Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands

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Earthstar

“Hey, look at this,” Zev called out. Clint and I came over to see a pale beige sphere resting on eight rather stubby, darker “legs,” as if some weird tarantula had been transformed into a fungus. Of course, that was only our strange imaginations at work. The pale, flattened ball at the top was torn in just the way you would expect from a puffball, a fungus that produces a spheroidal fruiting body that releases a puff of spores when broken. It was the eight “legs” that had us gazing in fascination, and with closer inspection we could see that originally there had been about ten, but a couple had been broken off. We – Clint, his son Zev, and I – were visiting Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area[i] on a warm February 18th. Zev was there for salamanders, Clint was looking for beetles overwintering under loose tree bark, and I wanted to get re-acquainted with the upland savannah there. But really, the thing we were mostly there for was discovering something new or seeing some new variation on a familiar theme. The sort of thing that happens when you stumble upon an earthstar, for example. That vaguely spider-looking puffball? That was an earthstar (thanks for the identification, Burr Williams). What starts out as an outer layer around the spore sac splits into a number of wedge-shaped segments that curl back over the sac, forming star-like rays or, in the one we saw, curling so far under it that they resemble legs. The earthstar develops under the soil surface but pushes up to become exposed when mature[ii].

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Site of a prescribed burn two years before

We had already walked for some distance after parking the car at Catfish Creek and poking around in the bottomland woods for a while. We then followed a primitive road up to higher ground and wandered across a big field that had been burned a while back. The larger trees still stood, their lower trunks charred a little but not killed by the fire. Others were standing skeletons of trees that probably died before the fire, and the patches of loose bark on their trunks were the best places for Clint’s “bug hunt.” The ground was a patchwork of tall grasses that had come back after the fire and the burned lower stems of yaupon that formed a thicket before the fire. Those woody shrubs would cover the ground, block the sunlight, and crowd out the grasses and forbs, just as they currently did in nearby areas that had not been burned. I later called and spoke with a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department biologist who said that the burn had occurred in 2016, but that the yaupon and other woody plants had grown so thick that they had to first cut it, then mulch it, and then burn it. We talked further about the effort to restore and maintain the Post Oak Savannah ecosystem, and he said they are trying to do prescribed burns every two to three years. That is music to our ears, because fire plays a crucial role in maintaining prairies and savannahs.

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Little brown skink

In this sandy area where the 2016 burn had occurred, Clint was finding invertebrates under bark and beneath fallen branches or logs. Under one of the logs we disturbed a prairie lizard that was just trying to get through the end of winter in peace. Like a junior cousin to the Texas spiny lizard, this species has spiny scales and a suggestion of wavy bands on its back. The prairie lizard’s scales are smaller and less “spiky” than those of the Texas spiny lizard and its sides often seem to be a plain, darker color (while something similar to the wavy crossbands continues on the sides of the Texas spiny lizard). As we continued our walk, we uncovered a number of lizards. In each case we took a photo or two while trying to disturb the lizard as little as possible, making sure to put its shelter back in place at the end. A couple of our finds were little brown skinks. By that we mean not only that they were little and brown, but that they were “little brown skinks,” as someone aptly but unimaginatively named them. Equipped with four small, short legs and a long tail, these small reptiles might be mistaken for stubby snakes as they seem to swim through leaf litter and loose soil as much through undulation of the body as by use of their legs.IMG_2839IMG_2842We saw numerous mushrooms and fungi along the way. One of them that Clint found under a log had the overall flattened, round shape of a mushroom with gills under the cap – but they were hung from the bottom of the log instead of growing up from the ground on a stalk. Some had irregular-shaped caps with thin lines that looked like some delicate, finely striated material had been draped over the stems. And of course, there were shelf fungi on tree stumps and branches, some in a delicate shade of green and others in shades of brown and orange, in concentric bands shading outward to yellow. In a place with generous rainfall and lots of trees, these fungi can proliferate, working to return dead wood to soil.IMG_2850Version 2

Probably because of the greater rainfall and so much wood to attach to, lichens grew in a profusion of the leafy and brushy forms that I’m not used to seeing back home in the Cross Timbers. Closing out the forest around me, I focused in on the fairy forest of lichen, the bowls and cups, the little bushes and trees, all growing in a five-inch section of oak branch. Worlds within worlds.

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Lichen

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Savannah

We drove to the northern part of the property, to an upland area where Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has worked particularly hard to restore the savannah. In places there were extensive grasslands dotted with a few trees, while in others, the prairie grasses grew within a woodland with a somewhat open canopy. It was all beautiful, with the dark trees contrasting with the burnt orange of the dormant grasses and fallen leaves. Thinking about it later, I wanted to talk with a deer hunter to find out if they see this, too. While searching for the right buck, surely some of them get lost in the experience of the twisted oak limbs against the sky, the carpet of reddish-brown leaves, the clumps of grasses like vertical up-strokes on a painter’s canvas, the dense gray blending together of trees when you look as far into the woods as the eye can penetrate. Such beauty cannot just be the background noise of a deer hunt, can it?

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Woodland with open canopy

Further back, a little way from the beaver pond, we had seen a group of turkeys foraging in an open area between the road and the woods. They numbered about fifteen, and probably they had been scratching around for acorns and other nuts and seeds. I took a couple of photos from as close as they would tolerate, which was not very close. Each time I took a few steps closer, the group trotted a little further away. Clint and I had been spoiled in a trip to Palo Duro Canyon, where we saw a group of females being courted by a male. All of them seemed unconcerned about the presence of humans, at least from twenty or thirty feet away, and perhaps the courtship had them a little distracted. But here, in a place managed not just for habitat management but for hunting, the birds rightly sensed that people represent mortal danger.

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Wild turkeys

We had one more shot at finding salamanders before we needed to leave, so we headed down into the creek bottomlands again. In a mowed clearing, we came across the little armored beast that is a Texas icon: the nine-banded armadillo (it is the official state small mammal[iii], in case you’re keeping track of such things). As the compact little mammal snuffled and poked into the base of plants and any little crevice where an insect or grub might hide, I shot some video from the car rather than getting out and spooking him. They are charming in that nearsighted way they have, ambling through the understory or wandering in clearings, digging and rooting around and nearly oblivious of whatever may be nearby. Occasionally they pause and sniff the air, using their one sense that is really keen to check for something – danger? Or the smell of damp leaf litter or soil with better chances of finding something to eat? It is generally understood that to get close to a wandering armadillo, the thing to do is to stay downwind. If you are reasonably cautious you may not be seen or heard, but when they get a whiff of danger, they shamble off toward a thicket. If startled or pursued, an armadillo can run fairly fast, and plunge through tight places and thorny thickets where you cannot go.

We walked down the last distance to a slough, with tall trees standing in dark water. A man-made levee impounded a broad pond where the rich mud and accumulated tannin from fallen leaves made the water black. The branches overhead reached across to the neighboring trees like arches in some wetland cathedral, and this splendid architecture was mirrored in the black water below. An alligator rising to the surface would have completed the swampy picture, but the only reptile we saw was a big red-eared slider, basking on a snag just above the water. She dropped in as we walked nearby, but on our way back she was pulling back onto her spot on the log.

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The “wetland cathedral”

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Red-eared slider

On the other side of the levee was an area with a meandering stream, shallow ephemeral pools, and downed logs. Try as they might, Clint and Zev did not turn up a salamander. What they did discover under a log was a big slug just a few inches from a cluster of translucent ovals, like tiny, bright grapes. A quick check of the Internet verified that these were indeed slug eggs (yes, a smart phone can serve several useful purposes in the field, especially documenting observations on iNaturalist!).

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Slug eggs

And that was our last real discovery on our day at Gus Engeling WMA. We saw another flock of turkeys on our walk back, Clint continued the search for beetles under the bark, Zev was very good-natured about not finding salamanders on our walk, and we continued to soak in the view of every bottomland pool, every downed log, and every woodland clearing on our way back to the highway. Spring is only a month or so away, and we’ll be back!fullsizeoutput_1145

[i] Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area. (Internet) https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/wma/find_a_wma/list/?id=10 (accessed 3/5/18)

[ii] Phillips, R. 2005. Mushrooms & Other Fungi of North America. Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books

[iii] Schmidly, D.J. 1994. The Mammals of Texas (Revised Ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

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