ornate box turtle as it ambled along the pavement. While these brightly colored chelonians are sadly becoming an increasing rarity around the western cross timbers, they are still faring pretty well in undisturbed parts of the rolling plains. We pulled over to photograph this one, and Mark got a little too close and received a good nip from the little turtle’s strong beak. It was hard enough to draw a small amount of blood, as well as a large amount of teasing from Zev and I. Apparently these rolling plains box turtles didn’t owe their survival out here to meek dispositions and blackberries! It was flesh and true grit that would see them through another day!
By now the sun had warmed the air to over 80 degrees, and while we weren’t surprised to see a western coachwhip come streaking across the road, we were by the only other live snake we saw that morning: a juvenile eastern hognose. Eastern hognose snakes can be quite common in parts of their range (in spite of Michael Smith’s apparent lifelong jinx when it comes to finding them) but are not so in the rolling plains, where they are replaced by the smaller, more boldly patterned western hognose. In fact, in nearly 20 years of herping the area this was only the third specimen I had come across. We were thrilled to find this little guy out and about, and it ended up being a county record. After a series of photos Mark carried the pintsize bluffer to the fenceline and released it into the grass.
Several minutes later we pulled over for a much more commonly seen denizen of the plains. This was a Texas horned lizard, and it sat calmly along the white line as we gathered around it for photos. Not even the squeaking, mechanical approach of the bionic crutch-herper frightened it. Texas horned lizards, even moreso than box turtles, have disappeared from much of their former range, but are still found in healthy numbers in much of the rolling plains. This is likely due to the arid climate that supports dense populations of the red harvester ants that constitute the bulk of the lizards’ diet, while preventing invasions of the moisture-dependent imported red fire ant that threatens both the lizard and harvester ants. After photographing it, Mark made sure the horned lizard made it off the road safely by toeing it into the grass. As a result he ended up getting a harvester ant sting on his leg. Apparently the rolling plains was giving Mark a run for his money.