A group of us got on the bus at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge on May 26th, and I was glad to see that Michael Perez, Natural Scientist Supervisor at the Center, was packing lots of water. We were headed for the LBJ National Grasslands north of Decatur, over 20,000 acres of Western Cross Timbers habitat scattered in a patchwork across the center of Wise County. This was on a day when the temperatures were in the mid-90s around Decatur, and it felt even hotter. The plan was for Clint and me to lead this intrepid group of nature center supporters on a herping trip. The Grasslands was a great choice for such a trip; under the right circumstances we might see any of six or seven frog and toad species, an equal number of lizards, three or four varieties of turtles, and an even greater variety of snakes. Not only that, but Michael is a great birder, and Ann Mayo was with us, bringing her expertise regarding ants and other invertebrates.
We also stopped to investigate oaks, junipers, mesquite, and mid-story shrubs, looking for the Texas spiny lizards and rough greensnakes that we know are fairly common. I also talked about how coachwhip snakes will sometimes slip out of the sunshine and up into the branches of oaks and junipers to cool themselves and rest. Several members of the group looked longingly into those branches, wondering if they might be able to fit in there and cool down, too.
I lapsed into talking about what herps we probably would be seeing, if we had been seeing any, the last refuge for someone trying to make a herp-less herping trip seem like a real one. I talked about coachwhips we have seen gliding like quick shadows through bluestem and sumac, and spotted whiptail lizards that chase down insects on patches of bare, sandy ground, and skitter off with impossible speed. When we found a harvester ant colony (Pogonomyrmex barbatus, the red harvester ant – thanks, Ann!) I talked about reasons for the disappearance of the Texas horned lizard around here. It was a hot walk through beautiful habitat, discussing the ghosts of herp trips past.
The real gems of that walk were invertebrates, such as the green lynx spiders we saw, the harvester ants, the flower longhorn beetle and Brunner’s mantis that Clint caught and showed us. Among the ways that Brunner’s mantis is unusual is that the adults are all females and reproduce by parthenogenesis (asexually). Bright, sunny days can be wonderful times to see insects who manage to go about their business despite the heat.
We returned to the pine grove where the bus was, and more importantly where the water was waiting for us. After a snack and a rest, we headed down the road to another location. At this point the sun was getting low and the temperatures were more moderate – and strolling across the pavement was the first of several finds that would turn this into a real herping trip. At 7:30pm we found the first ornate box turtle I have seen at the Grasslands in a number of years. It was an adult female, and we all admired her shell with its streaks of yellow on a nearly black background and her ability to pull into her shell and close the two lobes of the plastron (the lower shell) for protection. Box turtle populations depend on the survival of adults over many years, because they reproduce slowly, and they are declining in many places and already gone from others. Seeing this one was the highlight of the trip for me.
At another location we found a juvenile western ribbonsnake that had recently been run over. I brought this specimen onto the bus, announcing that I was not too proud to pick up roadkill, and talked a little about the natural history of ribbonsnakes. We placed its body into a bag, to donate later to the scientific collection at UTA.
The best was saved for last. As darkness fell, we walked a short distance down a trail to find a couple of little ponds. The first was really just an ephemeral pool, a shallow basin of water about ten feet across. Right away, Clint found a little ribbonsnake for us to admire (they are so much prettier and more graceful when alive!). Shortly afterward, somebody said, “Hey, a little cottonmouth!” Sure enough, there was a little brightly banded cottonmouth, barely a foot long and probably born last fall. The little snake initially would not sit still for a photo and took off swimming across the pool. I simply walked over to the other side and tried again, whereupon it turned and swam back.
We had talked about the venomous snakes we could see at the Grasslands, and I described them as nonaggressive and posing no threat as long as you do not step on them, pick them up, or startle them at close range. While some participants might have been skeptical at first, this little cottonmouth was a living demonstration that they do not chase people or want any kind of confrontation. I could not get the snake to do the open-mouthed gaping display that cottonmouths are known for; he just wanted to be left alone.
Meanwhile we spotted at least one other little ribbonsnake at the pool, and a juvenile plain-bellied watersnake who swam out into the water and then periscoped up for a breath of air. The reason that this pool was such a hub of snake activity was the numerous frogs there, including some small leopard frogs. We walked to a nearby pond and saw a couple of bullfrogs and heard the calls of gray treefrogs that we were unfortunately not able to find.
There was one last delightful encounter for us, down the road. At 9:25pm we passed a beautiful broad-banded copperhead. By the time we were off the bus, the snake was off the pavement, but I quickly located it and guided the snake back out where we could look at it. This one was like most copperheads we find, a little stressed and ready to quickly get away if possible, but completely uninterested in striking at us as long as I used the snake hook as gently as possible to manage where it went. After a few photos and some admiring looks at its contrasting reddish-brown bands and rusty-orange belly, I escorted the copperhead off the road and into the safety of nearby vegetation.
What had started as a hot, herp-less hike through the woods ended up with our seeing (or hearing) four frog species, one box turtle, and four species of snakes. Despite our running a little late, we stopped at the last intersection where we could either turn and road-cruise some more or else head for home, and it took us several minutes to decide, reluctantly, to go.