Beneath the Bark


Sunday afternoon saw Michael, Zev and I ascending a sandy trail up from the black water and dense vegetation of a section of bottomland forest at the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in Anderson County, Texas. It was a warm day (warm for mid-February at least) with the temperature hanging just under the sixty degree mark. While Michael is no stranger to the area, I had only visited once on a very brief side trip on the way back from the Big Thicket, which lies about 150 miles to the southeast. Zev had never been at all, and all three of us were excited to see what natural treasures the day had in store. After four months of cold it was nice to be out in the forest during this brief warm spell. Zev was hoping to see an eastern newt, and Michael was adamant about exploring the post oak savannah. I, however, had bugs on the brain as usual. After all, conditions were perfect for finding a plethora of overwintering species in choice microhabitat that just so happened to be all around us. It didn’t take much searching to find what I was looking for. A massive post oak stood tall and straight at the edge of a tannin-rich pool, its leafless black limbs reaching for the sky. In truth it was not unlike so many other oaks growing all around it, except for one little difference. The bark around the lower trunk was raised slightly, separated from the tree by a shadowy space where I knew a mystery grab-bag of invertebrates potentially lay in wait. I stepped to the side of the trail and gently peeled it back, trying to be mindful that this was many creatures’ home and therefore trying to keep the destruction at a minimum. As I pulled the bark, separating it from the base of the trunk, I was rewarded by a fine sight: a female southern black widow spider had constructed her infamous messy web here, where she now sat with her scarlet hourglass pointed at me, the globular ebony abdomen shining like a black marble. Around her, a quartet of tiny beige and black marked fungus beetles sat, waiting out the winter months on a bed of spongy white granular fungi that was smeared across the wood like paste. I snapped a photo as Michael ventured over to see what I had found. Afterwards I replaced the bark as closely to its original state as I could get, and we continued making our way upland.

A black widow (Latrodectus mactans) and fungus beetles (Ischyrus quadripunctatus) beneath bark

While winter is a time when many insect species see an end to their life cycles after the first freeze, and most of our lepidoptera are tucked away safely in their insulated cocoons, there are many species which ride out the long harsh days of ice and sleet beneath a thick layer of tree bark, where they enter a torpid state of dormancy until the call of spring ushers them back to life.  Some can be found communally, huddled together in odd clusters, while others tend to be found singly. From centipedes and millipedes to spiders, beetles, true bugs, ants and wasps, a little peek beneath the bark on a winter walk in the woods is sure to eventually provide one with a behind-the-scenes look at how arthropods (and even some vertebrates) spend their winter vacation.

A ripe stump in the Trinity River bottomland, awaiting exploration

We continued along the trail, where a prescribed burn had cleared away much of the undergrowth and allowed us easy access to the post oak savannah. Here, the charred black remnants of timber littered the sandy, nitrogen-rich soil. Bone-white tree trunks, their bases scorched and bark peeled back like finely shaved coconut slivers, were full of promise. Sure enough, we found not only invertebrates but a couple of slumbering prairie lizards in this area, and Zev learned about the bright turquoise patches on the undersides of the males of this species that can be used as a differentiation key between the sexes.


Fires, while generally considered to be destructive from our human perspective, are beneficial to ecosystems such as pine forests and grasslands, as they burn away sections of old growth and overgrown thicket so that new plants can start over in their place. The ashes of the burned wood that mix in with the soil are high in nitrogen and contribute to the nutritional medium the new plants spring up in. Without periodic fires (either caused naturally by such factors as lightning strike or intentionally set and maintained by the forest service) our forests and prairies would quickly be overtaken by brush and invasive grasses.

Michael & Zev walk the trail to a burned section of post oak savannah

After exploring the burned section of fringe habitat for a while, we moved even further upland, where a wide looping trail was bordered by a barbed wire fence. Here the brush had been cut back extensively, leaving a generous amount of deadfall in the wake of the dozer. We all began turning over choice logs and sheets of bark, and in doing so located a number of interesting creatures. The first was a southern yellowjacket queen, tucked neatly away in a crevice under a spongy section of oak. What many people call “yellow-jackets” are in reality paper wasps, a large genus of vespids collectively grouped under the name Polistes, whose familiar water-resistant nests constructed from plant fibers mixed with saliva are seen hanging from porch eaves and barn rafters. The real yellowjacket is smaller and nests underground, building a roughly rounded structure the size of a basketball. Yellowjackets are generally more aggressive than paper wasps, although this dormant queen seemed too snug and content to worry about us as she sat patiently awaiting the first warm days, whereupon she would set out to begin a new colony. It is for this reason solitary yellowjacket queens are known as “foundresses”.  Looking down at this one it was hard to believe she held the potential to build an empire of soldiers that, over the course of a few seasons, could expand to 100,000 or more individuals.

Foundress of a vast future empire: Southern yellowjacket queen

Polypleurus perforatus, a strange tenebrionid with densely punctate elytra

The trail eventually led back around to another section of open, sandy savannah, with post oaks and hackberries growing spaciously over some type of rough, woody growth that resisted the progress of our boots, forcing us to plow through it with some difficulty. Saw palmettos and patches of azalea mixed with greenbrier further inhibited our travel across this landscape. A small grove of oaks, their lower trunks showing signs of peeled, aging bark, beckoned to me from the trail, so I braved the undergrowth and walked out into the field to give them a look. Although it took a bit of time, the effort was well worth it, for this proved to be a popular brumation spot for inverts. The dried hull of a metallic wood-boring beetle of the genus Polycesta was found beneath the first sheet of bark, its head and abdomen missing but elytra and thorax still present, a relict of chitinous armor that spoke of the past summer, of a creature that had at one time possessed a set of mandibles powerful enough to chew through the heartwood of the oak but had now been reduced to minute bits of ant food. Still, the sculptured pitted elytral pattern gleamed in the late afternoon sun like pyrite, a testament to the profound beauty and intricacy of these remarkable insects.

Stand of young pines on the border between savannah & woodland, Gus Engeling

Not far away from it sat a huge assassin bug, Microtomus luctuosus, a tricolored beauty that is kin to the dreaded kissing bug, a vector for the potentially debilitating Chagas disease. Also known as American trypanosomiasis, it is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, and is transmitted to humans through the feces of the insect, which are involuntarily rubbed into the bite wound when the victim scratches the skin around the site of the bite. Chagas is a serious threat, especially in Texas, where a study conducted by Texas A & M found as many as half of the population of kissing bugs in the state to be carriers. Chronic complications from the disease include intestinal damage, heart problems, and can even lead to cardiac arrest in extreme cases.

Fortunately this was not the dreaded kissing bug (Triatoma sp), which also makes its home beneath tree bark, but a much more welcome and colorful member of the family. While it is larger than the kissing bug and capable of delivering a painful bite should one be so inclined to handle it carelessly, it carries no known communicable diseases. The species enjoys a wide range from central Texas south as far as Panama, where it is attracted to lights and feeds exclusively on smaller invertebrates.

Microtomus luctuosus

From the post oak savannah we followed the trail back downhill, where it led to a small pine grove flanked on all sides by water elm and sweetgum trees. Gradually we descended back into bottomland forest, and the rich earthy smells of organic mud could be detected on the breeze as we left the openness of the plain for the shadowy realm of the trees. In little time my eyes fell upon a dying pine. Unlike oak bark, pine bark tends to slough off in huge sections, and as I pulled the bark on this one back I couldn’t help but be reminded of a morning on the Louisiana border when I pulled off a great sheet of bark that broke off six feet above my head and rained an overwintering colony of imported red fire ants down on me. That had not been a serendipitous morning, but this pine tree would offer much better rewards beneath its flaky exterior. A small group of rough shield bugs (genus Brochypelma) were huddled up beside a few of the strangely rotund smaller shield bug Lineostethus sp.  Close beside them sat a cryptically marked click beetle, and several examples of the dull black tenebrionid, Alobates pensylvanica.  It was a true insect menagerie, a communal late winter gathering of mini-beasts, and a treasure trove of photographic potential for a student of entomology.

Shield bugs beneath pine bark

Click beetle

From the pine grove the trail wound back around to the vehicle, which was parked beside a bridge overlooking a small creek. From there we drove to a large section of bottomland where most of the forest floor lay beneath a shallow lake of dark water. At first glance the place looked as if a bulldozer had run amok through the woods, but upon closer inspection it proved to be the work of feral hogs. Feral hogs are notorious for working their way through patches of habitat, rooting and ripping and tilling up the ground and gobbling up everything they come across, leaving a trail of razed devastation in their wake. It did make for easy walking though.  The bottomland was replete with rotten logs and deadfall, and as we made our way along I knew it would only be a matter of time before I ran into more invertebrates.

Hemiscolopendra marginata

Solopocryptops sexspinosus

While Michael and Zev walked the edge of the waterline, with Michael photographing a basking redeared slider and Zev exhibiting his climbing skills across a felled tree, I resumed my pace, flipping and peeling bark, knowing that our time here was running short as the sun fell back over the treetops to the west. I found several centipedes here, as well as a handful of wolf spiders of the genus Hogna, and a pair of bess beetles as well. Also known as the horned passalus or patent leather beetle, this remarkable species is one of the few recorded types of beetles that rears its young. Bess beetles live in the pithy center of rotting logs and stumps, where they exist in communal family groups, with new generations growing up and “joining the family” to care for the next season’s progeny. They communicate through stridulation, whereupon they rub their wings against a special structure located on the underside of their wing covers, producing a high-pitched squeaking sound. While many species of insects are capable of producing sound in this way, bess beetles are unique in that their larvae “squeak” back by rubbing their legs together, demanding food like nestling birds. Bess beetles are important contributors to the breakdown of decaying wood in the forest, and their presence is generally indicative of a healthy ecosystem.

Bess beetle, in situ

From there we traveled upland, with no sign of Zev’s newts in spite of what felt like a thousand logs turned. “You’re not trying hard enough”, was his response when I asked him why he thought we weren’t seeing any.  “Dad has a metal ankle and a bad back”, I said. “Maybe they can’t be found because they’re good at not being found. That ensures their survival”.  But Zev would hear none of it.

At the day’s end Michael drove us up to another section of post oak savannah, and we tried out a trail that seemed to lead endlessly into dried bluestem sparsely dotted with small oaks.  As soon as we got out of the car I turned an oak log and found a pretty little black and white weevil that popped its head out from between the bark layers. It was Euparius lugubris, a first recorded sighting for Inaturalist.

Euparius lugubris

It had been a wonderful day of relaxation, an honorable day of rest. Aside from a throbbing back from rolling too many logs, I was glad to be back out into the field at the tail end of winter. As the air cooled and the sky darkened we said goodbye to the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area with plans for future trips already bouncing around in our conversation. It was back to the warmth of central heating to see me through until winter’s end.  We pulled back out onto the highway and headed for home, with the dense oak and pine rich forest all around us. Thousands of trees supporting a vast array of life through the winter, beneath the bark.

Bottomlands, Gus Engeling WMA

http://www.Animaldiversity.org

http://BugGuide.net
Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America: Eaton, Eric R & Kaufman, Kenn; Houghton-Miflin Harcourt; 2007

Whats biting texas? The hidden threat of Chagas disease”, Jennifer R. Hericks, 26 Jan 2016; The Houston Chronicle

Kissing bugs and chagas disease in the united states; http://www.kissingbug.tamu.edu; agriculture and life sciences, tx a&m university

http://www.Texastreeid.tamu.edu

http://www.Texasento.net

Beetles of Eastern North America; Evans, Arthur V; Princeton University Press; 2014

Recyclers in the Circle of Life: Bess Beetles; Michael J Raupp; http://www.entnemdept.ufl.edu

Observations on the life history of the horned passalus: LE Gray, 1946

A Trip Through Time On the Wings of Herons

The grey heron moved fearlessly and fast, long black sticklike legs pounding the ground as it spread awesome silk grey wings…

– ‘Martin the Warrior’ (Brian Jacques)

I was already running late for a biology class. With earbuds in and ‘Saint Dymphna’ playing, coffee cup balanced precariously in one hand while the other one manned the wheel, the morning found me barrelling down Highway 114, amid the eighteen wheelers hauling loads of gravel and beaten ranch trucks dragging enclosed stock trailers full of wild-eyed, bewildered cattle. Overhead, a steady procession of transparent wispy clouds reduced the risen sun to a pale yellow sphere in the new eastern sky. A front was on its way in, promising rain. Thick grey nebulous clouds obscured what would have otherwise been a clear blue January sky. A red-tailed hawk soared on an updraft, flapping its great wingspan for stability as it collided with an invisible gust that threatened to veer it in a different direction.  As I crossed the bridge over Salt Creek I habitually looked up at the overhanging power line, as a belted kingfisher can frequently be seen perched there, its keen eyes perusing the shallow water surface below for ripples caused by gambusia and leopard frogs. The bird wasn’t here today, nor were the motley flock of pigeons that reside beneath the bridge and  fly in seemingly tireless circles with the approach of every passing car.

After the bridge the land opens up on either side into a broad, plowed field which is used for growing watermelons and cantaloupes. In the summer the giant ovaline green fruits of the former and veined tan globes of the latter litter the ground before being harvested, and it is not unusual to see workers there day and night, some operating heavy machinery and the less fortunate stooped low, backs bent, with paisley bandannas tied over sweat-shiny faces and wide-brimmed straw hats combating the merciless sun. But summer is still half a year away, and for the moment the ground lies fallow and cold. To the south it is composed of barren dry clods of alluvial sand and clay deposited by seasonal overflows from the west fork Trinity River, but to the north a sea of high straw-yellow grass stretches out, its far banks governed by a treeline nearly a mile away, with the sandy Cottonwood Creek trickling over the land from the east. The highway runs through the middle of these two plots, atop a steep hill that provides a view of the scene from above, like driving atop a levee. Between the endless caravans of semis flanked by commuter cars and pickups the road is a busy one with a narrow shoulder. Dozens of carcasses of unfortunate wildlife lie along the white lines, coyotes and whitetail deer and raccoons and skunks and opossums, their presence a testament to the encroachment of man as well as the ignored speed limit. It is a dangerous place to break down, and a foolish one to pull over on.  On this grim black asphalt ribbon that invokes so much carnal destruction it is wise to keep one’s eyes on the road at all times, but on this particular morning I saw something from the corner of my eye as I passed, and I turned my head in the direction of the grass sea, where the lifting fog penetrated by the struggling rays of sunlight cast a primeval-looking spell on the land.

The early morning mist had just risen from the mud of the nearby creek. Towering above it were the crowns of oak trees, their boughs deceivingly bright with what appeared to be vibrant spring growth but was in reality the parasitic evergreen mistletoe. The tall grass waved in the remnants of the morning wind, and the dusky hue broken by the thick layers of elongated grey clouds added to the effect, giving the landscape a vaguely prehistoric look, as if I were crossing a bridge in time, one paved with modern-day blacktop made from ancient crinoids and other plants compressed over the eons and extracted as petroleum.

I took all this in in the span of a moment: a long, snakelike head popped from the grass, mouse-grey feathers mixed with those of stark white, with a familiar crest standing straight back at a slightly elevated angle from the graceful neck like a stubborn cowlick. The daggerlike beak pointed forward, orange as a flame-heated knife blade. It was a great blue heron, a noble and savage avian predator of swamp and creek and marsh and stock pond. Its scientific name of Ardea herodias sounds much more regal and befitting. This bane of frogs, fish and snakes dominates the shoreline from Canada to the Galapagos Islands. It is the largest heron in North America, standing over 54″ in height and boasting an impressive wingspan that can reach six feet across.

Closeup of head and bill of a roadkilled A. herodias

The bird lurched forward with a single fluid glide of movement, its bill punching the air, and I stole a glance back at the road, checked my mirrors. When I looked back I could see more herons. The sudden sight of them standing there, stalking the denizens of the grass with maddening patience struck an overwhelming chord with a mental image of a long-extinct dromeosaur from the late Cretaceous, dienonychus or velociraptor. Velociraptors were residents of Mongolia some 75million years before this foggy morning, and recent fossil evidence in the form of a forelimb containing what is believed by scientists to be a quill knob suggests that these last of the agile therapod dinosaurs may very well have sported feathers.  If dinosaurs were indeed endothermic, these would have supported the regulation of their body temperature as those of the heron and other modern birds do today.

As these magnificent rulers of the Cottonwood Creek hunted on long legs, their narrow tapering heads scanning the ground for prey, alert golden eyes detecting the slightest bits of movement, I could easily see the resemblance between the extinct and modern species separated by the ages, the shrinking back of the great seas, and the dawn of man.

Feet of A. herodias, showing resemblance to small therapod dinosaurs

As I passed over the Cottonwood Creek bridge it dawned on me that such a passing glimpse of nature’s transcending, ever-changing beauty simply would not do, and at the risk of being late to class I turned the truck around and passed back over, where I pulled onto what little shoulder that was available. The herons were still there, four of them in all, their elegant silhouettes beset against the grass stalks. Cars zoomed by me, buzzing in my ear like giant hornets as they passed only a couple feet from my driver’s side door. I had to get a picture, to at very least attempt to freeze-frame such a pristine conjunction of time and location. A thought fell upon me as I waited for a break in the traffic flow: a vision of a state trooper pulling behind me to ask why I deemed it necessary to park my vehicle along such a dangerously busy highway atop a steep hill with no shoulder.

“I have a perfectly justifiable explanation, officer. I just pulled over to take a shot of herons” was a response that could easily be misinterpreted. But I decided I would risk life and excuse and take my chances. After a few minutes the last car zipped by, and I bolted from the truck and headed down the hill. I stopped mid-way to take my first shot,which was too far away to capture much depth, but I was glad I did, for as I got closer to the fenceline the herons, which were still nearly fifty meters away, seemed to simultaneously take note of my presence. Had I been standing there in the late Cretaceous this would have most likely meant my untimely end as the dromeosaurs gathered together as a unified pack, but the herons spooked and took to their great wings, objects of perfect creation in flight, transforming from velociraptors into pterosaurs before my mind’s eye.

Dorsal view of a roadkilled A. herodias, showing resemblance to ancient pterosaurs

The fog was lifting now, and its departure was beginning to reveal patches of unnatural white between the oaks in the background. These were the rooves of barns. In front of them, a series of shiny new pumpjacks sat on open grassless ground, their crescent-shaped steel heads fixed onto craning beams that gave them the appearance of giant metal grasshoppers. The clouds remained, stacks of slate grey and pastel blue, unchanged over the countless centuries. The lifting of the fog had left the grass wet abd bright, and it was among it that I spied a lone, defiant heron who had refused to fly upon my approach. I snapped a picture, grateful for the opportunity, and then turned to leave. As I did a second heron sailed in like an avian hang-glider. It landed with exquisite form and grace, folding its wings up as delicately as an origami. Not wanting to further disturb the birds, I froze the frame in my mind and climbed the hill back to the truck. Less than four minutes had passed on that unexplainable scale of time. Somewhere far back along its track the Great Age of the Dinosaurs had ended, the seas had dried, and mammals ran through clumps of cycads that were on their way out while early birds tested out their new wings. A blink and here we were, making stone tools and driving automobiles and selling out to smartphones and blogging about great blue herons via the worldwide web. Millions of years and a three hour biology lab. For whatever all of it was worth, my moment  with the great blue herons of Cottonwood Creek that morning would make the time fly by.

Arnold, K.A. & G. Kenedy. 2007. Birds of Texas. Lone Pine Publishing International p. 92

Castro, Joseph. LiveScience. Velociraptor: facts about the ‘speedy thief’ https://www.livescience.com/23922-velociraptor-facts.html

Pough, Richard. 1951. Audubon Water Bird Guide. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. Inc. pp. 40-41

Sattler, H.R. 1983. The New Illustrated Dinosaur Dictionary. NY:Lothrop, Lee & Shepard p. 337-338.

Turner, A.H., Makovicky, P.J., & M.A. Norell. 2007. Feather quill knobs in the dinosaur Velociraptor. Science, Vol 317 (5845) p.1721

My “Herping Family”

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Trans-Pecos Copperhead (now Broad-banded Copperhead)

On the border between Texas and Mexico, along the Rio Grande, in the middle of the night, Clint and I wrangled a trio of copperheads by the roadside. It was an amazing find, life-listers for both of us if you consider that until recently they were considered Trans-Pecos copperheads (they recently were lumped in with the broad-banded copperheads, their bright patterns notwithstanding – but DNA trumps outward appearance). After all this time, three at once! We had a moment of discovery, wonder, and celebration, miles from nowhere, in a place supposedly so dangerous that we need a wall to protect us. After years traveling in the Big Bend country, often at night, as far from other people as we can get, we both feel as safe there as we do closer to home. Even in a familiar and beloved place like the Big Bend, we were glad for the companionship. We choose people to go with us on these long trips, and even for shorter ones, for a reason – or several reasons – and the relationships that can develop are enduring and strong.

I have been doing this for many years, and my earliest trips were with museum people, older and wiser, able to teach about the land and its wildlife and at the same time share the delighted reactions we had to the discoveries we made. There were the map turtles of Rough Creek, the hike down into Palo Duro Canyon, and finding Texas tortoises in the south Texas thorn scrub. These guys were biologists, but at the same time they were like scout leaders, keeping sometimes unruly but promising teenagers in line, nurturing our interests, and at the same time getting good work out of us to advance the museum collections.

In later years there were people like Bob Smith and my wife Jo. I still remember when Bob and I stared at a big diamond-backed watersnake in some pond somewhere in Van Zandt County, trying to reassure ourselves that our identification was so absolutely correct that we could grab that big beast, take our medicine (bites and musking were sure to ensue), and take a photo. A few more years’ experience and we wouldn’t give it a second thought, but on that day we shared a little uncertainty, and as a result the snake got away.

The first serious member of my herping family was Steve Campbell. (By “herping family” I mean something like our work “families,” the people we grow close to and come to depend on at work.) By “serious,” I mean going long distances for several days in the field with a person. After Steve moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, we co-founded the DFW Herpetological Society and organized several field trips to places in central Texas, down on the Pecos River, and the Big Thicket. Steve was a likeable, funny guy and an excellent naturalist. He knew a lot about the natural history of reptiles and amphibians as well as fish and understood how they were interrelated with the plant and animal communities around them. He and I took a series of field trips together that we would come back and write about for the herp society newsletter. We picked at each other mercilessly for comic effect (he was better at it than I was). Steve had exaggerated and funny monologues criticizing everything from my musical preferences to my packing multiple cameras and pulling them all out when we found something really cool.

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Steve Campbell, at the LBJ Grasslands

The thing was, we shared a similar perspective on things like whether we could be happy seeing common species in the field (even if we didn’t see the more rare and glamorous ones), how much collecting was ethical (we thought we should take only a few if any, even if the species was common), and whether a good walk through great habitat was enough by itself (it was, but we still wanted to find herps). We got to know each other’s abilities, quirks, and preferences, and settled into herping trips like brothers. Steve’s untimely death in 2012 was a loss that is still felt among his friends in the Texas herping community and at Texas Parks & Wildlife Department where he worked.

The other truly serious member of my herping family is, of course, Clint King. Steve and I met Clint in the early days of the herp society and found him to be the most single-minded and passionate field herper we had ever met, even though he was just out of high school at the time. Clint writes about an early field trip to the region around the Pecos River in a chapter of the forthcoming Herping Texas book that should be available later this year. He captures the essence of Steve’s slightly teasing, class clown persona quite well. Clint gave that affection-disguised-as-humor back at him by the truckload, writing about Steve’s quirkiness in “Campbell Ideology is Nothing to Mess Around With,” that first appeared in the herp society newsletter and was reprinted in this blog.

Over the years, Clint and I have visited every major ecoregion in Texas, sometimes on a day trip and whenever possible over several days. You cannot do that with someone and survive unless you truly trust, respect, and enjoy each other’s company. While our travels have not exactly been nail-bitingly dangerous adventures, we have been in isolated places, far from help, messing with venomous snakes and other wildlife. A venomous bite or a fall down a mountainside become all the more serious when you’re miles from nowhere, and it helps to thoroughly trust the good sense and commitment of your field partner.

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Clint King, at Caddo Lake

It also is a plus when your field partner has an interest in the natural world that is similar to your own. When we’re on the road, the focus is on the landscape and the wildlife, with partying or sightseeing side-trips never crossing our minds. On the other hand, reasonable indulgences are allowed. While Clint has been known to hang out with merciless herping machines who need no sleep and who find something to do even when the desert is broiling at over 110 degrees, on our trips he seems to fall easily in line with getting some sleep and visiting a few memorable eateries such as El Patio in Presidio and Shrimp Boat Manny’s in Livingston.

We also seem to have a comparable mix of reverence and wonder for the natural world. When you make your way down the rocks that form a staircase into the presence of Gorman Falls on the Colorado River, it helps when your companions (in this case, Clint and his wife and son) experience a similar awe and fascination. When standing in the desert above Terlingua staring at the clear night sky and the infinite star field overhead, you want to share the experience. We’re wired that way, as social creatures, and the transcendent wonderfulness of it all seems deeper when someone at your side gets it and is staring in similar slack-jawed amazement.

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Clear cut, near a unit of the Big Thicket National Preserve

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Refinery complex on the road to Sea Rim State Park

It similarly relieves a little of the sense of loss when looking at a clear-cut patch of forest next to the Big Thicket, driving through a refinery belching poison into the Gulf Coast, or visiting a place like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The latter may soon be walled off from us by a border wall envisioned by people who have never been there and don’t care what will be needlessly lost. Traveling to wild places in Texas, refuges, natural areas, and parks sometimes feels like attending a series of funerals for someone who isn’t gone yet, but whose death or debilitating illness is imminent. Sure, there is the joy of being there, the fascination with all the working parts of the ecosystem, the beauty of wildlife captured by the camera or just in a memorable glimpse. Sometimes there is also that sense of impending loss – will this place still be here next time? Will it be walled off? Scarred and poisoned by extractive industry? Toasted and flooded by a climate that is increasingly out of whack? Only those who see these places as essential, irreplaceable gifts will understand the joy of being there and the underlying dread of loss that goes with it. Like any other grief, it is easier when shared.

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A trail at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

I don’t let the sense of loss lurking in the background spoil my time in the field. Moments like when we found the three Trans-Pecos copperheads should be lived in the present, and those experiences are all the more exciting and fun when shared as well. I’ve been fortunate with herping companions and family just as I have with my “regular” family, and I’m thankful for all of them.

In Search of the Savannah

IMG_2820I headed northeast for an afternoon’s visit to Caddo National Grasslands, a place just below the Red River in a region of post oaks and other kinds of oak, juniper, and some scattered savannah grasslands. The Post Oak Savannah ecoregion starts at the Red River and extends down in a band through east-central Texas, and I have only been able to visit a couple of places within it, such as the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area. My road trip to Caddo hopefully would help me learn more about the Post Oak Savannah.

Driving north from Greenville, I tried to imagine the origins of the landscapes I was driving through. I knew from the map that it was historically Blackland Prairie. But what did it look like now? There were fields of close-cropped grass on either side of me, stretching back to a nearby tree line, marking a fence row or a creek somewhere. There were little houses every few hundred yards, collapsing barns, and horses nibbling rolled bales of hay. I passed a few fields with black soil, flecked white from last year’s cotton crop. The black soil, that rich, dark, alkaline clay soil, confirmed this as part of the Blackland Prairie, although there was hardly a relic of the tallgrass that made it a “prairie.” But once in a while, among the cotton fields and mowed hay fields, along a fence line I would see a tuft of prairie grass, standing up straight as a yardstick, an echo of an ecosystem that has mostly disappeared.

Even on the outskirts of Honey Grove, getting close to the Bois D’Arc Creek Unit of the Caddo National Grasslands, the soil was still black. I pictured the maps available from EPA and TPWD, showing that the Post Oak Savannah stretches up to the northeastern corner of Texas and then tracks back along the Red River, just above the Blackland, ending in western Fannin County. Even though I trusted the maps, the first thing I looked for when I got to Caddo was the lighter sandy soil that is associated with Post Oak Savannah. And on that first trail I could see for myself, the soil was reddish and sandy.

The trail passed a small clearing with some little bluestem and other grasses, and then descended through woodlands toward a tributary of the creek that runs north-south through the preserve. I was in search of uplands and, hopefully, open grasslands, so I moved on to another trail. The second trail started in a grove of pines and continued over a rolling landscape with oaks and other trees. It dropped down through another creek tributary and back up a hillside. Here and there, surfaces along the ground were covered with patches of moss. So far, this part of Fannin County just seemed like woodlands of oak and juniper.

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A small semi-open area within the woodlands, Caddo National Grasslands, Bois D’Arc Unit

Everywhere that I walked, recollections of another visit to Fannin County were never far from my thoughts. That visit was at a church camp, over fifty years ago, and the memory of finding eastern coachwhips is still very clear. These long, slender snakes are typically satiny black on the head and first part of the body, gradually fading to sandy brown. The scales toward the tail are edged in darker brown, making it look a little like a braided whip. As a teenager at camp so many years ago, I caught a couple of these snakes, typically by turning a log or a section of downed oak branch and grabbing the snake before it could escape. Coachwhips are so fast and agile that few people are able to chase them down when they are awake and on the prowl. I don’t remember what else we did at camp, but I’ll never forget those snakes. One of them in particular gave me quite a workout. In a group of kids walking back toward the camp buildings, I had spotted an entirely black coachwhip in the dirt road ahead of us. As it spotted us and took off toward a line of trees on the right, I broke into a run to intercept it. As our paths converged, I dived toward the snake and caught it. When attacked, coachwhips are known to target the face of a predator, and that is exactly what this one did, tagging me on the cheek. One of the kids ran ahead, no doubt telling a camp counselor that one of the boys had been bitten on the face by a snake. So as I headed up the road, proudly holding my prize, we were met by a group of panicky camp staff, ready for god-knew-what emergency. It was hard for me to see what all the fuss was about; all I cared about was that they would let me keep the snake. I doubt I’ll ever be able to think of Fannin County without picturing a satiny black serpent cruising through sandy soil and open woodlands.

I certainly wasn’t going to find any coachwhips on this January 28th trip, more or less in mid-winter. It’s true that the temperatures would reach into the mid-60’s that day, and I walked the trails in a t-shirt, very comfortable in the warm afternoon sunlight. However, most reptiles would be sheltering in burrows and under logs, with the layers of leaves and soil insulating them from the brief warm-up just as they protect them from hard freezes. The only activity in the forest was the occasional bird flying from tree to tree. It was quiet and peaceful as I walked through the leaf litter under the bare branches. But I still wanted to see some open savannah. I thought about how periodic fires are needed in order to maintain prairies and grasslands. Land managers in such places will use “prescribed burns,” carefully planned so that they do not get out of control, to burn off the woody plants that will turn prairies into woodlands if left unchecked. The grasses burn too, of course, but quickly regenerate from their roots and can compete with the slower growing sumac and tree seedlings. How long since there had been a burn here?

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A patch of open grassland within Caddo National Grasslands

I went in search of another trail, turning south down a county road a short distance, until I found gates for walking trails on either side of the road. One led further into woodland, but the other looked like it led up through a scrubby area, and that’s the way I went. The trail soon opened into a big open patch of grassland! Finally, here was a place that looked like savannah! The afternoon sun was getting low; it was nearly five o’clock and the light was golden and still warm. Sparrows flitted from low tree branches into a nearby thicket at the edge of the open grassland. Here was some north Texas perfection, and I stood there and soaked it in for a while. One of the things that I love about such moments, away from cities and towns, is the calm quiet of the place. The sparrows might call with their high-pitched “stip,” and dormant grasses might crunch as I walked, but such sounds did not have to compete with highway noise or other mechanized sounds. It was quiet, in a way that perfectly framed the occasional bird call. Here was a refuge, a sanctuary in that original sense of a sacred place. Like so many other natural places that have barely been touched by human activity, it was a place where the “noise” of everyday life could be stripped away, down to the experience of the garden in which we originally lived. That garden feels like home, even if most of us would not know how to live there now. It can be a brutal world of predator and prey, unforgiving of accidents or sickness, but in our sprint through the modern world, we might be forgiven if we romanticize that world just a little, and want to step away and stand in the late afternoon sunlight and listen to the birds.

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Savannah sparrow, in a thicket at the edge of the patch of grassland