The Ribbonsnake that Got Away

The calls of cricket frogs greeted us as we walked down the banks to the creek below. The little frogs were common along the edge of the water up and down the creek, and their choruses of “grick-grick-grick” started up several times during our walk, from several dozen tiny frog throats. Cricket frogs are among the commonest critters at my favorite creek.

Mary’s Creek

Casey, Shelsea and I walked downstream, soaking in the experience and the creek water, listening to cricket frogs and looking for a turtle or watersnake to show up in the pools and riffles of this shallow creek. I also thought I would catch a few fish in my net, taking a good look at the mosquitofish and maybe see a black-striped topminnow. If we were lucky, we could see ghost shrimp. At least, I’d seen ghost shrimp in the Clear Fork of the Trinity River near Benbrook Lake, where Nic Martinez had netted several of the nearly transparent little crustaceans. He had also netted water scorpions, a slender aquatic bug (literally bugs, in the order Hemiptera, probably in the genus Ranatra) with a breathing tube at the back and strong grabbing front legs reminiscent of the praying mantis.

We didn’t see water scorpions or ghost shrimp, but we did see a couple of spiders worth noting. One was what I’m presuming was a long-jawed orb weaver, legs gathered together under a sycamore leaf.

Long-jawed orb weaver

The other was a little terrestrial spider I’ve seen scampering among the limestone rocks at Mary’s Creek since I was a teenager. They hug the rocks closely and scamper under cover if disturbed. I’ve never identified them, but I bet one of my spider-loving friends can put a name to this critter, despite the fairly fuzzy photograph I took.

Can you identify this one?

Meanwhile, I wasn’t seeing mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) like I ordinarily do, and I really don’t see the beautiful little black-striped topminnow (Fundulus notatus) much any more. We did see lots of sunfish (Lepomis sp.) and small bass (Micropterus sp.) in deeper pools. Here and there, a scooped out “bowl” of clean gravel showed us where sunfish were nesting.

A sunfish nest

The fish that were most common appeared to have been shiners, in the genus Notropis. Some appeared to be spot-tailed shiners, but the one I photographed had no black spot at the base of the caudal fin so it will, for now, be a mystery (Nic?). What I do know is that these fish swim in small schools of six or eight or a dozen, and they stay near the bottom (as opposed to the mosquitofish and topminnows which are, well, “topminnows,” feeding on things at the surface of the water).

A minnow, presumably a shiner

For a herpetologically-inclined person such as me, the reptiles and amphibians command the most attention. And among the limestone rocks near the water, Shelsea spied a beautiful little western ribbonsnake (Thamnophis proximus) and said “snake!” – instantly getting my attention. It was small enough to be this year’s baby, about ten inches of slender little stripes. The ribbonsnake darted under rocks, emerged somewhere else, and stayed just ahead of us. When the snake plunged into a mass of sticks and flood debris, we gave up the chase. Quite often while you are taking apart the pile of debris, the snake makes an unseen exit where you are not looking. We settled for the glimpses we had of this tiny reptile.

I don’t see these snakes as much as I did in the 1960s, when they outnumbered the watersnakes. I don’t know why this is, because those cricket frogs we saw everywhere are a principal prey item for the snakes. Something apparently isn’t working as well as it used to for ribbonsnakes at the creek, but I don’t know what it is.

The creek, near sunset, just after Casey skipped a rock on the water

(I’m writing about some of these outings at www.livesinnature.wordpress.com. I want to write about how time spent in nature affects us, including its effects on stress and attention. If you’d like to “listen in” or, for that matter, participate in the discussion, please look at “Lives In Nature.”)

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