A New Bird and the New Year

It was an attempt to make 2017 go out with a natural “bang,” one more walk on a bright winter day among trees and grasslands. Not long ago I was complaining about the abnormally warm, record-setting days and how I was ready for cold days and, hopefully, snow. Yesterday there was neither snow nor sunshine, but a walk through parts of Eagle Mountain Park under a deck of clouds, with temperatures in the mid-40’s, was brightened by a new avian friend. And that led to other positive things.

The park consists of 400 acres on the eastern side of Eagle Mountain Lake, and it includes woodlands and some patches of grasslands. Its sign declares that it is “where the prairies meet the timbers,” and on a map of our ecoregions, the eastern edge of the lake is indeed at the transition from the Grand Prairie to the Western Cross Timbers. A limestone ridge around the park entrance supports many live oak trees, but dropping down from there, it’s post oak (and some blackjack) all the way. It’s probably fair to say that the park is situated at the gateway to the Western Cross Timbers.

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Eagle Mountain Park

This was not my first visit; Clint, Amber and I first visited there seven years ago, almost to the day. On that particular winter day, we met a buck white-tailed deer that was completely uninterested in running away, and while we kept a little distance (no matter how unafraid, deer are not props for us to pose with), we did enjoy the close encounter. IMG_0148Further down toward the lake, we walked through open areas where beautiful waves of yellow dormant grasses stretched to the tree line some distance away. Arriving at a small inlet of the lake, we saw a basking turtle on a snag out in the water, very likely a red-eared slider. It was a reminder of how our cooters and sliders are cold-tolerant and active just about year-round.

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A patch of grassland within the park, 12/30/2010

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Turtle, basking at Eagle Mountain Lake, 12/30/2010

Yesterday’s walk was on trails that wound through the woods in a different direction, dropping down through post oaks and junipers, across a small foot bridge, and on through gently rolling woods with open glades where the reddish stems of dormant little bluestem grass add their distinctive texture and color.fullsizeoutput_14b1

I had seen a hawk soar by, and watched a turkey vulture riding whatever cold uplift could carry a big bird on a day like this. Here and there, I heard a crow calling to his buddies or scolding some annoying animal (or human). And then, flitting around the lower branches of a juniper, I spotted a small bird. It landed, then took off again, and sometimes hovered at the ends of branches almost like a hummingbird. It was a sort of dull yellow below, and the wings were dark with some wing bars or white pattern. I thought I got a momentary glimpse of a little spot of red on its crown, but was very uncertain, given this little bird’s constant motion.

The first thing was to switch lenses, and I hoped I could do it before losing the opportunity to get a photo. This is the only thing that has occasionally made me wonder if a good point-and-shoot camera would be a better choice – standing there changing lenses while the moment moves on. But I got the zoom lens on and my little friend was still nearby. Every time the bird landed and I got the autofocus going, it flitted away just as the image sharpened and I was about to take the photo. The best image I managed to get before the bird moved on to some other tree shows its back and tail in low flight over a juniper branch. Not a satisfying photo, but might it help identify the species?

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A bad photo of the kinglet as it flew away

Back home, I got out the Sibley guide and was promptly overwhelmed with the variety of warblers and other small birds with some degree of yellow with darker wing covers. The alternative was to post this crummy photo to some Internet community of birders and naturalists who might be able to help. I posted it to the Facebook page for DFW Urban Wildlife (and yes, I did later add it to iNaturalist, a fantastic resource for citizen science and sharing what we see in nature). Soon, I got an identification from a friend – the little bird was a ruby-crowned kinglet. I thought of that little red spot I thought I had seen on the crown of this bird’s head, and was more confident that I had actually seen it. Other comments within the group, as well as information from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and John Tveten’s book The Birds of Texas also matched this little kinglet. They nest far to the north but come to Texas in the winter, they flit nervously through the woods, may hover around tree foliage in search of the small insects that are their prey, and the male’s little red patch on the crown is often not visible but may be seen when agitated or courting.

I thought about how glad I am that there are communities of people who care about these things and are so willing to speak up and share information. Just in our little corner of Texas there are groups like DFW Urban Wildlife and Mark Pyle’s page, “What Kind of Snake Is This? North Texas,” with people willing to jump in and lend a hand. The California Academy of Sciences’ iNaturalist is a grand collection of local and regional projects, where any of us can easily post sightings from a smartphone or computer, providing a photo, location, and other notes, and each sighting contributes to our scientific understanding of the natural world.

In 2018, with all of its worry and difficulty, we need communities of naturalists and just plain nature-friendly folks who will support each other and support wild places. We need people who understand science and people who will contribute to science. And we urgently need every person who can look at a patch of cross timbers or prairie and see something with inherent value, beyond its monetary value as property to be developed or resources to be extracted. Such people give me some measure of courage with which to face the new year.IMG_2745

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. Ruby-crowned kinglet. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-crowned_Kinglet/id (accessed 12/30/17)

DFW Urban Wildlife (Facebook page) https://www.facebook.com/groups/726012804182335/ (accessed 12/29/17)

iNaturalist. https://www.inaturalist.org/home (accessed 12/30/17)

Tveten, J.L. 1993. The Birds of Texas. Fredericksburg: Shearer Publishing, p. 283.

What Kind of Snake is This? North Texas (Facebook page) https://www.facebook.com/groups/whatsnakeisthis/ (accessed 12/30/17)

Sunset and the Winter Solstice, 2017

I wanted to visit the Southwest Nature Preserve for a few minutes today, on the shortest day of the year. For months now, the sun’s daily climb has traced a lower path, its zenith a little lower in the sky every day. In Arlington, Texas, the sun set at 5:26pm, ending the shortest day of the year.

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Sunset at the pond, December 21st

At the preserve, I was (for a time) alone, watching the sunset on a particularly warm day.  According to Weather Underground, the high in Arlington was 73, and that is 21 degrees above the average high. In the woods, there was the scent of damp soil and leaves following yesterday’s rain. At the pond, a solitary turtle remained on a branch above the water, long after the last slanting rays of the sun were blocked by the trees. She (a slider the size of this one would be a female) turned and slipped beneath the water, but tomorrow she will be able to bask for a few seconds longer.

The solstice marks the beginning of winter. If we get more rain, I look forward to quiet bottomland forests with pools where salamanders are breeding. I hope to spend some hours looking for and maybe photographing birds among the bare branches of oaks, cottonwoods, and bois d’arcs, coffee in one hand and a field guide in the other. If I’m lucky, at some point I will be able to crunch through new snow among trees almost magically highlighted in white, in a woodland hushed and quiet as only snowfall can make it. img_1607

The days will start getting longer, and maybe colder, but there is a lot to look forward to!

December Beneath Post Oaks


The western cross-timbers occupy over 25,000 acres of Texas, rolling westward from what is left of the blackland prairie, where they slide into the southern end of the plains. Mixed grasses conquer vast open meadows where bands of mesquite and honeylocust spring up from the Trinity sands, whose powdery composition dates back to the Cretaceous period.   It melts into the crusty layer of Redbeds from the Permian Basin, where chunks of igneous and sedimentary rock sit and wait out the centuries with timeless indifference. Their jagged, irregular surfaces speak of a past that was vastly different from the one the region enjoys now. Five hundred million years ago my property was submerged beneath the saline waters of a shallow sea. Tylosaurs and the great turtle Archelon patroled for the fish, crustaceans, and echinoderms that would eventually become beds of limestone, and archosaurs and hadrosaurs left their distinctive  trifurcated tracks in the mud. Their bones would witness the Ice Age of the Cenozoic period, mastodons and dire wolves and sabre-tooth cats. The prairies would erupt from the rich soil, and man would walk across them over thousands of years, hunting with ancient spears and then Clovis points and then Comanche points knapped from flint, chert, and obsidian. The bones of the prolific bison can still be found alongside these artifacts after a heavy rain, rough and white and chalky, with red clay embedded in their many fissures, the smooth dark marrow still visible on either end.   Generations of hunters and gatherers saw the land change. Dire wolves became red wolves and coyotes. Smilodon was reduced to a mountain lion, and the coniferous forests to petrified wood. 

On this crisp cold dawn in December, several centuries after the North American bison and Comanche and Apache disappeared, replaced by cattle and oil tycoons and railroads, the splendid cloak of another morning begins to blossom all the same. The red-orange orb of sun sends a Jacob’s Ladder through a dense heap of lavender-edged clouds, crowning the tops of the post oaks in gold. My son and I stand across the field, the prickly pears casting long shadows toward the west. It is a minute’s walk to the edge of the treeline, with the crisp air in our lungs, dessicated soil crunching beneath the soles of our shoes. A scraggly ashe juniper stands at the forefront of this massive stand of oaks, its evergreen needles mocking the naked oak branches. A blue jay erupts from its midst in a flurry of sky blue and black and white, sounding a hawklike alarm. The pastel blue juniper berries it has doubtlessly been gorging itself on come into view as we approach closer, complementing the deep jade hues of the juniper needles, like a naturally decorated Christmas tree. The bird disappears into the woods, winging its way expertly amid the rough boughs of oak. 


At the fenceline, bright pink clusters of what I assume to be beautyberry stand out in vivid contrast to the earthen tones of late fall. They are encircled by chaotic coils of greenbrier, a little paler and devoid of their characteristic heart-shaped leaves but otherwise none the worse for wear. They tug at our socks and pant legs as we venture into the understory. Here, dried leaves form a crackling carpet broken in places by sun-bleached cover boards and pieces of lichen-covered deadfall. Zev lifts one, peering beneath it in the hopes of spying a slumbering centipede or cluster of harvestmen. He finds nothing that pleases him, and moves on to the next piece, knowing the locations of each from memory, pausing to dust away a thin layer of leaves from a large sheet of weather-worn plywood, its cracking edges bent up toward the sky by repeated seasons of saturation and dehydration. He starts to pull it back, then freezes, eyes wide. Zev drops to his knees and peers forward into the leaf litter, where tiny fingers of fiery coral colored fungi reach up in frozen tendrils. I join him and, of course, he has to ask what it is. I tell him I don’t know but I own a book that does, and we conspire to look it up when we get back to the house. 


It is too cold for even the fossorial reptiles and mammals and arthropods that seek winter shelter beneath the boards. We venture deeper into the woods, where the post oaks interspersed with the occasional blackjack grow closer together, the bases of their trunks hidden beneath the leaves. 

There is some strange magnetic force that exists between children and fallen leaves, and Zev can’t resist plowing through the leaf litter at full speed for a short burst. The sudden break in the stillness of the woodlands startles a solitary American crow, who adds his own displeasured brand of noise to the disrupted solitude. I explain to Zev the genetic relationship between the crow and the blue jay we saw moments earlier. But he spies a late cloudless sulphur butterfly as it bats its oversized wings and he is off like a shot. The sulphur’s wings are a fluorescent yellow that glows as if they have been painted by a highlighter. Cloudless sulphurs are fall migrants that journey to Mexico with the seasonal lapse in photo-period, and we ponder how this one has survived several freezes and why it has chosen to stick around. But then again the temps have been unusually warm for this late in the year, and it feels good to be out on a more normal winter day. 

We come upon a dying oak, a probable victim of lightning strike. It has been split in a jagged diagonal line by some powerful unseen force. As a result the tree has suffered excessive branch die-back. Unlike the surrounding trees, most of which still bear a few stubborn leaves that vibrate in the northern wind, this old behemoth is on its last roots, destined to return to the dust it sprouted from untold decades ago. 


A closer inspection reveals sharp, slanted holes cut clean into the scarred areas of the wood. The oddly segmented, bulbous-headed larvae of buprestid beetles, known collectively as flatheaded borers, are the culprits. It was a summer for Polycesta elata, a large handsome silver-speckled metallic species that infests stressed trees. The holes in this particular unfortunate oak look fairly fresh, likely bored this past summer. They were made as the adult beetle left behind its youthful larval stage for its comparatively brief adult existence on the outside. This typically occurs between April and July. The fact that the species had been feeding off the wood long enough to mature and exit suggested that this had been a resilient post oak, for woodboring larvae can take several years to mature. 

Wood-boring beetle larvae


Buprestid beetles are especially attracted to burned wood, and if this one was in fact struck by lightning as we hypothesized, this could explain the presence of the holes. Using specialized infrared sensory organs, they can detect burning wood from miles away, and are important contributors to the natural cycle of forest fires, with the infestive larvae speeding up the process of returning the burned organic material to the earth, where the nitrogenous addition to the soil encourages new growth. This year’s crop of beetles have come and gone, the emerged adults having either found shelter beneath the loose bark or succumbed to last week’s low of 17 degrees. 

Too soon it is time to leave; we exit back out of the woods, from beneath the gnarled bare branches of the post oaks. They watch us pass as they have several generations before us. Zev pauses to admire a much smaller plant growing in their midst: a humble silverleaf nightshade that is still hanging on in the face of adversity. A few pallid, withered leaves still droop from its stems, alongside marble-sized yellow-green speckled fruits that look invitingly edible. But their beguiling, brightly colored flesh is full of toxic tropane alkaloids, and ingesting them would be a mistake. 

Silverleaf nightshade


“Deadly nightshade!” Zev points at the plant as it falls into view. He has been familiar with the plant since early childhood, when I explained to him that consuming those enticing “baby tomatoes” could send him into hallucinatory fits of delusion at best and possibly even prove fatal. He had already found out about stinging nettle, fire ants, and paper wasps the hard way, and was afterwards able to spot nightshade during all seasons. Still, he is mesmerized by the plant’s benign appearance which conceals so much harnessed destructive potential, and he speaks of it with a mixture of endearment and reverence, the same measure he gives black widow spiders and rattlesnakes.  Before leaving the plant behind us I tell him a story of how Native Americans on the plains used juice from the nightshade on the tips of their dart points, and how several Roman political assassinations were believed to have been carried out in the first century A.D.  In the spring the silverleaf nightshade will bear violet star-shaped flowers with rigid canary yellow pistils, but for now the berries hang on as the little plant trembles in the wind along the edge of the prairie, unprotected from the elements. 

Our house is in view now, and the skies’ hues have dissolved into a dusky blue, the pleasant orange ball that first peeked over the eastern horizon less than an hour ago already turned to blinding sulfur.  It looks down on us as we walk back across the dormant prairie, the same cosmic timeless star that has overseen the Earth’s Precambrian beginnings and the Age of Reptiles and then the Age of Mammals and the Dawn of Man.  It gazes down with all the unwavering indifference of the stones at our feet as our own species plods toward eventual extinction. A tufted titmouse sends its echoing, fast-paced trill from the fragrant juniper tree, its smoky grey crest standing out against the blue of the sky. Another year is winding down in the Cross-Timbers. 

“Herping Texas” – Telling Our Stories of Reptiles and Amphibians

Clint King and I have been writing together for a long time. We have spent time in every ecoregion of Texas looking for reptiles, amphibians, and other wildlife, and we have written about those experiences. Our goal has been to increase the reader’s understanding of these animals and the places where they live, and pass along our love for the wild places in Texas. It is particularly important for all of us to realize that some of the places in Texas are world-class landscapes with species just as fascinating as the wildlife we see on TV, and just as worthy of conserving. Eventually, of course, we had to take a shot at writing a book, and that book should be out next year.

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A world-class place: pitcher plant bog in the Big Thicket

I met Clint in the early days of the Dallas-Fort Worth Herpetological Society, and while serving as Editor for the society I had the pleasure of publishing Clint’s remarkable account of a herp trip he took with Steve Levey to Arizona. “In the Tire Tracks of Kauffeld” was an exciting story, filled with wit and sarcasm and encounters with species we all dreamed of, like Gila monsters and sidewinder rattlesnakes. Meanwhile I had been writing about box turtle conservation, problems seen when we try to relocate reptiles, and my own accounts of herp trips. In 2010 we started co-publishing an e-publication, Texas Field Notes, that came out roughly quarterly. Some of the articles discussed the natural history of one species or another, but we also wrote about our trips in an attempt to get others to go see the places and the animals that we were seeing.

When it came to writing a book, we knew from the beginning that we wanted to organize it around different areas of Texas. Werler and Dixon’s Texas Snakes, one of our favorite go-to books, had some wonderful introductory material on the biotic provinces of Texas, and these authors spoke highly of Richard Phelan’s book, Texas Wild. Both books inspired us to include a description of each of the ecoregions we visited in the book we wanted to write. We also wanted to write about common species as well as the uncommon or charismatic species like the Texas indigo snake. As a result, we write about cricket frogs and watersnakes with as much interest as we do the speckled racer or Texas lyresnake.

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One of the common species, a broad-banded watersnake

We also wanted to provide lots of photographs of the reptiles and amphibians and their habitats. We have taken cameras along with us everywhere we have gone, in the desert and mountains of the Trans-Pecos, in canoes on Caddo Lake, in the wintertime misting rain in east Texas, on the beach at the Gulf Coast, and the result will be over 150 photographs documenting our experiences.

Although the road from book proposal to publication is long, we’re glad to be working with Texas A&M University Press to get this book to you, and it looks like the editorial process is done and they will now be designing the overall look of the book. After numerous conversations about a title (our working title had been “The Great Rattlesnake Highway,” a metaphorical reference to the path we have followed), the book now has a name: “Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles and Amphibians.” We hope you’ll keep an eye out for it, with a planned release next fall.

A Walk at the Grasslands on a December Afternoon

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LBJ Grasslands, Wise County

Fall is my favorite season, which doesn’t align perfectly with my interest in herpetology, because as fall deepens, there is less reptile and amphibian activity, for the most part. But the quality of the lower, slanting light deepens shadows and contrasts, and there is something nostalgic in the way the light suggests that the day is ending, the year is ending, and it’s a time for reflecting on what has come before. The colors are part of the feeling of fall. Even when the leaves don’t turn that brightly, the countryside is a study in bright straw yellow, russet, muted orange, rust, brown, and gray, under what, on some days, is a deep blue sky. A walk in the woods, when you can find a quiet woods, is calm and peaceful, with the crunch of grass or leaves underfoot, and the far-off call of a crow. The smell of the carpet of leaves on the ground is subtle and good – it is good the way that the earth should smell in the woods as it prepares for winter’s sleep.

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Cross Timbers woodland

“Winter” is hardly a word that came to mind yesterday, December the second, as Clint, his son Zev, and I arrived at the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) National Grasslands. The high temperature that day in Decatur was 79°F, twenty degrees higher than average. However, it felt comfortable, compared to many of the late spring and summer walks I have had there, and so we set out across a patch of grasslands and into the oak woods. The path became very sandy, like walking through several inches of fine beach sand. To either side, the mixture of grasses, trees, and woody plants like sumac provide a thin layer of organic debris and tie the ground together, but on the trail, the steps of humans and horses churn the sand and keep it loose and powdery. In many places along the trail, harvester ants were on the march, collecting bits of vegetation and seed to carry down to the colony, to see them through the winter.

The Western Cross Timbers, of which this place is a part, is built mostly on sandstone and clay, and at the LBJ Grasslands the soil shifts between patches of deep sand and patches where red clay dominates. It is a place where erosion often cuts into the land, making the land drop unevenly or seem torn into open ravines.

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Erosion cuts through the grassland

We soon came to such as place, where the grasses gave way to a gully where the water cut through the sand and clay and washed it down into one of the area’s many little ponds. Clint and Zev were inspecting the edge of the pond well before I took yet another photograph and made my way down one of the cuts to the water’s edge. As is always the case, Blanchard’s cricket frogs are still active long after other herps dig into shelters for protection from the night time cold, even if the days may warm to record highs. The little frogs make every day of their short lives count, and when the sun is shining they are likely to be sitting by the water, waiting for the tiny invertebrates that they eat. Nine-year-old Zev is already known to be a master at catching cricket frogs, but the need to keep his shoes dry kept his success at cricket frog capture just out of reach. He walked the narrow space between the dirt embankment and the pond’s edge skillfully, ducking under brush and exposed roots like a tightrope walker, like a confident nine-year-old boy with more experience walking in the woods than most men.

On down the trail we walked, past the stands of post oak and blackjack, juniper, the wild plum thickets, and the open patches of bluestem and Indiangrass. While the dominant trees of the Cross Timbers are post oak and blackjack oak, many other trees flourish there. In places, the junipers are almost numerous enough to suggest the phrase “cedar breaks,” those dense patches of juniper (or “cedar”) on the Edwards Plateau where almost everything is crowded out by the junipers standing shoulder to shoulder.

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Blister beetle

Somewhere along the way, Clint and Zev came upon a sizable black beetle making its way across the trail. Clint identified it as a blister beetle, and puzzled over the fact that its wing covers (elytra) looked a little too short for it to be a black blister beetle (Epicauta pennsylvanica). Whichever member of the family Meloidae it turns out to be, it was black as midnight, and carried a skin-blistering toxin called cantharidin that it would release if harmed. The insect exudes this fluid in a defensive reaction known as “reflex bleeding,” where fluids are released from pores in the exoskeleton. Clint said the point of release in these blister beetles was the leg joints. We photographed it and sent it on its way, unharmed and presumably with all its cantharidins safely within its own body.

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“Fire” in the forest

In some places, one of the oaks would have some leaves with color remaining. Often these were blackjack oaks, but sometimes they were post oak, and they created a nice effect, like a glimpse of orange fire within a forest primarily lichen-gray with green junipers here and there. We appreciated these patches of color even more because they were uncommon.

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Zev, halfway up a juniper

The trail meandered through this woodland, and sometimes required the trimming of a tree or two to accommodate the hikers and horse riders that use it. A few times, the cut limbs of a juniper made just the right set of rungs for Zev to climb. We talked a little about how to go about this successfully. He mentioned the cut limb stubs offering great places to step, while testing other branches to make sure they were not brittle and would not break. I’m really thankful for kids like Zev, who not only have opportunities to explore places like this but who eagerly embrace the experience of climbing trees, catching frogs, and wondering at the intricacies of the little webs of bowl and doily weaving spiders that Clint pointed out among the twigs of the tree limbs. Magical places like the grasslands will be in good hands if inherited by people like Zev.

On the way back, a little bit off the trail, we saw an armadillo snuffling along the woodland floor, pushing neck deep through leaf litter in search of invertebrates to munch on. The nine-banded armadillo is a staple of Texas culture, and it is even designated as the state small mammal. The Armadillo World Headquarters was a venerable spot in the Austin music scene in the 1970s. The real animal is a fascinating creature, armored from neck to tail in hard but somewhat flexible, leather-like skin with bony plates strengthening it. The tail is covered in rings of that same material. In the middle of the back, the animal’s bony shield is broken up into nine bands, adding to its flexibility. They dig multiple burrows that may be anywhere from one to five meters long; short ones may function as not much more than a pitfall trap where insects collect and will be eaten, but longer ones are used as refuges. According to David Schmidly’s The Mammals of Texas, studies of stomach contents show that 93% of the diet is animal matter, such things as insects, grubs, caterpillars, termites, and at times crayfish! The occasional reptile or amphibian is taken as well, as this small mammalian tank plows through the woodlands.

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Nine-banded armadillo

Anyone who has tried to approach an armadillo knows that their vision is poor and their hearing is probably not much better, but their sense of smell is well-developed. By staying downwind, moving slowly or only when the armadillo is head-down in the leaf litter and digging for food, one can often approach them quite closely. I did manage to get a few pictures of this one, initially digging and then sitting up on its haunches to sniff the air. They are inoffensive but exceedingly strong. I freely admit to trying to catch one here and there during my adolescence, and when touched or grabbed their first reaction is to buck (sometimes launching themselves into the air) and then scramble away noisily through the thicket. While they only have small, peg-like teeth, their legs are equipped with very strong claws adapted for digging and are almost impossible to hold onto.

We emerged from this walk tired, after about three miles on the trail, and ready to do it again at a moment’s notice. If you want to visit the LBJ Grasslands, there are trails for hiking or horseback riding in several locations, and a downloadable map at the Forest Service website. You will find over 20,250 acres of Western Cross Timbers habitat, that is, belts of oak woodland and patches of prairie or savannah.fullsizeoutput_1473