A Night on Greer Island 

(I wrote this story nearly ten years ago, while editor of the Cross Timbers Herpetologist, newsletter of the DFW Herpetological Society. Happy Halloween!)

The car windows were down as I crossed the bridge back over Lake Worth, and the Allman Brothers were on the CD player.  After all this time, still putting out high-energy rock and roll, with the new release taking me back to 1969 when “Eat a Peach” came out.  The wind whipped by as I exited for the Nature Center. 

After an autumn day looking for reptiles and amphibians, a group of us had called it quits and headed home.  However, once on the road I realized we had not picked up some minnow traps we put out at Greer Island.  A minnow trap is a sort of wire mesh bucket with a wire funnel leading in from each end.  In the hands of herpetologists, minnow traps don’t catch minnows so much as frogs and snakes.  We placed several of them in shallow water along the island’s shore, partly exposed so that anything that got in could breathe.  However, I could not leave any animals trapped, and so I was headed back into the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge. 

As I drove along the road at the edge of the lake, Greg Allman sang: 

“Can’t you feel a cold wind is howlin’ down, blowin’ my song?

Well I ain’t an old man, but you know my time ain’t long.” 

I thought about the cold wind that would soon be blowing on the refuge as fall changed to winter.  Oh well, I was ready for a change.  The end of summer had been unusually humid, and cool weather would feel good. 

The sunset glow still provided some light as I walked the causeway to Greer Island.  The wind picked up, scattering yellow cottonwood leaves to drift down through the remaining light.  I felt a slight shiver.  The thought of walking around alone on Greer Island in the gathering dark did not bother me, did it?  I’ve been on the island many times, and it is as peaceful as any other part of the refuge.  Maybe that Allman Brothers line about a cold wind howling down had gotten to me. 

FWNC-Dec04-GreerOn the island, I pulled the first minnow trap up from where it had been nestled beside a fallen tree branch at the water’s edge.  Inside was a water snake, its chocolate brown scales glistening as it frantically tried to find a way out.  I put on the gloves, unfastened the trap and reached inside.  The snake writhed and bit at the glove, with the small needle-sharp teeth barely penetrating to my skin.  Although nonvenomous, water snakes defend themselves by repeatedly biting and by expelling a nasty-smelling musk.  I wanted to get this done as soon as I could.  Just before I released him, up came a small leopard frog the snake had eaten earlier in the day.  “More data for the survey,” I thought, as I recorded the details of both snake and frog. 

I searched for the next minnow trap with my flashlight, as it had now gotten dark.  Pushing through buttonbush and stepping carefully among the deadfall, I squished through the saturated ground to the next trap.  When I found it, it was open.  This was very puzzling, because the two halves of the trap fasten pretty securely.  I looked around, certainly not expecting to see something.  No one else should be on the island at night, and besides, it was ridiculous to think that just because the trap was open, someone had opened it. 

More wind whispered and sighed through the treetops, and the flashlight’s beam caught the flicker of a few more leaves fluttering to the forest floor.  I reached the site of the third trap, but did not see it in the water.  I moved the light around and caught a flash of metal.  There!  Hanging from a tree branch was a tangle of smashed wire dripping in the flashlight beam – the minnow trap!  My hands felt numb and the two other traps dropped from my fingers to the ground.  Not bothering to pick them up, I turned and walked quickly back toward the trail.  I wanted out of there in a hurry.  I pushed through underbrush and spider web, resisting the urge to run and trying to keep my bearings.  The flashlight illuminated a narrow section of woods, and everywhere else the darkness seemed menacing.  Some of the fear dissipated as I walked, and I emerged into an upland area where the woodland was less thick and the image of the mangled minnow trap was less immediate. 

Finding the trail, I set out toward the causeway.  Just a little bit now, I reassured myself, and I would be walking on that narrow strip of dirt and gravel under the stars toward the safety of the car.  The path re-entered thicker forest and I concentrated on the circle of light from the flashlight.  I kept it on the trail, unwilling to risk a glance to either side.  The dirt path narrowed, understory shrubs and then tree trunks increasingly closing in.  The trail ended!  I must have gotten turned around, I told myself, but there were no trails on the island that simply ended.  I turned, backtracked, and shone the light around.  Nothing but oak and understory shrubs around me.  Finally it occurred to me to get into the backpack for the GPS.  It constantly plotted my path on its screen, like an electronic version of the trail of bread crumbs in “Hansel & Gretel.”  I had used it on more than one occasion to help me backtrack through the forest.  As I felt inside the pack for the GPS, I heard something some distance away.  It was something like the wail of a large animal, rising in misery and then strangled in a series of barking or coughing sounds.  I was frozen for a moment, staring stupidly at the flashlight beam shining where I had set it down, illuminating a tangle of greenbriar and Virginia creeper.  Another wail pierced the forest, greater in intensity and ending in several guttural cries like shouts of rage. 

Snatching up the flashlight, I ran back along the trail and then cut through a small clearing in the direction I thought I should go.  My mind raced back to another memory from 1969 – what was it?  The Lake Worth monster?  A goat-man that had been seen numerous times but never found?  The memory was cut short as I tripped over a downed branch and fell.  I picked myself up and tried to run again, but a snare of entangling greenbriar brought me down like a staked dog reaching the end of its tether.  I made a bleeding mess of my hands trying to pull the tough, thorny vines away and then finally yanked free.  Back on my feet, I set off in a blind panic, the GPS lying useless in the dirt somewhere behind me. 

I’m not sure how far I ran, and I’m even less sure of the direction.  As I staggered breathlessly up to a higher elevation, the roof of a small pavilion came into view.  My heart sank.  This structure, with its concrete slab and two protective walls, was far from where I wanted to be.  I took a few more steps up the slope, and saw the glow of a small fire burning on the concrete floor.  The fire itself was obscured by someone or something sitting with its back to me. 

I hesitated.  The figure poked the small fire in front of it, without turning toward me. 

“Ain’t no gittin away, try as y’might.”  The high, thin voice spoke as if we were in mid-conversation.  It had some of the hard edge of a threat, but the unsteady quality of a man barely containing his excitement, or maybe fear.  Still I stood immobile, wary of doing anything. 

“Sit right still, he’ll come,” he added, while drawing distractedly on the concrete with his stick. 

I turned and ran, and after me came his high, unsteady shout: “Ain’t no gittin away!”  And as if in answer, over to my left came another screeching cry, clipped off and followed by two short bellows of fury.  I heard a large branch snap, up in the treetops.  I turned and focused the light to see a large figure in the trees, eyeshine reflecting back at me.  And then it dropped straight out of the treetops and out of sight.  Running away from it would take me away from the causeway.  My way out was blocked. 

I crouched by a log in dense brush, waiting and trying to think.  Bits and pieces of old news accounts returned to me.  In 1969 there had been a series of frightening encounters with residents describing something half-man, half-goat covered with light gray fur and scales.  Once it was said to have jumped out of a tree and onto a car parked at Greer Island.  On another occasion, several bystanders at Lake Worth watched it until it supposedly hurled a car wheel (tire, rim and all) 500 feet in their direction.  They mystery had never been solved. 

My thoughts were shattered by a voice right beside me – “Ain’t no gittin away, told ye.”  I jumped and fell backward in leaf litter and twigs, and when I was able to sit up I saw the old man from the pavilion.  His eyes were too wide open and they darted around, not really connecting with mine.  He had a desperate look about him, and he was covered with filth.  As I started to say something, he swung a bag with something heavy in it, like gravel, and clubbed me. 

In my next moment of awareness, I was slung over his shoulder watching the ground go by as he carried me.  My wrists were bound.  My captor was muttering crazily, “Billy brekkist, Billy lunch, he’ll come, oh yes.”  We reached the pavilion and he put me down, and then set busily to work tying me to a support pole.  Here and there he paused to look at me with a sick grin that exposed broken teeth and receding gums.   

He sat down beside the flickering little fire and looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for some sort of performance.  Away and to the side, I saw lightning flash on the horizon. 

“Billy!  He’ll come – oh yes oh yes.  You’ll see.” 

In the nearby woods, another wail – chopped, at the end, into staccato yells.  The old man became agitated, gibbering “Billy, Billy, Billy, no gittin – no!”  He backed away and stumbled into the darkness, eyes as big as saucers. 

Why did he keep repeating that name?  And suddenly it hit me!  It was the children’s story about the goats who try to cross the bridge where the troll lives.  I was the bait, and he was going to catch his billy goat. 

I exhaled as far as I could, rolled my shoulders forward, and dropped down.  The first loop of rope slipped, and I started working out of the bonds that held me.  My captor flew into a rage, squealing “No gittin, no gittin!” as he jumped back up onto the concrete.  As he got close enough, I kicked him away.  I slid further down, escaping more of the rope and then was able to get free.  My tormentor made another run at me, screeching “No gittin! No – no!” 

Just then, an enormous form jumped in front of me, hitting the old man with such force that they both rolled ten feet away.  There was a sickening sound of snapping bones.  I looked toward them and in the dim firelight I got a glimpse of fur and horn – and a head turned and stared at me for an instant with the horizontal slitted eyes of a goat.   

I leapt away from this horror and ran through the woods, branches and vines slapping me as I went.  Somewhere I found the trail and was able to go faster.  Behind me a long wail arose, riding on a gust of wind.  Lightning flashed.  I was aware of noise in the treetops, but could not tell if the trees were disturbed by wind or by some terror pursuing me.  The trail widened and big raindrops began to spatter down among the leaves.  I followed the bend in the road and emerged onto the causeway. 

The rain came down in sheets as I reached the car and got in.  As the cold wind blew through the treetops, I made my way out of the refuge.  I could not get the old man’s shrill voice out of my head as I drove along Shoreline Drive.  I had not gone very far through the heavy rain when a gust of wind blew something onto the road in front of me.  I stopped the car and leaned over the steering wheel to look.  It was a minnow trap. 

“Billy goat for breakfast; Billy goat for lunch, 

Billy goat, Billy goat, munch, munch, munch” 


The Magic Is In the Finding, Not the Keeping

Clint and I have been hitting the road together for over ten years, and we each started herping a long time before that. Like others, we’ve gone through an evolution during these years of getting out in the field. To put this most recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley in context, here’s a little of my own evolution as a kid who liked snakes, to a herper, to a naturalist.

When I was about ten, the girl across the street came over and asked if I wanted to go snake hunting. Sherry was certainly breaking the mold for what girls were “supposed” to do, and I like to think she grew up continuing to be interested in the natural world and uninterested in what women are “supposed” to do. At any rate, we scoured some of the fields on the western edge of Denver, caught a plains gartersnake, and I was hooked.


A juvenile plains gartersnake

When our family moved back to Texas, I wanted to see and catch more snakes, but had little interest in the rest of the natural world. My parents got me involved with the Natural History department at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum, and my fate was sealed. I went on field trips, got together with other kids who also liked snakes, learned something about the value of preserved collections and put in a lot of hours injecting formalin into specimens. But I put in even more hours wading the creek and wandering in the woods, collecting snakes that came home to live with me, and picking up specimens that came to the museum to be preserved in a jar.

There was no way to hang out with the museum people and not pick up some appreciation for the broader natural world. I learned a couple of things about birds, not that I cared much for ornithology but I respected the biologists who did. Under Bill Voss I learned a few things about arachnids, even though I was still somewhat afraid of spiders. Gradually I learned that if you wanted to understand a particular snake or turtle, you needed to understand the place where it lived, what its predators were, and what other organisms were in its diet. My horizons broadened.

I still mainly wanted to collect snakes, and had a sweet tooth for turtles, too. I brought back a juvenile Texas tortoise after our family lived in Corpus Christi for a year (before the tortoises were protected). I was captivated with softshelled turtles after finding a couple of hatchlings at the creek. Everything had to come home with me, because when something was as wonderful as a coachwhip, or a Texas tortoise, you wanted to have it.

I got married and Jo appreciated these animals as well. We got a boa constrictor as one of our wedding presents, and of course in the 70’s we made the short-sighted decision to buy the cutest little baby Burmese python. The snake was beautiful, not finicky about eating, and gentle when handled. Then we learned that they grow fast and then become quite impractical for most people to keep. Meanwhile, we collected many of the snakes we found, because to pick up such an incredible, beautiful, fascinating animal and then just let it go was so hard.

Eventually, it occurred to me that the magic was in the finding, not the keeping. A snake in a box had only a small fraction of the wonder that the snake had in the field. I began to be able to look at and release all but the most desirable species. Meanwhile, those that I did bring home cruised around in their boxes (whether literally a plastic shoe box or an expensive display cage) and generally could be kept healthy, would eat, and even breed. Gradually, an appreciation grew within me for how their lives might be impoverished by living in a little patch of wood shavings, hide box, and a water bowl. They are designed to move about within a home range very much larger than a snake cage, and their travels provide a good bit of stimulation and variety. My training in psychology and neurosciences tells me that brains – human or nonhuman – develop in a working partnership between neurons and experiences. Behavioral health depends on an adequately stimulating environment, and while the reptile brain is very different from our own, the same principle should hold. No anthropomorphizing is intended here; I am not trying to assign human characteristics to reptiles, just trying to understand what reptile characteristics belong to reptiles. The more we learn about maternal care in rattlesnakes, reptiles’ ability to recognize a home range and find their way back to it when moved a small distance, and so on, the less I am able to look at a snake as a pretty automaton with no more brain than necessary to house a collection of “instincts.”

I mean no condemnation to those who keep snakes in captivity, especially those who maintain collections for study or other worthy purposes. If you like keeping snakes in cages, I’m not fussing at you. Do it as well as possible, keep them healthy, and give them as much space as you can.


In the Sabal Palm Sanctuary

At the same time that my interest in collecting decreased, my interest in the broader natural world increased. Bit by bit, I tried to learn more about invertebrates, trees, plants, and ecoregions like the cross timbers. By the time Clint and I planned to go to south Texas, we weren’t concerned with how many snakes we might find (though that was the first love for both of us), or targeting places where collecting was allowed. In fact, in recent years we have benefitted a great deal from visiting the places least affected by human activity, and that is often a preserve or refuge where no collecting is permitted. Seeing the places themselves, visiting relatively intact habitat – reminding ourselves that some of it still survives – that’s the thrill. We found a Texas coralsnake, Clint saw a Texas indigo snake, we saw three big western diamond-backed rattlesnakes, we saw over twenty rough greensnakes, as well as green anoles, Texas spiny lizards, rose-bellied lizards, keeled earless lizards, short-lined skinks, Texas brownsnakes, Gulf Coast ribbonsnakes, and so on. When we were not seeing reptiles, we saw black witch moths, green lynx spiders, Texas tan tarantulas, tons of other invertebrates, a marine toad, caracaras, Harris’s hawks, green jays, chachalacas, and the list goes on. We learned a little (only a little!) about the trees and other plants of the valley, such as tepeguaje, barbed wire cactus, retama, ebony blackbead, and so on. Because of the richness and diversity of all the different species, there was almost always something to admire and photograph.


Western diamond-backed rattlesnake, near La Sal Del Rey

We hope this way of thinking comes through as you read about our time on the road. For us, a broad interest in everything from ecosystems to various plants and animals works wonderfully. I’m no expert in most of these things, but I don’t have to be – it’s enough to be open to really seeing all of it, wondering about it, and seeking to learn more.

At the National Butterfly Center – South Texas, Day 3

IMG_2544.JPGWhen you first arrive at the National Butterfly Center, you see a quiet pool with lotus and other plants, and then walk to the visitor center entrance through patches of flowers alive with bees and butterflies. In our visit on October 18, these plants were heavily visited by queen butterflies (among many others), creating a kaleidoscope of black-edged orange wings with a sprinkling of white spots. But amid the peace and beauty of the center’s gardens looms a threat to the center’s integrity, as well as a threat to our system of fairness and due process. Clint and I were there to learn about the beauty of the place, the work of the center staff, as well as the threat that the property will be torn apart by a border wall. The Center’s director, Marianna Trevino Wright, was very generous, taking us on a walking tour of the 30 acres at the front of the center and then a tour of the 70 additional acres of habitat behind a canal and levee that currently can be driven or walked over.


The marine toad on his perch

Knowing our interest in reptiles and amphibians, she first took us down a trail where an indigo snake periodically turns up. While we did not see the indigo, we did find a marine toad (or “cane toad”) hunkered down in a big lump on top of a cut tree stump, several feet off the ground. Wright said that they climb, and here was a clear demonstration of that! Marine toads are found in Central America and the Mexican coasts, making it barely into the United States along several counties of the lower Rio Grande Valley. It is our biggest toad, growing to roughly four to six inches long. Unfortunately, the species has been introduced in several spots around the world and is a harmful invasive in those areas. Marine toads have very large parotoid glands that produce toxic secretions that discourage predators, and while they are not dangerous to humans (provided you don’t eat them!) it is important to wash your hands if you handle a marine toad.


Chachalacas, photographed in Harlingen

A little later, as the trail bent around to another area with plants for pollinators, a group of chachalacas ran, hopped, and briefly flew nearby. These birds are roughly chicken-sized, mostly a sort of gray-brown color with a buff-colored belly and white-tipped tail feathers, and we saw several groups at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. There, they usually moved about on the ground and on low branches, and sometimes one would trot along in a way that reminded me a little of a big, chunky roadrunner. Like the roadrunner, their flight was often low and for short distances. Here at the National Butterfly Center, this small group emerged from the brush, hopped onto something and flew on to the next group of trees.

Wright showed us the canal and levee that divides the front and back of the property. The North American Butterfly Association (NABA), which is the parent organization to the Center, owns the land that the levee is on, but the government has an easement at the levee for flood control. The easement would allow government officials or contractors to enter the land and use it for specified purposes. While the language about the purpose of the easement may not say “border wall,” the government can describe the wall as a “fence” and assert that it is an improvement to the levee, thereby attempting to stay within the purposes of the easement.


Part of the property behind the levee

On the other side of the levee, the Center’s property is mostly a combination of forest and the kinds of plants that make up the south Texas thorn scrub. The low mesquites, acacias, and other trees shelter cacti and various shrubs that can support a variety of wildlife. A little over a mile down the road, we emerged at the banks of the Rio Grande, in this spot looking wide and grand, indeed. The possibilities for supporting wildlife and providing education and research opportunities are clear. Wright described how the Center, as one part of the chain of refuges, preserves, and parks, is supposed to function as a conservation corridor, connecting habitat up and down the river to support everything from indigo snakes to ocelots, Texas tortoises to great kiskadees. Along with preserving a piece of the lower Rio Grande habitat, the Center is also busily helping schoolkids and others learn about wildlife. Wright said that they worked with 6,000 kids last year, and they are working with Streamable Learning to provide virtual field trips to classrooms anywhere and everywhere.


The Rio Grande, at the south end of the Center’s property

Unfortunately, the border wall will significantly limit some possibilities and destroy others. The threat is not off in the distance, it is here right now. Last July, a government-contracted work crew showed up on the back property, with no notice and no communication to the Center, beginning to take earth samples and cutting trees and brush to widen an already wide dirt road. It is worth noting that this was not on the levee itself, where the government has the easement, but along a 1.2 mile road owned by the Center running back to the Rio Grande. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) come onto the property at will, and occasionally things are tense. Wright said that the NABA has filed a notice of intent to sue CBP regarding their destroying habitat and property without due process – the Center got no notification and no opportunity to challenge what was happening in court. Keep in mind that CBP’s plans not only include a wall of concrete and steel bollards on top of the levee, but clearing a 150-foot zone around the wall that will be barren, and setting up lights and surveillance around the wall. Wright told us that she has been told that the workers will be back, accompanied by armed CBP agents. It appears that the intent to go to court means nothing, and they may show up and clear the land, getting it done before NABA would even be able to try to get a court injunction that would make them wait until the legal question is settled.

For some background information about the wall in the lower Rio Grande Valley, you could read “Over the Wall,” an article from this past June in the Texas Observer. Another article described how the wall would destroy the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, in the words of a federal official quoted by the Observer.

We know that readers of this blog may be united in an interest in wildlife and habitat but have diverse political opinions. However, my perspective is that this is not necessarily a political issue in the usual sense. I don’t care who you vote for, but chances are you support conservation of wildlife and habitat, nature education, and the preservation of our rights as private citizens (or private nonprofit organizations) to hold private property without worry that the government will simply take it, overrun it, or destroy it without due process – without our having our day in court to say why it shouldn’t happen.

It you would like to support the National Butterfly Center, there are a couple of ways to do this, through their website. One is to support their legal defense fund, and the other is to download and send their model letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supporting NABA’s right to due process prior to CBP taking part of their land, making a strip of it completely unusable for its purposes, and consigning over half of their property to a “no man’s land” behind the wall.


The mercurial skipper, a rare species seen while we visited the Center

Snakes and Tigers At the Doorstep

After a memorable day of hiking at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Michael and I decided unanimously to postpone our earlier plans of photographing keeled earless lizards at Boca Chica for a taqueria and an evening of writing back in Harlingen. In all honesty my still-healing left foot had traipsed across another three miles worth of trails, and I was only a few steps away from dragging it along behind me like a zombie. But by the time the thirty minute drive from Brownsville was over (after some gorditas con nopales,of course) my tense, puny atrophied muscles were given ample time to relax, so I decided to hit a little board pile I had noticed along the fenceline behind the Darling house Sunday evening as the caretaker was giving us the grande tour. With snake hook in hand (albeit more of a cane since breaking my original one the day yesterday) I strolled across the lawn, my eye already set on a lone wolf board that lay some distance from the pile, its edges overgrown with sprigs of grass. 

  It had been a hard trip for herping so far. With nighttime temps falling too quickly for nocturnal road cruising, we had been restricted to diurnal forays into the field, where, as every herper knows, sightings usually come fewer and further between. The payoff is seeing the creatures that have so long captivated you in their essence, as opposed to the black tarmac of the roadway. I had caught but a glimpse of a big Texas indigo, that iconic serpent of the Valley, at Sabal Palms; five feet of satiny-black smooth polished scales, as big around as my wrist, sliding effortlessly amidst the brown dried leaves of a fallen branch near the bird blind. While I scrambled for the camera the snake slowly made its way toward the dense tangle of vegetation growing beneath the massive, statuesque palms. In the span of a moment it would be lost in the network of ankle-deep dried fronds that make up the forest floor. The best I could manage was a shot of the trunk of the snake entwined amidst the greys and browns of the dead foliage on the dry resaca bank eight feet or more below me and separated by the tunnellike blind. 

But that was ancient history now, with the sun once again beginning to drop behind the big live oak in the front yard, and two days in south Texas= 1 live snake was improper math. That long, isolated weathered wood plank I had now reached looked like it may very likely be able to solve for y. 

I slid the hook under the board and pulled towards me, and was instantly rewarded by a small, coiled snake marked lengthwise in alternating ribbons of tan and black. My first thought was ‘black-striped snake’, as this state protected south Texas native turns up frequently in residential yards, but this was no black-striped snake.  It was a juvenile Texas patchnose. 

Patchnose snakes are splendid animals, built for stealth and speed. They have large eyes with the round pupils characteristic of most diurnal, vision-oriented species. Thin and wiry, with a physique similar to that of whipsnakes and racers, they are also striped, which aides them in escaping from predators by creating an illusion of motionlessness as they make their getaway.   Their lightweight body and diurnal habits ensure the patchnose must maintain a high metabolism, and it does so by chasing down lizards and raiding the occasional mouse nest. This one, however, was just sitting tight waiting to shed its skin, as was evident by the milky blue haze under its eye caps and the dull, dusty wash over its normally vibrant pattern. Michael and I photographed it, then put it back under the board to resume its wait. It was an unexpected find, but something about that first piece of cover always seems to hold a little magic. Many has been the time I have flipped some magnificent creature up beneath that first piece and then spent the rest of the day breaking my back over bark scorpions and fire ants.

 As it turned out, the next board (this one on top of the pile) yielded a juvenile short-lined skink that instantly wriggled back into the substrate with the last of the sunlight glinting blue-black off of its smooth, iridescent scales. But that was where my luck ran out. My intrusion into the board pile had unknowingly declared war on a nest of tiger ants, impressively large olive and brown mottled beasties that apparently run rampant across the Rio Grande Valley.  The caretaker, Gabriel, had informed us of their painful, nauseating sting, which he described as hot pain followed by flu-like symptoms and weakness and tenderness that lingered for several days. Sure enough, a quick check at antwiki.org confirmed that this was not an ant to be trifled with, comparing its sting to that of a “hot needle”. The duration of intensity was said to last a half hour, with additional soreness persisting for over 24 hours.  And here I was standing in their midst, with several of the soldiers already storming the edges of my boots.  So I did the ant dance that everyone does when they suddenly look down to find their feet being swarmed, and this luckily dislodged the defensive warriors. I then beat a hasty retreat back to the house, leaving the tiger ant army with the task of rebuilding their disturbed fortress of rotting wood and detritus. It was almost dark now, and there were blacklights to set up and Inaturalist sightings to post. As I headed back across the yard for the veranda a green jay called along the fenceline, its lime-green plumage visible for only a second in the final fading rays of the sun. There were hikes to be hiked, taquerias to be plundered, and herps to cross paths with on the morrow, but here and now the cool breeze ushers in the coming night. It is good to be back in the Valley. 

Tiger ant, with business on both ends

A Day at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary – South Texas, Day 2


Historic Rabb House, the visitors center for the Sabal Palms Sanctuary


Sabal palm

Today I hiked through the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, a 557-acre preserve along the Rio Grande, about as far south in Texas as it is possible to go. It is known for birding, butterflies, and among herpers, its claim to fame is the presence of such species as Texas indigo snakes, black-striped snakes, and speckled racers. The Master of Ceremonies, however, is the sabal palm or sabal palmetto, a palm tree that can reach over 60 feet in height and has a crown of fan-shaped leaves. While sabal palms used to grow in groves along a considerable portion of the lower Rio Grande valley, these wild-growing groves or forests of palms have mostly disappeared. The trunks of these palm trees often have a cross-hatched, latticework appearance because when it loses leaves, the bases of the leaves often remain in a sort of upside-down “Y” known as a “bootjack.” The diagonal portions of the “Y” are overlapped by newer bootjacks, leading to the distinctive appearance. On the other hand, if these bootjacks are removed or lost, the trunk has a fairly smooth appearance.


Detail of the trunk, showing “bootjacks”

We drove down Las Palmas Road, and over a levee and through a gap in the enormous border fence, while a Border Patrol vehicle looked on. The first person we spoke with at the sanctuary said they really have no comment about the border wall, because of the controversy. A different person we spoke to before leaving said that he understood no further wall was planned at this location, other than the existing “fence” of 18-foot reddish-brown upright steel bars.

When we arrived, of course Clint contrived to get the very first sighting, suitable for posting to iNaturalist: it was a Mediterranean gecko, and a dead one at that, lying on the sidewalk into the visitors center. Some people will do anything for an added sighting at iNat!

We started our walk through some open woodland and checked out the overlook to the Rio Grande, and then headed for the butterfly garden. Along the way, Clint found several noteworthy invertebrates – one was an ant mimic, apparently a type of assassin bug that looks at first glance like an ant. We began seeing large numbers of what appeared to be the milkweed tussock moth caterpillar, a hairy beast with tufts of black and white with a few spots of orange, advertising to any and all birds that it is too toxic to eat.


Ant mimic

An additional caterpillar was a little black-and-white banded critter with yellow projections or knobs around it. This was the larval form of Forbes’ silkmoth, a very uncommon species. The adult winged form is huge and decorated with bands of reddish brown and yellow, with four translucent teardrop-shaped spots that give it the name “cuatro espejos” (four mirrors) in Mexico.


Forbe’s silkmoth caterpillar

We then entered the Forest Trail, winding through a more closed canopy of sabal palms and other trees. At 11:32am, a fair distance in, the temperature was 77 degrees with a comfortable relative humidity of 49%, with breezes sighing overhead. The forest here is like the Rio Grande Valley’s version of the Big Thicket: dense, biodiverse, and looking like it had been undisturbed since before Texas was settled. Palms were mixed with acacias, ebony blackbead trees, and the understory a profusion of vines. Without enough sunlight for grass, the ground was covered in such things as palm fronds, seed pods from the ebony trees, and downed palm trunks here and there, growing moss. It was like sitting on a bench in a prehistoric forest.

The trail took us on a short boardwalk over a low place and further along through this semi-tropical wonderland. In a couple of places, an odd cactus grew in the dappled light, with long strongly-ribbed stems that lean this way and that, with tufts of spines along each rib. It is called barbed-wire cactus or triangle cactus (presumably because of the shape, in cross section, of the stems). It is said to be night-blooming in the summer, with big white blooms that attract hummingbird moths.


Barbed-wire cactus

By this time we had gone down separate paths, as Clint and I often do on these trips. I went past fragrant thickets of some bush with small white flowers, with clumps and patches of Turk’s cap scattered through it. The hum of the bees and the fragrance of the flowers was hypnotic, and tiger swallowtail and sulphur butterflies danced among the flowers. The trail led back up and into the forest.

By this time I wondered if Clint was anywhere near, and I called him. He said he was near the blind, an elevated structure extending partly over the resaca where birders can watch different species without spooking them. He said he had seen an indigo snake, and so I set out to join him. When I arrived, he said it was gone; it had been cruising through some cut brush near the water and had then made its way up and disappeared within the layers of vines, palm fronds, and other vegetation. That was a disappointment, as the Texas indigo snake is such a great find that even a short glimpse of this large, glossy serpent is a big deal.


A glimpse of a Texas indigo snake

Down a path into a particularly lush part of this jungle/forest, I sat on a bench for a while looking at the magnificence of the place. Something grew in every available inch of space; vines threaded their way up the latticework of palm trunks, and on the ground under the carpet of living plants must be a complex layer of decaying palm fronds, fallen branches, and fungi, returning previous years’ plants to the soil. How many frogs must by hidden in all this complexity? What lizards prowl through the leaf litter? There are certainly worlds within worlds in this place, from the birds in the canopy to the communities of invertebrates and their predators in the branches, to the various things below that living carpet of plants, the scavenging, root-munching, soil digesting invertebrates and the insects, reptiles, and amphibians that search them out and eat them. We could study these communities of life for years and still have more to learn.


In the sabal palm forest

And then it was time to visit more worlds. We walked along a boardwalk over a part of the resaca (which is a body of water that started out as a bend in a river but then got cut off and isolated, but can be recharged during floods or by rainfall). Further along the trail, at the edge of a small pond, we saw a white peacock butterfly, which was an unusual enough find to catch Clint’s attention. The upper wings are pale, with beige and light brown markings that has been suggested to resemble antique lace. According to the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, it is found in south Texas and down through Central America, and its habitat is “open, moist areas such as edges of ponds and streams” – a perfect description for where we found this one.

MS-whitepeacock-SabalP-17Oct17 – Version 2

White peacock butterfly

One last interesting find waited for us on the way out. We had seen Texas spiny lizards, green anoles, and whiptail lizards, and now we would see a pretty invasive, the brown anole. This anole is native to Cuba and the Bahamas, and has been introduced to parts of the southern U.S. where it aggressively out-competes our native green anoles. This is a sad state of affairs, but one that we could not correct with this little lizard, busily climbing a piece of rebar in a small butterfly garden near the visitor’s center. So, we admired him and let him go on his way, hunting for insects for a late lunch.


Brown anole

A Little Salt in the Thorn Scrub

(A Continuation of “From La Sal Vieja to La Sal Del Rey”)

We drove from La Sal Vieja westward to La Sal Del Rey (“The King’s Salt”), which is another part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. La Sal Del Rey refers to a shallow lake sitting on salt deposits, which make it ten times more saline than ocean water. Clint and I visited this place some years ago, on a searingly hot summer day that had us staggering back to the car, desperate for water.


Sign within the refuge



In contrast to the first photo, this one shows that the thorn scrub can be pretty impenetrable.

This mid-October day was far more pleasant. The sky had been clearing, and by now it was a sunny, warm day, with a breeze that kept things comfortable. The first part of our walk took us past mostly open mesquite woodlands with thick grass and huge prickly pear cactus growing in mounds sometimes standing well over head high. Other plants and trees included the ebony blackbead, tepeguaje, and a bush that appeared to be some sort of acacia. This latter plant seemed to be an invertebrate Mecca, attracting all manner of invertebrates. Clint found a pair of stick insects, the female perfectly camouflaged as just another gray branch, and the male more spindly and with green color, as would befit a thinner new shoot off the main branch. There was a large predatory wasp with a red abdomen that never would sit still for a photo and kept flying off, only to return shortly to this apparently irresistible bush. Scattered among the branches were the little ailanthus webworm moths, with folded wings looking like a mosaic of orange and yellow edged in black. There was a mesquite borer, double-banded longhorn beetle, and mantid flies. Snout butterflies fluttered among the branches. And growing fat among this buffet of insects was a green lynx spider that had pounced on some sort of colorful fly which was now being drained like some dipteran Slurpee.


Stick insect, female


Stick insect, male


Green lynx spider with fly

We arrived at the lake and I walked up on the observation deck to see the broad salt flats shading into the lake, with a large group of sandpipers milling around at the water’s edge. It was like a glimpse of the beach in microcosm, only the water was undisturbed by any wave or movement. The birds presumably were poking in the sand for prey. I approached, and at one point they spooked, briefly flying in a tightly coordinated group, quickly returning to the wet sand to continue their activity.


Scrub, then salt flats, and finally the lake




I walked out over the salt-crusted sand and silt toward the water, in places crunching on a glittering deposit of salt. I approached the sandpipers, which shuffled about nervously but did not fly away. Several of their group hopped about on one leg, like little one-legged pirates. My reaction to the first bird that did this was a concern that it had lost a leg and was forced to hobble about with his brethren. Then I saw that it appeared to be a habit among numerous members of this troupe, and I was less concerned.

Walking back from the bare salt flats into scattered vegetation, I wondered what could live in the salty, bare sand, in many places under a brittle glaze of salt. I took a photo of one of the principal plants which appears to be a saltwort, with succulent little fingerlike leaves, pale green or blue-green toward the top but pinkish toward the base.


Silver argiope

Walking back, I spotted a kind of argiope spider sitting in its web constructed in a clump of prickly pear cactus. Clint identified it as a silver argiope, a more southern resident that barely crosses into the United States. It has the basic argiope or garden spider form, but its abdomen has some projections that were fairly subtle in this young one but Clint says become more pronounced in adults.

We did see a couple of whiptail lizards, and the second, tiny one reminded us that this year’s eggs have fairly recently hatched. We saw lizard scat, suggesting that there were many other lizards we did not get a chance to see. But our walk had been a pleasant one filled with invertebrates of amazing form and color, sandpipers, and a pair of magnificent caracaras soaring over the thorn scrub.

From La Sal Vieja to La Sal del Rey…South Texas Day 1, Part 1

I am sitting on the veranda of the Darling Ranch house as I write this, watching the sun go down over the massive old live oak tree, with our first day in the Rio Grande Valley behind us. A front blew in overnight, blanketing the sky with grey cloud cover until after noon, but we decided to make a go of it anyway and get out into the field to see what we could find.  After hitting a taqueria for breakfast (and chasing a huge black witch moth across the parking lot with no success) we headed for La Sal Vieja, a national wildlife refuge consisting of two lakes northwest of the town of Raymondville. 

La Sal Vieja is so named due to the salinity of the lakes and the subsequent salt deposits that were once collected first by the Native Americans and later by the Spanish conquistadors. But with good old NaCl now available by the bag at any number of grocery stores and no longer a precious commodity, we focused our interests on the birds, bugs, and plant life. 

Aside from the salt deposits, La Sal Vieja is not unlike many of the other public land areas that dot the thornscrub in the lower Rio Grande Valley.  A narrow sandy trail winds through thick stands of mixed vegetation, with the predominate mesquite appearing alongside Baccharis, Junco, and Ebony blackbead. In the shade of these hardy species grow prickly pear in abundance, as well as a host of other succulents, grasses, and legumes. The ending result is an almost impenetrable mass of close-growing, often thorny vegetation, collectively refered to as the thorn scrub. 

While it may not be HOA approved landscaping, this verdant mixture of growth is home sweet home for a plethora of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates, the latter of which I was trying to get to fall into my canvas sweep net by dragging it through the high grass and shrubbery at trailside. Almost immediately this brought me into close contact with a beautiful jewel beetle of the genus Acmaeodera. Commonly referred to as “black and yellow buprestids” due to their similar appearance among species, these bullet-shaped borers are fond of yellow flowers, where they both blend in superbly well and mimic similarly-marked bees and wasps. This was a species I had never before seen in the field, but its atypical pattern of yellow margins on a black background with coral pink elytral blotches identified it as Acmaeodera flavomarginata. 

As a self-described buprestophile, I was ecstatic to break the ice with such a specimen. At the time it seemed like a rare find, although I would later find this species in relative abundance at La Sal de Rey. But for now, it was fresh and new and provided me with just the boost of energy I needed to keep me going along the trail, bum leg be damned. Still, the going was slow, but it gave me the opportunity to observe things at my leisure instead of the usual high-speed burn I insist on maintaining when both legs are functioning at full capacity. But the slowed pace soon payed off in the form of two additional species of Acmaeodera, as well as a host of other great stuff of the six and eight-legged kind. The buprestids were being drawn to a low-growing, purple-flowered plant I later identified (hopefully accurately) as blue mistflower. It grew abundantly along the trailside, and in spite of the adverse weather (buprestids seem to prefer hot, sunny days) produced several dozen specimens of Acmaeodera haemorrhoa and A. scalaris.

Acmaeodera scalaris (above) & A. haemorrhoa (below)

All Acmaeodera aside, the sweeps produced their fair share of notable arthropods as well. Queen butterflies, those southward-migrating monarch mimics of slightly darker complexion, were present both in their adult phase in the air and their larval phase in the weeds. Their mimicry even bleeds over into the caterpillars, with the larvae closely resembling that of their more well-known close cousins. Like the monarch, the queen is toxic to predators in all stages of its life cycle. 

Another interesting find that turned up in the sweep net was a cardinal jumping spider, a brilliantly-marked species of the large genus Phidippus, which includes the familiar black and white jumper that often makes its way into peoples’ houses. This one was stunningly beautiful, and in spite of its alert nervousness we both managed to snag a few decent close-ups before returning it to the high grass. 

A few species of insects were in ludicrous abundance, with the presence of one being comparatively benign to that of the other. Geometer moth caterpillars (better known as inchworms) covered the trails, grasses, and anything in between. They seemed especially fond of the ebony blackbead trees, where a single rap from my cane into the basket of the sweep net would produce a hundred or more of them.  A close inspection of these trees revealed dozens of specimens dangling from the branches by silken threads like weird ornaments, giving the trees the appearance of some strangely decorated Christmas tree. 

While abundant in staggering numbers, the geometer moths paled in comparison to the legions of tiny, bothersome gnats that flocked to our eyes, ears, and noses. Resistant to Deet and unbelievably persistent, they were a constant nuisance from trail’s head to end. In fact, it was a sudden increase in their numbers that eventually led us to turn around and head back to the car. I was glad we did, for no sooner had we doubled back than I spied a pair of long, waving black antennae amidst the jade greenery of a small bush. These belonged to none other than Liconotus flavocinctus, a handsomely marked longhorn beetle I had previously only known from online field guides. 

Another find worth mentioning, found on the same plant, was a land snail, later identified on inaturalist as the striped rabdotus. My son is into snails, so I made sure to send him the pic of this colorful gastropod in situ. 

The walk back was quite eventful as well.  We kept our eyes to the sky for the hope that a little sun may break through, but the thick wall of cloud cover held on with obstinate determination. The yellow flowers of the mesquite-like tepeguaje complimented the low-growing orange of the blossoming lantana, and the discovery of several corona de cristo (gorgeous purple hued members of the passion flower family) by Michael blended together to provide a diverse vibrance to the landscape.

Corona de Cristo and katydid

Michael also found a very unusual assassin bug which looked like it could have costarred in the film ‘Hellraiser’ with its orange and black pincushion abdomen. 

Halloween punk rock pinhead assassin bug… a good enough common name as any

Best of all (at least in my opinion) was the pair of Trachyderes mandibularis that we found breeding on the trunk of a flowering Baccharis. These large and showy longhorn beetles have been on my lifelist for some time, and spotting them was a definite highlight to the day’s walk. 

Trachyderes mandibularis on Baccharis

A big female green lynx spider guarding her newly-hatched brood of spiderlings and a most excellently camouflaged purple crab spider on a blue mist flower provided the finishing touches to a great adventure at the Sal Vieja refuge. As we returned to the vehicle and pointed it in the direction of our next destination, Sal del Rey, the sun peeked out teasingly from the grey mass above us. Stay tuned for Michael’s rendition of our trip to Sal del Rey…

Green lynx spider guarding her newly hatched brood

Roseate skimmer

Crab spider

Atrox Pinata on the Great Rattlesnake Highway

I have known about the “great rattlesnake highway” in the rolling plains for well over a decade now, and it has produced quite consistently over the course of that time span generally without fail.  Located in that vast expanse of open mesquite scrub and prickly pear patch dubbed affectionately by both locals (with pride) and tourists (with general disinterest) as “the Big Empty”, it is a rattlesnake lover’s wonderland if little else.  Amber and I have turned herping out there every fall into a sort of contest wherein we try to beat the previous year’s record of most western diamondbacks seen in a single night. It started back when we were dating and I took her on her first night of herping the area. We racked up a total of 32 rattlers and a few neonate bull snakes and from then on the GRH fall atrox contest became an annual tradition. Every October (with the advent of an approaching storm or cold front, if luck and schedule permitted) we would head out on a day trip in an effort to best that first magnificent night that I still credit for getting my wife hooked on herping. It didn’t come until 2013, when we broke the record by two. Last year we got 41, and so this year we had high hopes to beat that one. 

Even in an area as diamondback-blessed as the rolling plains, 41 snakes in a single night is hard to beat. But last night, with an approaching rainy cold front darkening the skies to the north of us after a day high in the nineties, we managed to pull it off, with a sum of 42 diamondbacks, plus a handful of other common locals for a total of 50 snakes! While the diversity wasn’t staggering, it made for a family fun night herper-style, with Zev wide-eyed and alert in the seat, counting each and every atrox as we pressed ever-closer to our goal. Although I hate to admit it, my wife has keener eyes than I do when it comes to spotting snakes on the road, and she insisted I stop for each and every suspicious object, the majority of which ended up being neonate rattlers. On two occasions we turned around for one snake and as we backtracked found two more. It was a glorious time, in spite of the fact that it kept us out until midnight on the eve of Michael’s and my departure to the Rio Grande Valley. While an annual autumn atrox count may not seem like the ideal for government recommended family fun, it suits me and mine well enough. Kudos to Zev for spotting the first snake and Amber the last (as well as most in-between). I can only hope for such fortune now as Michael and I make our way south with the monarchs.  Until we get there and get out into the thornscrub and sabal palms, a few highlights from last night on the plains:

Zev finds the first snake, a little checkered garter, in a hole in the concrete. Everything else was found on the road

One of two massasaugas found AOR

An unusually colorful atrox out and about

The largest diamondback of the night, a female around 48″

Signs of Autumn From the Front Porch

As I write, the signs of fall are all around me. The resident bobwhite quail chicks in the field are several months older now and learning to fly. The sinking sun casts long shadows over the eaves of my porch as early as six pm. My wife and I are sitting there now, with only the munching of dried kibble by our cat, Travelin’ Jones, at our feet. The days are still warm but there is a briskness to the air. The first dying leaves of autumn have begun to feel its presence, and respond by sailing over the fenceline from the elms and post oaks and sugarberries and lodging in the grass blades in my yard. Silverleaf nightshade has yet to yield any such quarter; the small crop growing at the edge of the porch has shed its toxic fruit but still stands tall.

I keep a small collection of common native cacti on the other side, a motley assembly of spikey succulents that resemble a line of punk rockers waiting for a show outside the Roxy. There is a hedgehog cactus, a Spanish dagger, a polyheaded hydra of lace cactus, a nipple cactus, and a prickly pear, the latter of which still bears its rosy fruit.


Giant swallowtail butterfly

Out in the yard a flash of color catches my eye. In the green and straw-yellow sea of short grass beyond the porch the dried remains of a giant swallowtail butterfly sway in the wind like a tattered flag of final surrender. The sulphur-hued diagonal bars on its forewings still stand out against the soft chocolate brown background of microscopic scales. Soon the ants will be picking it apart with all the efficiency of a team of microsurgeons, storing up on energy that will see their colony through another winter in the cross timbers.  Giant swallowtails in this neck of the woods utilize hawthorn as their chief host plant, and the big greenbriar-strangled bush of it that winds its thorny branches about my fenceline sees its share of the exquisitely camouflaged larvae, which resemble bird droppings to the point of giving off a waxy shine of browns, blues, olives and whites. The adult butterfly is among our largest of lepidopterans, reaching a wingspan over 120 millimeters. At the pinnacle of its lifespan it is a common sight as it flaps its massive wings lazily across a glen or hovers over pollen-rich flora.

Speaking of pollen-rich flora, a sprig of goldenrod has sprung up along my eastern fenceline and has somehow gone unnoticed until this evening. As a hunter of bugs I am always eager to check out the bright yellow blossoms of this perennial member of the aster family.  The variety of insects that are attracted to this plant can be astounding.  Bees, wasps, blister beetles, butterflies, and more are all drawn to their intriguing combination of color and aroma. A particular species of beetle that also utilizes goldenrods in this way is the colorful amorpha borer Megacyllene decora, which is adorned with the same black and yellow caution stripes of the likewise ringed scoliid wasps they share space with. Although the beetle itself is harmless it is usually offered the same amount of protection from birds and other movement-oriented predators by this convincing display of mimicry. Amorpha borers are quite uncommon, as their emergence from the false indigo plants that host them coincides with the late emergence of the goldenrod, and the adult beetles’ affection for Solidago blooms limits them to areas where both of these plant species grow.


Bordered patch butterfly


Green metallic sweat bee

Of course I must explore this newly discovered goldenrod stalk while the sun is still full enough to coax out the beetles.  Amber follows me on my slow progression by cane across the driveway and to the edge of the field, which feels like a mile. But finally we make it and spend a few minutes checking out a scoliid wasp perched alongside a bordered patch butterfly. Nearby, the shimmering emerald abdomen of a green metallic bee comes into view. No Amorpha borers, as we are not blessed with the presence of false indigo here, but the goldenrod yet again produces its typical generous gathering of insects.


A pair of great horned owls

Back at the porch, I make a vain attempt to study for an upcoming biology exam, but my concentration is cut short by the raucous cacophony of a murder of crows in the field to the west. This is shortly followed by the piercing scream of an enraged redtail hawk. These signs usually point to some large predator, usually a rat snake (in nesting season) or a coyote. Tonight I was in for something a little more special.  Our resident great horned owl sat perched atop the highwire at the top of a telephone pole. I have seen my fair share of great horned owls, and this is very likely the largest of those. He is the infamous bane of Travelin’ Jones, whose insistent presence beneath the eaves this evening now makes sudden sense. I have often shared my evenings in the presence of both cat and owl, but have never been able to get any pictures. Seeing the chance to remedy this, I dart inside to get my camera. When I get back Amber informs me that a second owl has flown in from the nearby post oak motte and joined our big male. Travelin’ Jones looks up at me and gives a single low-pitched mew wrought with concern. Double trouble.

A pair of crows swoop in for a cheap shot and then a pair of redtail hawks. The hawks wing their way back toward the motte, but the crows circle around and go back for a second round. The owls are instantly aware of my presence, even though I attempt to conceal myself by peering around the corner of my house. They respond by turning their heads in my direction, the silhouettes of their tufted heads portraying a glimpse of the beauty that is the Wilson Prairie at sunset.


Zev and the owls

No sooner have I acquired my long-awaited pictures than Zev shows up. He has been studying owls for a week or so now and the coinciding events of the evening serve to further entice his interest. He stares out across the open field at the silhouettes of the pair and marvels, as do I.

At dark the owls fly away, but Zev has found a big female green lynx spider protecting her egg sac in the windowsill, and his attention has thus so diverged in her direction. He calls to my attention, and I take the photo opportunity that accompanies the discovery of one of these unusually-colored arachnids.


Green lynx spider and egg case

It is a nice night. The air is warm and just beginning to be sung into being by a chorus of meadow katydids.  Between the stalks of bitterweed and bluestem they cling to, the cottontail rabbits forage, unaware that death lurks from above on the silent wings of the great horned owls. The crows have retired to their roosts in the tops of the post oaks, their owl-heckling over for the night. And mine as well. There are therapy and exams and labs to think about with the sunrise, but for now it sets humbly over the treetops, its light changing like the color of their leaves as summer gives way to fall on the Wilson Prairie.