From La Sal Vieja to La Sal del Rey…South Texas Day 1, Part 1


I am sitting on the veranda of the Darling Ranch house as I write this, watching the sun go down over the massive old live oak tree, with our first day in the Rio Grande Valley behind us. A front blew in overnight, blanketing the sky with grey cloud cover until after noon, but we decided to make a go of it anyway and get out into the field to see what we could find.  After hitting a taqueria for breakfast (and chasing a huge black witch moth across the parking lot with no success) we headed for La Sal Vieja, a national wildlife refuge consisting of two lakes northwest of the town of Raymondville. 

La Sal Vieja is so named due to the salinity of the lakes and the subsequent salt deposits that were once collected first by the Native Americans and later by the Spanish conquistadors. But with good old NaCl now available by the bag at any number of grocery stores and no longer a precious commodity, we focused our interests on the birds, bugs, and plant life. 

Aside from the salt deposits, La Sal Vieja is not unlike many of the other public land areas that dot the thornscrub in the lower Rio Grande Valley.  A narrow sandy trail winds through thick stands of mixed vegetation, with the predominate mesquite appearing alongside Baccharis, Junco, and Ebony blackbead. In the shade of these hardy species grow prickly pear in abundance, as well as a host of other succulents, grasses, and legumes. The ending result is an almost impenetrable mass of close-growing, often thorny vegetation, collectively refered to as the thorn scrub. 


While it may not be HOA approved landscaping, this verdant mixture of growth is home sweet home for a plethora of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates, the latter of which I was trying to get to fall into my canvas sweep net by dragging it through the high grass and shrubbery at trailside. Almost immediately this brought me into close contact with a beautiful jewel beetle of the genus Acmaeodera. Commonly referred to as “black and yellow buprestids” due to their similar appearance among species, these bullet-shaped borers are fond of yellow flowers, where they both blend in superbly well and mimic similarly-marked bees and wasps. This was a species I had never before seen in the field, but its atypical pattern of yellow margins on a black background with coral pink elytral blotches identified it as Acmaeodera flavomarginata. 


As a self-described buprestophile, I was ecstatic to break the ice with such a specimen. At the time it seemed like a rare find, although I would later find this species in relative abundance at La Sal de Rey. But for now, it was fresh and new and provided me with just the boost of energy I needed to keep me going along the trail, bum leg be damned. Still, the going was slow, but it gave me the opportunity to observe things at my leisure instead of the usual high-speed burn I insist on maintaining when both legs are functioning at full capacity. But the slowed pace soon payed off in the form of two additional species of Acmaeodera, as well as a host of other great stuff of the six and eight-legged kind. The buprestids were being drawn to a low-growing, purple-flowered plant I later identified (hopefully accurately) as blue mistflower. It grew abundantly along the trailside, and in spite of the adverse weather (buprestids seem to prefer hot, sunny days) produced several dozen specimens of Acmaeodera haemorrhoa and A. scalaris.

Acmaeodera scalaris (above) & A. haemorrhoa (below)


All Acmaeodera aside, the sweeps produced their fair share of notable arthropods as well. Queen butterflies, those southward-migrating monarch mimics of slightly darker complexion, were present both in their adult phase in the air and their larval phase in the weeds. Their mimicry even bleeds over into the caterpillars, with the larvae closely resembling that of their more well-known close cousins. Like the monarch, the queen is toxic to predators in all stages of its life cycle. 


Another interesting find that turned up in the sweep net was a cardinal jumping spider, a brilliantly-marked species of the large genus Phidippus, which includes the familiar black and white jumper that often makes its way into peoples’ houses. This one was stunningly beautiful, and in spite of its alert nervousness we both managed to snag a few decent close-ups before returning it to the high grass. 


A few species of insects were in ludicrous abundance, with the presence of one being comparatively benign to that of the other. Geometer moth caterpillars (better known as inchworms) covered the trails, grasses, and anything in between. They seemed especially fond of the ebony blackbead trees, where a single rap from my cane into the basket of the sweep net would produce a hundred or more of them.  A close inspection of these trees revealed dozens of specimens dangling from the branches by silken threads like weird ornaments, giving the trees the appearance of some strangely decorated Christmas tree. 

While abundant in staggering numbers, the geometer moths paled in comparison to the legions of tiny, bothersome gnats that flocked to our eyes, ears, and noses. Resistant to Deet and unbelievably persistent, they were a constant nuisance from trail’s head to end. In fact, it was a sudden increase in their numbers that eventually led us to turn around and head back to the car. I was glad we did, for no sooner had we doubled back than I spied a pair of long, waving black antennae amidst the jade greenery of a small bush. These belonged to none other than Liconotus flavocinctus, a handsomely marked longhorn beetle I had previously only known from online field guides. 


Another find worth mentioning, found on the same plant, was a land snail, later identified on inaturalist as the striped rabdotus. My son is into snails, so I made sure to send him the pic of this colorful gastropod in situ. 


The walk back was quite eventful as well.  We kept our eyes to the sky for the hope that a little sun may break through, but the thick wall of cloud cover held on with obstinate determination. The yellow flowers of the mesquite-like tepeguaje complimented the low-growing orange of the blossoming lantana, and the discovery of several corona de cristo (gorgeous purple hued members of the passion flower family) by Michael blended together to provide a diverse vibrance to the landscape.

Corona de Cristo and katydid

Michael also found a very unusual assassin bug which looked like it could have costarred in the film ‘Hellraiser’ with its orange and black pincushion abdomen. 

Halloween punk rock pinhead assassin bug… a good enough common name as any


Best of all (at least in my opinion) was the pair of Trachyderes mandibularis that we found breeding on the trunk of a flowering Baccharis. These large and showy longhorn beetles have been on my lifelist for some time, and spotting them was a definite highlight to the day’s walk. 

Trachyderes mandibularis on Baccharis


A big female green lynx spider guarding her newly-hatched brood of spiderlings and a most excellently camouflaged purple crab spider on a blue mist flower provided the finishing touches to a great adventure at the Sal Vieja refuge. As we returned to the vehicle and pointed it in the direction of our next destination, Sal del Rey, the sun peeked out teasingly from the grey mass above us. Stay tuned for Michael’s rendition of our trip to Sal del Rey…

Green lynx spider guarding her newly hatched brood


Roseate skimmer


Crab spider

Atrox Pinata on the Great Rattlesnake Highway

I have known about the “great rattlesnake highway” in the rolling plains for well over a decade now, and it has produced quite consistently over the course of that time span generally without fail.  Located in that vast expanse of open mesquite scrub and prickly pear patch dubbed affectionately by both locals (with pride) and tourists (with general disinterest) as “the Big Empty”, it is a rattlesnake lover’s wonderland if little else.  Amber and I have turned herping out there every fall into a sort of contest wherein we try to beat the previous year’s record of most western diamondbacks seen in a single night. It started back when we were dating and I took her on her first night of herping the area. We racked up a total of 32 rattlers and a few neonate bull snakes and from then on the GRH fall atrox contest became an annual tradition. Every October (with the advent of an approaching storm or cold front, if luck and schedule permitted) we would head out on a day trip in an effort to best that first magnificent night that I still credit for getting my wife hooked on herping. It didn’t come until 2013, when we broke the record by two. Last year we got 41, and so this year we had high hopes to beat that one. 

Even in an area as diamondback-blessed as the rolling plains, 41 snakes in a single night is hard to beat. But last night, with an approaching rainy cold front darkening the skies to the north of us after a day high in the nineties, we managed to pull it off, with a sum of 42 diamondbacks, plus a handful of other common locals for a total of 50 snakes! While the diversity wasn’t staggering, it made for a family fun night herper-style, with Zev wide-eyed and alert in the seat, counting each and every atrox as we pressed ever-closer to our goal. Although I hate to admit it, my wife has keener eyes than I do when it comes to spotting snakes on the road, and she insisted I stop for each and every suspicious object, the majority of which ended up being neonate rattlers. On two occasions we turned around for one snake and as we backtracked found two more. It was a glorious time, in spite of the fact that it kept us out until midnight on the eve of Michael’s and my departure to the Rio Grande Valley. While an annual autumn atrox count may not seem like the ideal for government recommended family fun, it suits me and mine well enough. Kudos to Zev for spotting the first snake and Amber the last (as well as most in-between). I can only hope for such fortune now as Michael and I make our way south with the monarchs.  Until we get there and get out into the thornscrub and sabal palms, a few highlights from last night on the plains:

Zev finds the first snake, a little checkered garter, in a hole in the concrete. Everything else was found on the road


One of two massasaugas found AOR


An unusually colorful atrox out and about


The largest diamondback of the night, a female around 48″

Signs of Autumn From the Front Porch

As I write, the signs of fall are all around me. The resident bobwhite quail chicks in the field are several months older now and learning to fly. The sinking sun casts long shadows over the eaves of my porch as early as six pm. My wife and I are sitting there now, with only the munching of dried kibble by our cat, Travelin’ Jones, at our feet. The days are still warm but there is a briskness to the air. The first dying leaves of autumn have begun to feel its presence, and respond by sailing over the fenceline from the elms and post oaks and sugarberries and lodging in the grass blades in my yard. Silverleaf nightshade has yet to yield any such quarter; the small crop growing at the edge of the porch has shed its toxic fruit but still stands tall.

I keep a small collection of common native cacti on the other side, a motley assembly of spikey succulents that resemble a line of punk rockers waiting for a show outside the Roxy. There is a hedgehog cactus, a Spanish dagger, a polyheaded hydra of lace cactus, a nipple cactus, and a prickly pear, the latter of which still bears its rosy fruit.

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Giant swallowtail butterfly

Out in the yard a flash of color catches my eye. In the green and straw-yellow sea of short grass beyond the porch the dried remains of a giant swallowtail butterfly sway in the wind like a tattered flag of final surrender. The sulphur-hued diagonal bars on its forewings still stand out against the soft chocolate brown background of microscopic scales. Soon the ants will be picking it apart with all the efficiency of a team of microsurgeons, storing up on energy that will see their colony through another winter in the cross timbers.  Giant swallowtails in this neck of the woods utilize hawthorn as their chief host plant, and the big greenbriar-strangled bush of it that winds its thorny branches about my fenceline sees its share of the exquisitely camouflaged larvae, which resemble bird droppings to the point of giving off a waxy shine of browns, blues, olives and whites. The adult butterfly is among our largest of lepidopterans, reaching a wingspan over 120 millimeters. At the pinnacle of its lifespan it is a common sight as it flaps its massive wings lazily across a glen or hovers over pollen-rich flora.

Speaking of pollen-rich flora, a sprig of goldenrod has sprung up along my eastern fenceline and has somehow gone unnoticed until this evening. As a hunter of bugs I am always eager to check out the bright yellow blossoms of this perennial member of the aster family.  The variety of insects that are attracted to this plant can be astounding.  Bees, wasps, blister beetles, butterflies, and more are all drawn to their intriguing combination of color and aroma. A particular species of beetle that also utilizes goldenrods in this way is the colorful amorpha borer Megacyllene decora, which is adorned with the same black and yellow caution stripes of the likewise ringed scoliid wasps they share space with. Although the beetle itself is harmless it is usually offered the same amount of protection from birds and other movement-oriented predators by this convincing display of mimicry. Amorpha borers are quite uncommon, as their emergence from the false indigo plants that host them coincides with the late emergence of the goldenrod, and the adult beetles’ affection for Solidago blooms limits them to areas where both of these plant species grow.

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Bordered patch butterfly

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Green metallic sweat bee

Of course I must explore this newly discovered goldenrod stalk while the sun is still full enough to coax out the beetles.  Amber follows me on my slow progression by cane across the driveway and to the edge of the field, which feels like a mile. But finally we make it and spend a few minutes checking out a scoliid wasp perched alongside a bordered patch butterfly. Nearby, the shimmering emerald abdomen of a green metallic bee comes into view. No Amorpha borers, as we are not blessed with the presence of false indigo here, but the goldenrod yet again produces its typical generous gathering of insects.

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A pair of great horned owls

Back at the porch, I make a vain attempt to study for an upcoming biology exam, but my concentration is cut short by the raucous cacophony of a murder of crows in the field to the west. This is shortly followed by the piercing scream of an enraged redtail hawk. These signs usually point to some large predator, usually a rat snake (in nesting season) or a coyote. Tonight I was in for something a little more special.  Our resident great horned owl sat perched atop the highwire at the top of a telephone pole. I have seen my fair share of great horned owls, and this is very likely the largest of those. He is the infamous bane of Travelin’ Jones, whose insistent presence beneath the eaves this evening now makes sudden sense. I have often shared my evenings in the presence of both cat and owl, but have never been able to get any pictures. Seeing the chance to remedy this, I dart inside to get my camera. When I get back Amber informs me that a second owl has flown in from the nearby post oak motte and joined our big male. Travelin’ Jones looks up at me and gives a single low-pitched mew wrought with concern. Double trouble.

A pair of crows swoop in for a cheap shot and then a pair of redtail hawks. The hawks wing their way back toward the motte, but the crows circle around and go back for a second round. The owls are instantly aware of my presence, even though I attempt to conceal myself by peering around the corner of my house. They respond by turning their heads in my direction, the silhouettes of their tufted heads portraying a glimpse of the beauty that is the Wilson Prairie at sunset.

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Zev and the owls

No sooner have I acquired my long-awaited pictures than Zev shows up. He has been studying owls for a week or so now and the coinciding events of the evening serve to further entice his interest. He stares out across the open field at the silhouettes of the pair and marvels, as do I.

At dark the owls fly away, but Zev has found a big female green lynx spider protecting her egg sac in the windowsill, and his attention has thus so diverged in her direction. He calls to my attention, and I take the photo opportunity that accompanies the discovery of one of these unusually-colored arachnids.

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Green lynx spider and egg case

It is a nice night. The air is warm and just beginning to be sung into being by a chorus of meadow katydids.  Between the stalks of bitterweed and bluestem they cling to, the cottontail rabbits forage, unaware that death lurks from above on the silent wings of the great horned owls. The crows have retired to their roosts in the tops of the post oaks, their owl-heckling over for the night. And mine as well. There are therapy and exams and labs to think about with the sunrise, but for now it sets humbly over the treetops, its light changing like the color of their leaves as summer gives way to fall on the Wilson Prairie.

Return to the Rolling Plains 

Storm clouds emblazon a Stonewall County sunset, as seen through the car window photo: Zev King

A flash of lightning illuminated the sky outside the passenger window, behind which a sun the hue of an overripe peach quickly slipped over the plains to the west. Deep puddles lined the roadway from bands of storms that were unleashing their late summer fury upon the thirsty red soil. A lone coyote, looking scraggly and thin, stood in the roadside grass, saw us approaching, and trotted across the two-lane blacktop and into a nearby cotton field, picking up pace even as he looked back over his shoulder with his tongue lolling sideways. From the seat behind me my son watched him disappear at its edge into a thick grove of honey mesquites. 

We were in Stonewall County in the middle of the Big Empty, with nothing but miles of shortgrass prairie, mesquite savannah, and low outcrops of red rock. Mark Pyle, my longtime friend and field accomplice, was manning the wheel, with me and my crutches riding shotgun and Zev in the back. I had only recently gotten out of one of my boot casts, and was eager to get out in the thick of it, crutches be damned.  And here was no better place and time. As dusk gave way to the black of night great horned owls winged in from out of the darkness and perched along the telephone poles at roadside like harbingers of rodent and rabbit death. The myopic refraction of whitetail deer eyes gave away their presence just outside the realm of our headlights, and once we had to swerve a band of feral hogs that came parading across the asphalt, seemingly out of nowhere. The lead boar looked as if it could have nearly doubled me in weight, and I frowned at the thought of these unscrupulous ungulate lawnmowers razing the rocky hardpan of plants and animals alike. In the sky above a nightjar boomeranged above the car, trying to hone in on the moths drawn to our headlights.  As the sun died the plains came to life. 


At the Haskell County line we set up a blacklight at a familiar roadside rest stop where a row of honey mesquites draped their thorny branches over the fenceline. We would check the light at the end of the night to see what was hopping on the invertebrate scene. Late August is a great time for blacklighting. Sphinx and giant silk moths are emerging in their final brood of the year, the fall blister beetle species begin to show up, and mantids and walking sticks begin to make their annual appearance. 

We drove back and forth along the mostly deserted highway for the better part of three hours, where we tallied up a sum of young-of-the-year rattlesnakes, all of them western diamondbacks. The largest of these was around two feet in length, and the rest were only months old, all of them perfect replicas of the adults, with their telltale diamond patterns etched in light colored scales and their black and white ringed tails bearing only the baby button and a single attached segment. In true western diamondback fashion they displayed a variety of temperaments, with some lying motionless and others instantly wriggling away.  On a good diamondback night there is always one ornery individual, and ours took cute little snaps at Mark’s hook as he scooted it to the safety of the roadside grass. 


Western diamondbacks may reach their greatest abundance in the state in this ecoregion. I have herped all over Texas and nowhere have I seen population densities so great as that area between Lubbock and Throckmorton. On a three day herpathon in mid-May of 2013 I racked up over a hundred snakes, 65 % of which had been diamondbacks. But it was 100 % on this night, and after 11:00, with the thermometer reading 71 degrees and due to drop into the low sixties by the morning, we decided to pull in the blacklight and call it quits. 

The rolling plains may no longer be a home where the buffalo roam, but it serves as the eastern boundary to a species of ant lion (Vella farfax) that is the largest in the United States.  Antlions are better known in their larval forms as ‘doodlebugs’, and are recognized by the familiar inverted cone shaped pitfall they use to trap ants.  The adult somewhat resembles a damselfly, although with a wingspan of up to 120 mm the giant species rivals that of our largest dragonflies.  These were in abundance around the headlight beams, and Zev hoped we would draw some to the blacklight, but they were strangely absent when we got there. We did, however, find a plethora of other insects. As predicted, several male mantids and a walkingstick were hanging out on the sheet, alongside several tiger beetles (Cicindela sp) and blister beetles  (Pyrota concinna) who looked pre-dressed for Halloween in their vibrant orange and black warning colors that advertised their witch’s brew of cantharadin.  A pair of mesquite girdlers (Oncideres cingulata) ambled across the sheet with their long antennae trailing along behind their elytra.  Several feet away a checkered beetle (Enoclerus quadrisignatus) waited for one of them to deposit its eggs so it could parasitize them with its own voracious larvae. 

A mantis snacks on a moth under the glow of the uv lights


The baby diamondbacks were still running strong as we made our way to the tiny town of Aspermont a little after midnight. There are only two motels there to choose from, but the one with the grey fox dining on crickets beneath the security light seemed appropriate, so we pulled in to get a little rest. It wasn’t the ritz, but with my leg throbbing and aching as I pulled it out of the accursed boot and into the bed, it beat a kicked back car seat or a sleeping bag under a mesquite tree by a long shot. 

Another mantis outside the Hickman Motel, Aspermont Texas


We awoke to a cool calm morning in the mid-sixties, and after an Allsups breakfast of granola bars and iced coffee (Mark had milk as he insists he’ll never stoop to drinking burned beans as I’ll never stoop to drinking from the mammary glands of another species…our lines are drawn) we broke once again for the wide open plains. 

Part of the reason behind our mini-trip ( at least the part we used to explain to our wives involving its absolute necessity) was to photograph a coiled western diamondback for the cover shot of the book Michael and I were still in the process of publishing, and Mark had brought along a robust, photogenic four-footer for just such purpose.  The goal was to get a good shot of the highway fading away to a central focal point on the horizon line, with the snake buzzing in the classic position in the foreground. We wanted to get this done in the cool of the morning if possible, and after a brief hunt for the “perfect spot” we did a short photo shoot just north of the town of Jermyn in nearby Kent County. It took about 20 minutes, and during that  period the sun came out and the temp began to climb. This brought the day crew out. The previous night’s owl posts were relieved of duty by redtail hawks; bobwhite quail bobbed along in their curious, synchronized huddles, and a trio of roadrunners peered at the car from beneath a mesquite as we passed by, their concentration only momentarily broken from the morning’s lizard hunt. 

Mark photos the atrox while I stand by and try to keep the shadow of my crutches out of the shot


We hadn’t gone far when we saw the high domed carapace of an ornate box turtle as it ambled along the pavement. While these brightly colored chelonians are sadly becoming an increasing rarity around the western cross timbers, they are still faring pretty well in undisturbed parts of the rolling plains. We pulled over to photograph this one, and Mark got a little too close and received a good nip from the little turtle’s strong beak.  It was hard enough to draw a small amount of blood, as well as a large amount of teasing from Zev and I. Apparently these rolling plains box turtles didn’t owe their survival out here to meek dispositions and blackberries! It was flesh and true grit that would see them through another day!

The Terrapene Terror poses calmly for a picture just minutes before the incident, looking the picture of innocence.


By now the sun had warmed the air to over 80 degrees, and while we weren’t surprised to see a western coachwhip come streaking across the road, we were by the only other live snake we saw that morning: a juvenile eastern hognose.  Eastern hognose snakes can be quite common in parts of their range (in spite of Michael Smith’s apparent lifelong jinx when it comes to finding them) but are not so in the rolling plains, where they are replaced by the smaller, more boldly patterned western hognose. In fact, in nearly 20 years of herping the area this was only the third specimen I had come across.  We were thrilled to find this little guy out and about, and it ended up being a county record. After a series of photos Mark carried the pintsize bluffer to the fenceline and released it into the grass. 



Several minutes later we pulled over for a much more commonly seen denizen of the plains. This was a Texas horned lizard, and it sat calmly along the white line as we gathered around it for photos. Not even the squeaking, mechanical approach of the bionic crutch-herper frightened it. Texas horned lizards, even moreso than box turtles, have disappeared from much of their former range, but are still found in healthy numbers in much of the rolling plains. This is likely due to the arid climate that supports dense populations of the red harvester ants that constitute the bulk of the lizards’ diet, while preventing invasions of the moisture-dependent imported red fire ant that threatens both the lizard and harvester ants.   After photographing it, Mark made sure the horned lizard made it off the road safely by toeing it into the grass. As a result he ended up getting a harvester ant sting on his leg. Apparently the rolling plains was giving Mark a run for his money. 


Dozens of diamondbacks, bitey box turtles, horned lizards and hognose…I could think of no better way to ring in my return to the field!

Under Cover of Daylight

And all that is now
And all that is gone
And all that’s to come
And everything under the sun is in tune
But the sun is eclipsed by the moon
            – Roger Waters (Pink Floyd)

“The world looks so hazy,” Zev says. He stands beside me, his head engulfed inside a cardboard “eclipse box” Amber fashioned for us to view the upcoming solar phenomenon in.

We are sitting on the porch under what would normally be full sunshine. It is a little after one o’clock in the afternoon, but it looks and feels like that incomparable hour before dusk.

The butterflies seem to be enjoying the day, in spite of the temporary muting of their beloved sunshine. We see clouded sulphurs, pipevine swallowtails and a Queen in the yard, and once a hurried Gulf frittilary flashes by on silver and orange wings.

Butterflies aren’t the only creatures that are out enjoying this mercy from the normally raging summer sun. A pair of scissortail flycatchers are using my barbed wire fence as a vantage point, where the butterflies’ presence is duly noted as well, with hungrier pairs of eyes.  As I watch, one sees its window of opportunity closing like the very shadow over the sun above and makes a feathery dive in the direction of a passing variegated fritillary.  They wing away behind my truck, out of view, with the bird in hot pursuit.  Nearby on the porch, a pair of hummingbirds hang suspended in the dusky blue sky that has suddenly taken on a psychedelically peach tone.

As I witness this perfectly anomalous miracle of nature unfold for the first time in nearly a century through its projected image via a pinhole lens poked through foil, I am reminded that my family and I are getting the chance to experience something few living people on this earth have ever seen before.  That, and Zev is nuts about space and everything it relates to and so things like meteor showers and eclipses are celebrated with the same anticipation and enthusiasm as New Year’s Eve around our house.  “Eclipse” is all my wife and I have heard for a week. We tried to use a welding helmet’s tinted glass as a viewing mechanism but the shade was not dark enough and I subjected my poor eyes to the dreaded Eclipse Blindness for a split second before deeming them unsafe. At that point my wife looked over as if questioning herself why she married a human guinea pig and set about to making the box, which worked wonderfully.

Zev declares August 21 an annual Eclipse Holiday from here on out, whether an eclipse is expected or not.

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Zev, using the “eclipse box”

But then my thoughts darken, as a man’s can in this day and age, to more dire things. “The End of the World!” is what I’m sure plenty of people said during the 1918 eclipse, and their words soon passed into the endless well of obscurity in the span of mere hours. But will ours? I think about places such as the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge and the National Butterfly Center, soon to be forced to eke out their future existence in the shadow of a concrete wall lit by floodlights. I think back to the spring of 2016, where Mark Pyle and I took Zev on his first trip to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, a 557 acre preserve located on the Rio Grande roughly between Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. On that trip, the rich earthy smell of a wide diversity of chiefly Mexican subtropical flora that thrived in the organic detritus composed of layers of fallen palm fronds in various stages of decomposition pervaded our nostrils.  A red-bordered pixie butterfly had fluttered between us, and had done its odd vanishing trick that involves the very unbutterfly-like behavior of hiding beneath a leaf with its wings stretched flat. Not one but two of the rare turquoise-spotted speckled racers (the objective of the day’s search) had blessed our trail before the walk had ended. It had been a day to remember, and as the sun now hung eclipsed in the sky overhead, I wondered if the beloved sanctuary would be one of the next things to be eclipsed by that all-consuming machine of what passes for “progress.”  It made me think of that vulnerable little strip of subtropical habitat that only occurs in the United States on the border of two Texas counties, of all the species that only occur north of the border in that specific niche, and of the dozers that loom in the razed strip of construction even now. I think of all this as I stare through that tiny pinhole again, where two heavenly bodies aligned in the sky have now begun to slowly part company above and behind me. I think of things we only get the opportunity to experience once in a lifetime.  Of everyday wonders within a thousand worlds that go on all around us.  And also of things we may never have the opportunity to see and enjoy again if we don’t act now.

The sun is returning now, breaking the spell of the eclipse across the land, as bright as mid-day in August. In another few hours the world will return to life as normal. Most will have forgotten the whole thing by this time tomorrow.  Will our wild places suffer the same fate some day? Will the sound of the bittern or the sight of a bobcat or a grey fox or a kingsnake become bedtime stories our children and grandchildren will tell theirs, as foreign a fantasy to them as the tales of dragons and knights? They will if we don’t teach them.  If we don’t show them and share with them. If we don’t relay and emphasize the importance of preserving them.

Zev takes the “eclipse box” from me and dons it like an imaginary astronaut’s helmet. He views what little is left to view through a cardboard-thin layer of protection. Beside him, I look out across the post oaks and prairie grasses and can’t help but feel that I am doing the same.

Campbell Ideology is Nothing to Mess Around With

(Ye Have Been Warned…)

It’s hard to imagine that Steve Campbell has been gone for five years now. He was a herpetologist as well as fisherman, and talented naturalist, working for Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (teaching about aquatic ecology and fishing) and serving as President of two herpetological societies in Texas. His humor was legendary, and I think he loved being teased by others about that humor. Here is one of my attempts to do just that, in an article published several years before his passing.

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Steve Campbell

It seems my devil-may-care attitude towards the superstitions of the ancient elders in the herpetological society has finally caught up with me. I crossed the line this weekend and almost paid dearly for it, so I figured a public written apology was in order, if not downright necessary, to restore any luck I may wish to have in the future. Apology to whom, you may be asking? Well, Steve Campbell of course, a man with a few tight screws in his head I had considered hopelessly loose for many years, until I was shown the error of my ways as a direct result of radical arrogance.

Anyone who has spent any time at all with Steve Campbell in the field knows you cannot simply load up your gear and vehicle, pull out the road map, and go herping. It is not that simple. There are ancient customs and traditions that must be adhered to or the man just plain refuses to even go. I have balked at all of his rabbit’s foot and black cat, salt-over-the-shoulder hoopla for going on a decade now, and decided it was high time his theory be disproved once and for all, for all to witness as gospel truth in writing.

The setting I had chosen for which to conduct my experiment was East Texas; Brazos County to be more specific. I have long considered the area I herp there virtually infallible when it comes to finding snakes. So in all fairness it seemed like the perfect constant in which to test my theory of Campbell Ideology. My hypothesis was that all of those obsessive-compulsive hang-ups the man seemed to suffer from were unfounded, and could easily be disproved by an overnight trip to Brazos County along the Navasota River during perfect climatic conditions ideal for finding herps, whereupon I would purposefully break each and every one of his strange rules like some blasphemous herpetological heathen.

Before I go any further I suppose it is necessary to mention the Campbell Ideology and what it is, exactly, should any novice readers be unfamiliar with his seemingly silly rules and regulations. The Gospel of Steve is as follows:

RULE # 1: PAY CREDENCE TO THE ALMIGHTY WHATABURGER

When on any given trip, at least one What-A-Burger must be visited and something must be purchased and consumed. This rule is set in stone. The more What-A-Burgers you pass up en route to said destination, the worse your luck will become. If you are a vegetarian, order a burger anyway and just eat the lettuce and tomatoes. If no What-A-Burger is available on the way, turn around and go back home. This rule applies to all field outings, no matter how near or far.

RULE # 2: SPEAK NO EVIL

Do not, under any circumstances, speak the names of the species you wish to see in the field. This will automatically jinx you from seeing them. Should some self-righteous jester begin spouting off everything native to the area, you can protect yourself by plugging your ears with your index fingers and chanting ‘la-la-la-la-la-la-la’ over and over for as long as said offender continues with their insolent name-calling.

RULE # 3: WEAR A LUCKY ITEM

Something you found at least one of your memorable life-listers while wearing. This is usually a shirt or hat but can be a lucky pair of Care Bears boxer shorts if that’s what you wear in the field. It doesn’t hurt for the article of clothing to be adorned with some type of fishing tackle, or, even better, a stray mustard stain from a What-A-Burger. A strip of such an article will work in a pinch, in the unlikely event that it is finally deemed unwearable, which few of Steve’s clothes ever are.

I took all three of these religiously followed and time-honored traditions and broke them like a sack of cheap Christmas ornaments. I wore dress slacks with the legs still pressed, a striped silk shirt I hadn’t so much as found a DOR in on the way to the beer store, and a pair of brand new hiking boots so fresh from Cabela’s they still didn’t quite fit.

To add insult to injury I brought along a jumbo industrial-size bag of cajun crawtaters for consumption, along with a case of Red Bulls should I thirst. I passed dozens of What-A-Burgers, every single one of them, smiling at each as they disappeared unvisited in my rear-view mirror. In a final outlandish act of pomposity I pulled into the last What-A-Burger along Highway 6 in College Station for a restroom break. I bought nothing and didn’t even flush the toilet when I left. On the way out the door I filled out a customer service survey card and rated the place of overall poor quality, commenting that they could at least keep their toilets flushed.

To add icing to it all I had pre-recorded every single species of reptile and amphibian native to Brazos County in my own voice, covering the scientific names as well as the common. I took this tape and played it over and over again all the way there, from Waco east. If the Campbell Ideology was indeed a pointless lie, as I had long proposed, this radical behavior would prove it. And if it indeed did hold any truth at all, I was about to find out the hard way.

As if to laugh in his face, we began to see DOR snakes along the road to Bryan. It is a one-way road with little shoulder so we couldn’t pull over to see what they were. It was 79 degrees when the sun set over the river, and I pulled off the main highway onto my favorite. With flashlight at the ready and field notebook on the dash, it was showtime!

“Where are all the snakes? I figured we would have seen something by now,” Amber said from the passenger seat.

“I don’t know,” I replied glumly. “It’s a perfect night.”

The truth of the matter was I was afraid I knew all-too-well. Still, I was unwilling to accept defeat. We drove down the first road without seeing so much as a green tree frog, then broke off onto the highway that runs directly over the river and three of its tributaries.

The temperature held at 75, no cold wind blew, and the moon was invisible behind a thick gray wall of clouds devoid of even a hint of moisture. Still, we found no snakes. To make matters worse a line of cars filed up behind us, insisting on driving the average Saturday night college-town speed of 115 mph, so I had to keep pulling over to the side to let them pass. I drove five miles down the road into Grimes County, and then turned it back around. Without so much as a DOR or a toad to show for our efforts, I began to worry just how deeply I had offended whatever unseen forces Steve bowed to. It had to be bad mojo … some real serious stuff I had unleashed, and I began to regret my arrogance. How could I have been such a fool? Was there really a method behind the man’s apparent madness? Did those dazed, half-closed eyes behind the bearded face and 3-gallon fast-food cup hold the key to the mysteries of good field herping that were too deep and subliminal for my young petty mind to wrap around? And more importantly at this critical second hour into the rapidly failing experiment, how could my own bad luck be reversed?

I glanced up from the barren road and my jaw dropped open. The temps had dropped from 75 to 65 degrees, and it was only ten o’ clock. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. This couldn’t be happening. Could it? In a last-ditch effort to regain any chance at having any luck in the field whatsoever the rest of my days, I came up with an emergency plan. I shut off the tape recorder that was going down the list of Brazoria County herps for what had to be the hundredth time and smashed it to bits beneath my new hiking boot. A sacrifice…

“What-A-Burger! What-A-Burger! What-A-Burger!” I cried out as Amber looked nervously over at me and simultaneously inched a little closer to the passenger side door.

“Man the wheel!” I yelled at her, and as she did I grabbed my new luckless silk shirt by the collar with both hands and split it down the middle, sending buttons flying about the cab of my truck like tiny pearl missiles.

I slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road, threw it in park, and jumped from my truck and hit my knees on the pavement, repenting of my sins in a manner that would have put Jimmy Swaggart to shame. When the final tear had fallen, I looked up at the road in front of me and couldn’t believe my eyes.

S copperhead-Big Sandy-1456

Southern copperhead

There, illuminated by the head-lights, a beautiful southern copperhead emerged from the roadside vegetation and paused there, motionless. The self-inflicted curse had been lifted! I was free once again from my sinful chains to herp the roads of Texas! An unstoppable cry of joy came bellowing out of my mouth as I threw back my head and howled at the late Brazos County moon, whose half-hidden face seemed to smile back at me with a peculiar shadowy spot on its surface that could have been a beard.

I made a bee-line to the nearest What-A-Burger (I had to get that foul survey card out of the box!) and on the way found an additional copperhead as well as a diamondback water snake. Lucky for me the What-A-Burger is open 24 hours for my convenience, and as I sank my fangs into the tastiest hamburger I had ever eaten, I made sure to let a little mustard drip down onto my new lucky herping shirt. I was just going to need to replace the buttons.

In conclusion, I learned a very valuable lesson that night. Herp where you will, and go wherever you want to go, whenever you get the chance. Run wild and free in what few places are left that allow that kind of behavior. But never, I repeat, never question the Campbell Ideology, or dismiss it as so much eccentric clap-trap. I made that mistake, and I barely made it out with any herping luck left in me at all. Always stop at What-A-Burger, always wear your lucky clothes, and if anyone mentions something they hope to find while riding with you, for snake’s sake, plug your ears! I’ll see you all in the Big Thicket hopefully, sporting my new lucky shirt, if I can find a What-A-Burger down there, that is!

For the Love of Copperheads

Photo: Michael Smith

“Be sure you marry someone who loves copperheads,” said no parent to their child ever. “You’re going to have to find someone willing to put up with venomous snakes, which is not going to be easy,” I rather recall my own saying. Fortunately, after a string of failed experiments in the matter, I found both. When an unfortunate rattlesnake bite on our second date landed me temporarily in the hospital and the girl stood by my side, telling me to hurry up and shake off the effects of the venom so we could get back out into the field, I knew I had at last found “the one.”  

Amber likes copperheads almost as much as I do. So much so that she has hit “copperhead road” (a little-traveled backroad near our house that still sustains a healthy population of the abundant little pit vipers) by herself whenever I am out of town on herp trips, and has been suggesting I do an article on them for some time now. So Amber, this one’s for you. 

Second-date snakebite: the Litmus Test?


I have shared my life with the greatly misunderstood, feared, and generally underappreciated copperhead since as far back as I can remember. When my family first moved to Wise County back in the mid-80s I distinctly remember my mother showing me a dead one that had been flattened by a car near our house. My love for snakes was well-evident even back then (I couldn’t have been more than four or five) and I remember her warning me. ‘If you ever see a snake that looks like that don’t pick it up!’ (the warning not to pick up any snakes had long since been abolished due to repeated acts of noncompliance). I also distinctly recall thinking ‘Wow! That’s the prettiest snake I have ever seen!’  Nice try, Mom. 

Later that summer my dad, who used to take me on backroad “snake hunts” showed me my first live copperhead. The beautiful chestnut crossbands alternating across a background of burnt orange that faded laterally to pinkish-grey still stand out vividly in my mind. I remember my dad (who was afraid of nothing) toeing the snake to the roadside grass with his leather boot, which neither provoked it to strike or crawl quickly away. My brother and I watched it slowly disappear with wide eyes, its body blending in with the tall grass and leaf litter in a remarkable display of camouflage. 

My earliest existing copperhead photo, taken by the side of our house in the early nineties


Fast forward five or six years and my dad would take me with him to one of his friend’s houses which was located in that vast section of red dirt canyonland mixed with oak and mesquite that lies between Jacksboro and Lake Bridgeport in western Wise County. Charlie was a backwoods mechanic and bachelor who lived alone on some acreage, and he and my father would spend hours shooting the breeze over cans of Coors while I ran wild through the fields. Charlie even made me my first pair of tongs, and even encouraged me to ‘catch all the copperheads you want and get’em off my property!’  While diamondbacks were plentiful around his house and barn, he treated them with comparative indifference. It was the copperheads alone that Charlie feared. “They look just like the damn leaves”, he said on more than one occasion, to which my dad would raise his beer can in a silent gesture of affirmation. “And they don’t give a warning before they bite.  I dread raking leaves every fall. I always find two or three.”  This would always get me started on a thorough survey of Charlie’s yard, where I would ‘rake’ leaves with my tongs ever at the ready. I never did find a single specimen, although Charlie continued to find many and eventually gave me a juvenile he had managed to somehow coaxe into a pickle jar, I assume as payment for all that fruitless leaf-raking.  That was the first venomous snake I ever owned, for a full 24 hours, until my mom found out about it and hit the ceiling. “Get rid of it!” was the verdict after what I deemed an unfair trial in which my court-appointed lawyer must have been sleeping with the judge. The next day was a school day, and the little snake was exiled to the porch until I could find it a proper home (apparently Charlie held no return policy when it came to copperheads). Fortunately my English teacher had a brother that worked at the Dallas Zoo and I was able to make a trade: a small copperhead for a lively little problematic green iguana, which introduced me to all the subsequent miseries involved in their husbandry. Ironically, the iguana ended up giving me a case of salmonella poisoning, which proved more dangerous than the copperhead. 

A nine year old me with a Texas rat snake (note the bloody shirt!)


“No venomous snakes in the house!” was mom’s proverbial cry as I hit my teen years. With a driver’s license and truck , I was now free to go on my own road cruises in search of snakes. The first night out I got fourteen copperheads on “Copperhead Road”, and of course brought them all home,where they shared a homemade wood and plexiglass cage on the front porch that I assured my mother was full of rat snakes. I guess I made the viewing window a little too large, because after a week or so mom peeped in and once again I was summoned back to court, found guilty of endangering my own life and the lives of others, and sentenced to “get rid of those things now!”

My Box of Copperheads, pre-trial


I Was a Teenage Snakehunter: more Tx rats with the herp-mobile in the background


I must admit I treated copperheads with less respect than they were due during my early years as a teenage snakehunter. I would frequently catch them by the tail or (I hate to admit this now) with a swift grab behind the head while “distracting” them with my free hand.  All that changed when I received my first copperhead bite, whereupon I soon found out that “the least venomous of our native pit vipers”  was nevertheless quite venomous indeed. The bite was through a pillowcase, a single fang to the knuckle of my left hand, by an adult copperhead. It left me in 24 hours of unrelenting pain as my hand and wrist swelled to 13 cm in circumference. It stayed that way for a full month before it finally began to recede, and I lost all feeling in the finger below the bite for four years. My days of disrespecting and underestimating the lowly copperhead were over! It was hooks, tongs, and reliable buckets with screw-on lids from then on out! I have always loved copperheads, but one kiss was enough to last a lifetime!

Copperhead bite:20 minutes in

Copperhead bite: 4 hours-30 days…


As the years passed I shared my life with countless copperheads. My travels afield gave me the opportunity to meet what were then recognized as many subspecies of Agkistrodon contortrix. Brazos County’s “Peach Creek” , before it fell to the bulldozer of “progress”, gave me my first taste of the southern copperhead..33 in a single night, to be exact. These were more pinkish than the broadbanded variety that frequented my stomping grounds in the cross-timbers, with wider more hourglass-shaped crossbands. Later excursions into the Big Thicket and Sabine National Forest of east Texas would provide even more opportunities to view this beautiful variant. 

My first southern copperhead, taken back when cameras still had film & parts of Peach Creek still had sand


A trip to Kansas in 2004 introduced me to the lovely little osage copperhead. Around the shores of Lake Perry north of the city of Lawrence, it seemed every other rock seemed to relinquish one of these beauties. Ten years later, on a return trip, I found them just as common as I remembered. 

Adult Osage found around Lake Perry

Juvenile osage: Lake Perry


I didn’t find my first Trans Pecos copperheads until the summer of last year, after they had been absorbed into the all-inclusive species A. c. contortrix, although I had spent fifteen years searching for them in the Chihuahuan Desert. Fellow herpers assured me they were fairly common in certain locales, but they somehow always managed to elude me. Then, on a single fateful night on the River Road in southern Brewster County, Michael Smith and I happened upon a “pictigaster party”. We found three specimens in the span of perhaps five minutes on the road and nearby banks of the Rio Grande. 

Now that mom no longer governs my collection: a pair of Trans Pecos copperheads


To tell of all the copperheads, or even the notable ones, for that matter, who have crawled across my path over the years would fill up far more space than this blog has to offer. There were the threevmy friend Scott Robinson saw hidden in the leaf litter between my legs as I squatted on my haunches to photograph a western diamondback den in Montague County. There was the hypomelanistic specimen I accidentally ran over on the LBJ Grasslands, which my wife never forgave me for, and the one that got out in my parents’ house and found the only non-snake-proof area in my snake room, a tiny 1/2″ crack beneath the sink I had missed with the caulk gun (I remedied this by sealing it up in the void between the sink unit and floor for a week or so and then removing the caulk and coaxing it out with a water dish in the center of the room, which luckily worked like a charm but soon found me seeking other means of habitation).  I could go on forever…


By now I am past all hope (sorry Mom!) All those tall tales told at family reunions meant to dissuade a young herper from venturing over to the Dark Side and pursuing that bane of the north Texas country folk apparently fell upon deaf ears and seems to have faded into obscurity. My lifelong romance with the copperhead has left me with more memorable field experiences than I can count and (sorry again) it looks like the fever was a contagious one, catching on to my wife and even my young son. Many “family nights” have been shared in a unanimous decision to forsake the Yahtzee board or latest cinema flick for an evening on “copperhead road.”  I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to my father, who never lacked faith in my knowledge, ability and maturity when it came to living among venomous snakes (even when those traits seemed to be lacking!) and also to my wife, who never once batted an eye when it came to sharing her home with copperheads, rattlesnakes, and a host of other species that neither of us were ever naiive enough to consider “pets”.  And to my poor mother, too, for maintaining her sanity over the years. (My experience with copperheads came in handy when I removed the one that had slithered out from the fire pit and coiled itself on the porch between her and the grill during an outdoor cookout).  But most of all I owe it to the copperhead itself, without which, of course, none of this would have even been possible. 

Wildlife Through the Window

By Clint King

As some of you who read my Coleopteraholic blog already know, I fell victim to an untimely work injury in mid-June that resulted in some broken ribs and both feet, fracturing the right one and reducing the left one to bone, tendon, and muscle soup beneath the skin. This ultimately resulted in my temporary disability, putting me on six month work leave with doctor’s orders to remain as immobile as possible, which, to a hyperactive naturalist such as myself, has proven near-impossible. Fortunately I was able to put a minimal amount of weight on my right foot, and thus do a small amount of walking with the aide of crutches, but the bulk of my mobility is severely limited, quenching all hopes of hitting the road/trails/forests/prairies etc for this year. Some weeks later (after workman’s comp agreed to foot the bill, no doubt) the surgeon had to go in and do a bimacular repair surgery, which involved rebulding the remnants of my shattered ankle with rods, plates, and screws. He then warned me to not even think about walking until atleast September, and then only after intensive rehabilitative therapy with the aide of a cane. The complete healing process could take up to eighteen months, blah-blah-blah. But as many who know me can attest, there is simply no way I’m throwing in the towel when it comes to including natural history observation and fielding in my daily regimen. 

This should make a good centipede tattoo someday…


During the first four weeks following the incident I was completely bound to bed or chair. My wife was finishing up a semester at college, so my mom graciously allowed me to stay at her house during the day until Amber got out of class and could pick me up. Even simple tasks such as getting a glass of water or making something to eat were impossible without reliance on someone else, and I was flung into a state of dependence. While I couldn’t go outside yet, I could look from the window of the car in the mornings and evenings and observe whatever wildlife happened to cross our path during the ten minute drive to and from our house to my mom’s. Like the use of my legs, all those common creatures I had once taken for granted began to gain more importance as they became my only source of connectedness to the outside world. I saw grey squirrels, cottontails, blacktailed jack rabbits, and skunks in the mornings, not to mention an array of local ornithofauna: northern mockingbirds and cardinals, loggerhead shrikes, scissortailed flycatchers, and sparrows of which I am unqualified to identify to species, all in a new light.  Perhaps my favorites were the painted buntings, little feathered works of art, the males of which look like their Designer couldn’t decide if He wanted to paint them red, green, purple, blue, or yellow.  The buntings are always busy around the roadsides beneath thick draperies of wild grape that adorn the fence rows, with their comparatively drab olive green female counterparts always at their side. A flock of wild turkeys made their daily morning arrival like clockwork, the big male leading his harem with a confident strut across the road and under the barbed wire fence on the other side. On other, less frequent occasions I saw barred owls as they sat on their perches in the lower canopy of the oak mottes after winding down their all-nighters. 

Killdeer as seen from a Pontiac G6


The evening’s drive home presented another mixed assortment of creatures, in spite of the typically oppressive June heat. Racerunners and spiny lizards darted across the roadway, and turkey and black vultures soared overhead, presumably waiting for me to die. Redtail and redshouldered hawks dominated the tops of telephone poles, while their smaller cousins the Mississippi kites stood on fenceposts and power lines. 

Post oak motte off the county road


Sometimes we would hang out at my mom’s until sunset, and on those drives home we saw an even greater abundance of crepuscular animals that call the Wilson Prairie where I live home. As the temps cooled with the setting sun, wildlife came out to take advantage of it, gearing up for their nightly forays. Small herds of whitetail deer grazed in open areas. Raccoons made their comical high-speed shuffles of panic across the road. And leopard frogs and Woodhouse toads leapt and hopped from one side to the other. Nightjars filled the sky, snatching up insects on boomerang-shaped wings. Once, our passing disturbed a young great horned owl as it had just settled into the top of a post oak to engage in its nightly survey of roadside rabbits. 

A pair of the ever-present Woodhouse toads, on nightly bug duty


Unfortunately I could not ride in the car for more than fifteen or twenty minutes without being in great pain, so roadcruising for herps was out of the question. But these little morning and evening drives, brief as they may have been, provided me with plenty of daily opportunities to catch glimpses of the wildlife all around me, as well as a rush of endorphins no amount of opioid-based pharmaceutical concoction could touch. 

The car window wasn’t the only chance I had to view wildlife. When I oversaw the plans for our house construction in 2015 I had two large double windows installed in the living room that allowed me to view wildlife from the comfort of my recliner. It paid off in full this summer, as I was forced to keep my legs elevated for the first few weeks of recovery. I have an open front porch, with an overhanging eave beam where swallows and eastern phoebes build their nests of mud and straw, respectively. Hummingbirds often take a break from their incessant flight here on the beams, and a special multi-faceted cylindrical porch light turns an everyday halogen bulb into a nocturnal beacon calling all flying insects!  Needless to say, the door beside it wasn’t painted white for aesthetic purposes, as its reflective glare brings in an all manner of moths and beetles.  To make matters better (or worse, my wife might argue) opening the door for a few seconds gave me an instant indoor insect show. 

One of many paper wasp colonies under the eaves


The lights also call up one of my favorite local residents with which we share the property, the ubiquitous little grey tree frog, which seems to show up like magic on hot, dry summer nights to take advantage of the insect smorgasbord. 

Swallows begin nest construction under the eaves


What I can’t see from the window my wife and son help by bringing photos to me of wild treasures they have found. Amber frequently sends pictures of snakes she comes across, and Zev is always bringing me beetles to identify. On two occasions he has brought in ornate box turtles, a species that is in rapid decline over most of its range. I am fortunate enough to be able to remember a time when they were much more common, but am glad that my son still has a chance to enjoy them, snap a photo, then let them go again where he found them. 

Ornate box turtle, photo by Zev King


When you live in the country sometimes you don’t even have to look through the window to enjoy wildlife. One of our tenants is the little striped bark scorpion. These turn up almost daily in our house, creeping across the floor or up a curtain with the menacing tail arched, or sitting still in a corner beneath a stray t-shirt. The fact that in the two years we have lived here we have only been stung twice is a testament to these creatures’ general reluctance to sting. Still, the thought of one crawling into my cast and hammering me relentlessly was a thought that kept me checking the blankets to make sure they weren’t dragging the floor during those first few weeks post-surgery when I was confined to the couch. 

Mesquite borer Zev found at the front door


Now that nearly eight weeks have passed since my accident I have a little more mobility. This has allowed me to do some limited hobbling around outdoors on crutches. I have found a crutch doubles as a good beating stick with which to survey foliage for arboreal insects. We even joked about modifying them to include an aerial net on one and a snake hook on the other, and equipping my wheelchair with two high powered LED flashlights so I could wheel it down the paved backroads for a little cruising. I could only imagine the hilarity that would ensue if I were to have to explain myself to a game warden. 

One way I have been able to engage in my continuously ongoing beetle research has been through the use of bait traps. While my ‘little house on the prairie ‘ is devoid of any trees close enough to be accessible by crutch or wheelchair, my mom’s 1/2 acre mini-forest of Texas ash and slippery elms we planted when I was a kid is within easy hobbling distance. These trees now stand twenty five plus feet tall, with massive trunks and bifurcated limbs that provide homemade swings and climbing opportunities for my son and his cousins. They have also given me a chance to hang some traps for my beloved longhorn beetles, which are most often found in arboreal situations. The traps consist of a mixture of red wine and molasses mixed with yeast and tap water and are placed into 2 liter pitchers, which are then suspended from the trees via hooks fashioned from coat hangers. 

A waste of good wine? Not for a bug nerd! (As far as I know it’s illegal to waste beer in this way in Texas)


While not all species of longhorn beetles are attracted to the bait, which mimics the fermenting fruit and sap they normally come to in nature, the ones that are show up in phenomenal numbers. My mom’s neighbors, who own a large section of private land consisting of oak motte/mesquite savanna, also gave me permission to put out a few traps, and with the aide of a driver (Amber? Mom? Uber? Anybody…) I have been able to expand my traps to a total of seven in two different habitats. As a result I have brought in nearly 300 specimens of longhorn beetle representing 15 different species, not to mention the click beetles, scarabs, wasps and other insects attracted to the bait. What is even more phenomenal is the abundance of longhorn beetles in these habitats in general, as these huge numbers represent only a fraction of the individuals found on single trees. When viewed from this light, it underlines the importance of wood-destroying insects to the forest ecosystem, as most species only feed on trees already stressed from branch dieback or woodrot caused by outlying factors, proving their beneficiality. 

Soup’s on! Straining the beetles from the bait


This has kept me busy laboriously pinning and mounting a series of specimens of which I hope to eventually use in a dissertation I plan on writing on the beneficiality of wood-boring species in my pursuit of an entomological degree. 

As I write this I am sitting in my recliner, my booted broken feet propped up on the extended footrest and the spasms of my atrophying back muscles screaming to be taken out to the field and stretched with some good old fashioned rock flipping. The curtains and shades are drawn back to provide me with an unobstructed view of the cross-timbers that lies in front of, behind, and all around me. There is a baby blue sky overhead, dotted by puffy patches of snow-white clouds like cottonballs. A high wall of sugarberry, mulberry, post oak and honey mesquite lord over an understory of juniper, hawthorn and gum bumelia. Paper wasps bump haphazardly across the window screen, while a hungry jumping spider eyes them, biding his time. In a few hours night will fall, and with the windows raised I will be able to enjoy the nightly chorus of our resident coyotes, the distinct cry of the whippoorwill, and the melodious mixed trills of the frogs in the pond behind the house as they take over where the dogday cicadas have winded down. A fork-tailed bush katydid will undoubtedly buzz from somewhere beneath the porchlight, and the luminescent glow of fireflies will blink on and off, calling their mates with their mysterious, still-yet-to-be-completely-explained cold light. I will enjoy all the natural gifts I can from the window, knowing they will provide sustenance until I can get back on my feet and out into the field. 

Bee assassin, found at my feet during a backyard hobble

Bug-Hunting ‘Round the Redbud Family Tree

(Bringing family together through Buprestids)

I played with grim determination, Jim – Warren Zevon

As an ardent student of entomology I have seldom been accused of being either humble or shy when it comes to finding beetles, especially once my mind has fixated on a target species. From driving back roads for hours until I find a certain tree or microhabitat, to knocking on doors and asking for property permission, to searching lights at gas stations while suspicious customers look on between their cars and the pumps with concerned, confused expressions – as my wife often puts it, “I know no lows.” And so when my heart fell upon the desire to acquire a series of specimens of Ptosima laeta, the brilliantly-marked wood boring beetle that occurs only on Texas redbud trees (Cercis canadiensis) I thought nothing of exploiting my own family tree to get them.

While identifying most insects usually comes relatively easy to me, this is unfortunately not the case when it comes to botany. And while Texas redbud is one of our most familiar natives when in bloom (showing up as an unmistakable purple-painted tree in late February or early March, when almost everything else is still brown and lifeless), it was mid-April and the trees had already shed their magnificent coats, blending back into the now-flourishing growth, inconspicuous. Of course the heart- shaped leaves with their distinct teardrop points are easily recognizable up close, but I had no idea where to find one off the top of my head. Then, as I was heading out of Fort Worth from my weekly meeting with the hand therapist, my wife and I drove past the entrance to the Botanical Gardens.

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Redbud leaves and seed pods

“Pull in there!” I yelled as the lightbulb went off in my brain. The redbuds may not be blooming, but I was reasonably sure I could find a few in there. After all, they would be marked with an identifying sign. So with wife and son alongside me we parked and headed for the Texas native exhibit, which was still in the process of construction. As we walked my wife berated my hyper-enthusiasm.

“I think this place could technically be considered a refuge,” she remarked. “I’m sure they would frown upon you abandoning the marked trails to hoover up bugs.”

“I’ll collect sparingly, as always,” I assured her. “And I’ll tread lightly on the mulch. And by the way, I doubt the green thumbs that keep this place in operation will object to my removal of a small amount of wood-destructive pests. If anything they’d probably thank me.”

“I can see it now,” she said, “a plaque on the wall in the visitor’s center with your long-haired mug on it: For Single-handedly Removing Every Wood-Boring Beetle in the Botanical Gardens.

“Not single-handedly,” I reminded her. “I’m counting on you guys to help.”

“Great, we’ll look like perverts peeping between the branches of redbuds while people are trying to take wedding pictures… at least you didn’t bring the nets and beating sheets.”

“No need when you have six good hands and eyes for detail.”

I did not mean that lightly either. In spite of her nonchalant general disinterest in insects and the like, Amber has found me more rare and unusual specimens than I can sometimes believe. She is a lucky rabbit’s foot in the field, and her fondness for arrowhead hunting has trained her well in picking out slight differences in colors and shapes against similarly hued backgrounds. She is even credited with the finding of a blue and black metallic buprestid I still haven’t been able to identify, although her tendency to “live and let live” is often maddening when she sends me the pictures or text descriptions of imperial moths, Prionus beetles, and cerambycids with the caption: “I let it go..(smiley-face emoji).” And my son is a veritable walking amateur entomologist, among other “ologies” that strike his fancy, which ranges from bugs to space (which he knows more about than I do) to weather to rocks and on and on. A true and rare well-rounded scientist in the making, he has likewise gained an eagle’s eye in the field, although he is even more adamant than my wife that everything be granted its freedom. In actuality this is a very admirable and uncommon ideology, and when it extends even to scorpions and black widows and paper wasps found in and around the house I am assured without a doubt that I have a true future conservationist on my hands.

It didn’t take long to find a redbud. Behind and slightly to the right of a park bench, where a young couple sat basking in the glow of the spring sunshine in the puppy love of adolescence, a bronze plaque reading ‘Texas Redbud, Cercis canadiensis’ seemed to take on a golden glow. It shouldn’t be long now.

“Ok, you guys know what to do”, I said. “Check the foliage, also the outer twigs, trunk, and br…”

But they were gone, Amber behind me on the trail, pointing to the sign that read ‘Please Stay On The Trail,’ and Zev in deep study of the colorful aquatic residents of the koi pond. “Oh well,” I thought. “So much for free labor.” I began by scanning the outermost leaves, looking for a bit of black and orange in a world of green and brown. At a quarter to a half-inch in length, even an insect as brightly colored as Ptosima is easily overlooked. I began to part the branches to investigate the tree’s interior, and in so doing happened to look up and notice the necking love birds had become aware of my presence and were getting nervous, casting wide-eyed glances over their shoulder at the tackily-dressed bum with the bandaged hand who seemed to be lurking in the bushes like Gargamel. Luckily for them, on the next teardrop-shaped leaf sat my beetle, its boldly marked elytra standing out in radiance. It was a sunny day, and the creature was warmed up, so it lifted its wing covers and prepared to take flight. I made a quick assessment of where to place my hands (above and slightly in front of – the key to success when hand-catching the flighty, alert jewel beetles) and grabbed. At last, Ptosima was mine! I slipped a vial from my pocket, popped the specimen inside, and set off to find my family and tell them the good news.

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The target of the bug-hunt: Ptosima laeta

A week later, on my next follow-up appointment, which I had this time intentionally scheduled to allow time for optimal beetle hunting afterwards, I found myself standing in front of this same group of redbuds, this time with my mother, who had been so kind as to chauffeur me to the hand clinic. Unknowingly, she was the next in line to fall victim to my coleopteran schemings.

“How long has it been since you visited the Botanical Gardens?” I asked her over lunch at the Spiral Diner.

“Many years,” she replied. “Not since your dad worked for the city in the seventies.”

“Well, I’ve allotted time in our schedule to change all that. After all, it’s a beautiful place to visit this time of year, when all the flowers are in bloom.”

“Why, what bug are you looking for now?” she said. (Mothers, it seems, are hard to B.S.)IMG_20170418_135501

Once again we parked and made for the redbuds. This time I found a Ptosima instantly, a large specimen on the topside of a leaf, its silhouette given away by the beaming sun as I looked upward from the base of the trunk.

“That didn’t take long,” my mom remarked as a group of people walked by, no doubt wondering at our strange behavior. My mom is always amused by the fact that my quarry is often so small and (at least to her) unremarkable. But she was pretty good at finding insects on the leaves. Soldier beetles, ladybugs larvae, and caterpillars were all pointed out as soon as she had gotten focused on where to look, and as we hunted we spent some time discussing what makes her weird son’s world tick, on the same old inquisitive electricity it had run on since I was my son’s age. In the span of an hour we had the good fortune of finding three beetles, and while some caretakers who were blowing leaves from the trail gave us questionable glances, they only shrugged as they walked by, saying nothing. Another day another vial of borers. By this time it was nearing 3:30, and we had to leave to pick up my son from the school bus stop.

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Mom joins the bug hunt

But the day, as it turned out, was not quite over. At the bus stop we ran into my aunt, whom I knew to possess a large yard full of a variety of well-kept trees, shrubs, and flowers.

“Do you happen to know where any redbud trees are?” I asked.
 As it turned out, she had one growing in her back yard. “Feel free to come over any time and check it out,” she added after I had described the nature of my inquisition.

“Excellent. How does ten minutes from now sound?”

We picked up Zev (who is always eager and willing to go on a bug hunt at a moment’s notice) and got my mom to drive us down to her sister’s house. This time I was free to use my beating sheet, and while I didn’t have one on me, I MacGyvered one out of an old piece of wire-rimmed tent tarp I found stuck on a barb wire fence and set about giving the poor redbud a sound whipping.

Spiders, ladybugs, leaves and loose pods came raining down onto the sheet as I shook and rapped the foliage with a dried stick, but after several rounds of no success I gave up and declared the tree borer-less, in spite of the telltale bb-sized holes on the trunk that marked the emergence points of the adults from their larval chambers.

“Let me take a look,” Zev said, and in the span off ten seconds pointed at an upraised knot on the trunk. “Is that one?”

Sure enough, there sat a Ptosima, perched atop the knot. If it had possessed a tongue it would have probably been sticking it out at me in defiance. “Unbelievable,” I remarked, shaking my head as I ruffled Zev’s hair. “Good job, kid!”

I was now the proud owner of five new redbud borers on my collection of jewel beetles, where a week before there had only been a single one, found dead on the ground some fifteen years ago. And I had owed it all to the cooperative support of my family members, whom I had once again unashamedly exploited for my own selfish interests. But they hadn’t seemed to mind, and so no harm was done, except to the beetles themselves, who, of course, ended up skewered to # 0 rust-resistant insect pins over an acid-free label. But the series was still not complete. I needed a few more samples from a few more locales, as well as examples of the other three species in the genus, P. idolynae, P. gibbicollis, and P. walshii.

The next evening was Physics night at the college I attend, and on my break I took a stroll outside to see what I could turn up in the ten minutes of free time I had on my hands before getting back to a lecture on sound waves. As I passed the break table I glanced at the two trees planted on either side of the entrance doors and much to my surprise discovered they were examples of the now-familiar Texas redbud! There were no family members around this time, and the few students who had congregated around the table didn’t look like likely recruits for a bug hunt. I wondered what the professor was doing after class? After all, I believed I remembered him saying he had a biology major. There was only one way to find out, shameless and beguiling as ever. A borrowed lab smock sure would make a good beating sheet…after all, if there is one thing I have learned, it never hurts to ask….

Nature’s VIP Pass: A Lesson In Gratitude

Nature is full of surprises. It is one of the most intriguing reasons for getting out in the field.  You never know what you might find; what small portion of another organism’s life you may get the privilege of being witness to.  Even simple, common events such as territorial displays and the wonderful efficiency of camouflage can bring little moments of awe.  For those of us who are inclined to get out more often than most, we become accustomed to much of this, and take a lot of it for granted.  Squirrels chattering from the boughs of a post oak, crows cawing at our presence, nature’s alarms that warn other creatures that danger is near.  A caterpillar munching on its host leaf, a chorus of frogs, a basking turtle.  We see these things so often that we forget how fortunate we are to be able to share our world with such a diverse and magnificent spectrum of living things.  But take a child who has never been out in the woods (or an inquisitive adult, for that matter) and watch them become immersed in this new world of birdsong and greenery and vibrance that had always gone on somewhere in their own background, formerly unbeknownst to them, and it will serve us as a good reminder to remain grateful for the chance to be out in those wild places for the simple sake of being there, even if we don’t happen to find that sought-after holy grail species we’re targeting.

Such a realization dawned on me yesterday as I was searching for buprestids around a brush pile on my property in Parker county.  It was late afternoon and as I was walking through the high grass, my eye on a dead Craetegus branch that would hopefully harbor one of my constantly coveted jewel beetles, I saw a flash of black raise up above the grassline.  This was followed by the high pitched squeak of a rodent in distress.  As I walked up cautiously to further investigate this unexpected new mystery, I was delighted to find the coils of a large Texas ratsnake in the process of constricting a rat.  The snake’s head was covered by a thick loop of its muscular trunk, and thus I was able to observe it at close range without alerting it to my presence.  From such a front row seat to nature’s theatre I could see the last dying gasps of the rodent as the snake’s body squeezed tighter and tighter, a tiny drop of blood forced out of the nose as the lungs collapsed, welcoming it to the impartial food chain.  The muscles beneath the snake’s keeled black and orange blotched scales seemed to flex, forcing the final breath of life from its victim.  As if sensing it had expired, the snake then poked its head up and looked directly at me, the pearl white chin graced by its red and black forked tongue as it tested the air to identify this interloper.  I quickly backed up, not wanting to disturb its hard earned dinner, and resumed my search for beetles on the other side of the brush pile. TXrat+rat

I didn’t find what I was looking for, but in fact came away with a much greater feeling of satisfaction.  The Texas ratsnake, while one of the most common of finds for a cross timbers naturalist, was a delight and highlight of my day.  It is a rare treat to be able to witness one kill and constrict a rat, and I felt blessed by the fact that I had happened to be in the right place at the right time to see it go down.  These are the moments naturalists really live for, or really should live for at least.  For all the time and thought and attention to the minute details of an individual species’ natural history that go into searching for the rare and obscure, it was a refreshing and eye opening experience to see two very common organisms engaged in such a rarely witnessed part of their lives that goes on all around us and yet we seldom get the opportunity to see.  And while I didn’t have a decent camera onhand and was able only to get a few shots with my phone, the memory I took back with me was irreplaceable.