December Beneath Post Oaks

The western cross-timbers occupy over 25,000 acres of Texas, rolling westward from what is left of the blackland prairie, where they slide into the southern end of the plains. Mixed grasses conquer vast open meadows where bands of mesquite and honeylocust spring up from the Trinity sands, whose powdery composition dates back to the Cretaceous period.   It melts into the crusty layer of Redbeds from the Permian Basin, where chunks of igneous and sedimentary rock sit and wait out the centuries with timeless indifference. Their jagged, irregular surfaces speak of a past that was vastly different from the one the region enjoys now. Five hundred million years ago my property was submerged beneath the saline waters of a shallow sea. Tylosaurs and the great turtle Archelon patroled for the fish, crustaceans, and echinoderms that would eventually become beds of limestone, and archosaurs and hadrosaurs left their distinctive  trifurcated tracks in the mud. Their bones would witness the Ice Age of the Cenozoic period, mastodons and dire wolves and sabre-tooth cats. The prairies would erupt from the rich soil, and man would walk across them over thousands of years, hunting with ancient spears and then Clovis points and then Comanche points knapped from flint, chert, and obsidian. The bones of the prolific bison can still be found alongside these artifacts after a heavy rain, rough and white and chalky, with red clay embedded in their many fissures, the smooth dark marrow still visible on either end.   Generations of hunters and gatherers saw the land change. Dire wolves became red wolves and coyotes. Smilodon was reduced to a mountain lion, and the coniferous forests to petrified wood. 

On this crisp cold dawn in December, several centuries after the North American bison and Comanche and Apache disappeared, replaced by cattle and oil tycoons and railroads, the splendid cloak of another morning begins to blossom all the same. The red-orange orb of sun sends a Jacob’s Ladder through a dense heap of lavender-edged clouds, crowning the tops of the post oaks in gold. My son and I stand across the field, the prickly pears casting long shadows toward the west. It is a minute’s walk to the edge of the treeline, with the crisp air in our lungs, dessicated soil crunching beneath the soles of our shoes. A scraggly ashe juniper stands at the forefront of this massive stand of oaks, its evergreen needles mocking the naked oak branches. A blue jay erupts from its midst in a flurry of sky blue and black and white, sounding a hawklike alarm. The pastel blue juniper berries it has doubtlessly been gorging itself on come into view as we approach closer, complementing the deep jade hues of the juniper needles, like a naturally decorated Christmas tree. The bird disappears into the woods, winging its way expertly amid the rough boughs of oak. 

At the fenceline, bright pink clusters of what I assume to be beautyberry stand out in vivid contrast to the earthen tones of late fall. They are encircled by chaotic coils of greenbrier, a little paler and devoid of their characteristic heart-shaped leaves but otherwise none the worse for wear. They tug at our socks and pant legs as we venture into the understory. Here, dried leaves form a crackling carpet broken in places by sun-bleached cover boards and pieces of lichen-covered deadfall. Zev lifts one, peering beneath it in the hopes of spying a slumbering centipede or cluster of harvestmen. He finds nothing that pleases him, and moves on to the next piece, knowing the locations of each from memory, pausing to dust away a thin layer of leaves from a large sheet of weather-worn plywood, its cracking edges bent up toward the sky by repeated seasons of saturation and dehydration. He starts to pull it back, then freezes, eyes wide. Zev drops to his knees and peers forward into the leaf litter, where tiny fingers of fiery coral colored fungi reach up in frozen tendrils. I join him and, of course, he has to ask what it is. I tell him I don’t know but I own a book that does, and we conspire to look it up when we get back to the house. 

It is too cold for even the fossorial reptiles and mammals and arthropods that seek winter shelter beneath the boards. We venture deeper into the woods, where the post oaks interspersed with the occasional blackjack grow closer together, the bases of their trunks hidden beneath the leaves. 

There is some strange magnetic force that exists between children and fallen leaves, and Zev can’t resist plowing through the leaf litter at full speed for a short burst. The sudden break in the stillness of the woodlands startles a solitary American crow, who adds his own displeasured brand of noise to the disrupted solitude. I explain to Zev the genetic relationship between the crow and the blue jay we saw moments earlier. But he spies a late cloudless sulphur butterfly as it bats its oversized wings and he is off like a shot. The sulphur’s wings are a fluorescent yellow that glows as if they have been painted by a highlighter. Cloudless sulphurs are fall migrants that journey to Mexico with the seasonal lapse in photo-period, and we ponder how this one has survived several freezes and why it has chosen to stick around. But then again the temps have been unusually warm for this late in the year, and it feels good to be out on a more normal winter day. 

We come upon a dying oak, a probable victim of lightning strike. It has been split in a jagged diagonal line by some powerful unseen force. As a result the tree has suffered excessive branch die-back. Unlike the surrounding trees, most of which still bear a few stubborn leaves that vibrate in the northern wind, this old behemoth is on its last roots, destined to return to the dust it sprouted from untold decades ago. 

A closer inspection reveals sharp, slanted holes cut clean into the scarred areas of the wood. The oddly segmented, bulbous-headed larvae of buprestid beetles, known collectively as flatheaded borers, are the culprits. It was a summer for Polycesta elata, a large handsome silver-speckled metallic species that infests stressed trees. The holes in this particular unfortunate oak look fairly fresh, likely bored this past summer. They were made as the adult beetle left behind its youthful larval stage for its comparatively brief adult existence on the outside. This typically occurs between April and July. The fact that the species had been feeding off the wood long enough to mature and exit suggested that this had been a resilient post oak, for woodboring larvae can take several years to mature. 

Wood-boring beetle larvae

Buprestid beetles are especially attracted to burned wood, and if this one was in fact struck by lightning as we hypothesized, this could explain the presence of the holes. Using specialized infrared sensory organs, they can detect burning wood from miles away, and are important contributors to the natural cycle of forest fires, with the infestive larvae speeding up the process of returning the burned organic material to the earth, where the nitrogenous addition to the soil encourages new growth. This year’s crop of beetles have come and gone, the emerged adults having either found shelter beneath the loose bark or succumbed to last week’s low of 17 degrees. 

Too soon it is time to leave; we exit back out of the woods, from beneath the gnarled bare branches of the post oaks. They watch us pass as they have several generations before us. Zev pauses to admire a much smaller plant growing in their midst: a humble silverleaf nightshade that is still hanging on in the face of adversity. A few pallid, withered leaves still droop from its stems, alongside marble-sized yellow-green speckled fruits that look invitingly edible. But their beguiling, brightly colored flesh is full of toxic tropane alkaloids, and ingesting them would be a mistake. 

Silverleaf nightshade

“Deadly nightshade!” Zev points at the plant as it falls into view. He has been familiar with the plant since early childhood, when I explained to him that consuming those enticing “baby tomatoes” could send him into hallucinatory fits of delusion at best and possibly even prove fatal. He had already found out about stinging nettle, fire ants, and paper wasps the hard way, and was afterwards able to spot nightshade during all seasons. Still, he is mesmerized by the plant’s benign appearance which conceals so much harnessed destructive potential, and he speaks of it with a mixture of endearment and reverence, the same measure he gives black widow spiders and rattlesnakes.  Before leaving the plant behind us I tell him a story of how Native Americans on the plains used juice from the nightshade on the tips of their dart points, and how several Roman political assassinations were believed to have been carried out in the first century A.D.  In the spring the silverleaf nightshade will bear violet star-shaped flowers with rigid canary yellow pistils, but for now the berries hang on as the little plant trembles in the wind along the edge of the prairie, unprotected from the elements. 

Our house is in view now, and the skies’ hues have dissolved into a dusky blue, the pleasant orange ball that first peeked over the eastern horizon less than an hour ago already turned to blinding sulfur.  It looks down on us as we walk back across the dormant prairie, the same cosmic timeless star that has overseen the Earth’s Precambrian beginnings and the Age of Reptiles and then the Age of Mammals and the Dawn of Man.  It gazes down with all the unwavering indifference of the stones at our feet as our own species plods toward eventual extinction. A tufted titmouse sends its echoing, fast-paced trill from the fragrant juniper tree, its smoky grey crest standing out against the blue of the sky. Another year is winding down in the Cross-Timbers. 

Life, Death, & Coffee on the Wilson Prairie

The days are short now. Volleys of leaves, multi-colored, their dried husks deprived of chlorophyll but still beaming with the muted, subdued tones of accessory pigments, whirl in skirts across the yard, carried from the disrobing pecans, post oaks, and the ancient mulberry that stands like an old seminude giant across the road, its skeletal arms still reaching toward the sky, as if in prayer for an extension of photoperiod. On the ground, beneath the impossible, thorny tangle of the dried greenbrier thickets that adorn the tree’s trunk like some billowing medeival dress, a pair of eastern fox squirrels chatter and scold one another, their russet, bushy tails atwitch; they duck, dive and skitter across the leaves in great bounding leaps, as if engaged in a game of tag. They seem dangerously preoccupied, seeing as to where their place lies on the food chain, but in reality are anything but disconnected. I could stand and they would pick up on it instantly, the game suspended. I watch them from the porch, a steaming mug of black coffee gripped in my good hand, its surface still blisteringly hot. It is early morning, mid-November, a week before Thanksgiving. The weather has been unseasonably warm…much warmer than usual , a testament to McKibben prophecy. Still, there is a current overcast, grey wash to the eaarth this morning, the sunlight obscured behind a semipermeable world of pastel fog. 

In the field behind the house a section of the herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle that my wife’s uncle owns traverse slowly at a determined pace, seeming pointlessly driven but with an underlying air of unspoken unity that testfies to their herd mentality, a trait inherited from long-extinct wild ancestry. Their sleek black heads are down, lowered towards the weather-wrinkled prickly pear pads and dried stalks of silverleaf nightshade and dessicated pods of Proboscidea that lie on the yellowed prairie like tiny skulls. It is cold enough to see their breath, thick plumes expelled from the nostrils, likewise as of one accord, the gaseous carbon dioxide cloud doubtlessly reeking of the pulpy grass chewed to mush by saliva and stomach acids. 

The steam rises from the edge of my coffee cup, spilling out and disappearing into the moisture-rich sky. Yesterday a thick, marauding band of fall thunderclouds slipped in like black warhorses, but their swelled bellies held fast to the bulk of their contents, dropping only random spatters of rain in their wake. In they rolled in the late evening, and out again, still threatening doom but devoid of follow-through. 

The world is a collection of visible exhalations: my own breath hot as I blow across the oily surface of the coffee, the cattle leaving theirs behind to dissipate as they make for the grove of post oak, blackjack, and honey mesquites on the property’s east end, following the well-beaten trail, their hooves never veering to the left or right. Walking that seemingly tedious, programmed straight and narrow that runs from the pond to the woods and back and will inevitably end at the slaughterhouse. 

I take my first sip of coffee, invigorating, the bitter, acrid punch of it evoking my senses, strong and dark, a collection of exotic hints that speak of cloud forest mountaintops I have never seen. I look out at the deciduous hardwoods that cover the Wilson Prairie between the open areas, with their mottled autumn wardrobe. It is no cloud forest, but on this foggy, damp morning, with the air thick and heavy as a saturated blanket, I can imagine it to be. It is as close as I will get at this elevation anyway. 

Back beneath the mulberry, the fox squirrels have taken their game from the leaf-dense ground litter to the massive trunk, bigger around than a whiskey barrel, its bifurcated center bearing an enormous gaping cavern to which, earlier in the summer, my son and I had introduced a big female black widow spider, her shiny globular abdomen like a perfectly polished ball of obsidian beset by that marvelous crimson hourglass that serves as a ‘No Trespassing’ sign for its clumsy, unkempt web. A former resident of the windowsill by the front door, she had been relocated on the orders of my wife, who ignored her presence until she produced an identical pair of oval-shaped egg sacs, each one as large as her abdomen itself. While Amber is no arachnophobe, the thought of hundreds of tiny, venomous spiderlings going out in the world to seek their fortunes at our doorstep was a little much, and so we transported the female, eggs, and web mass all in one great glob on the end of a forked stick, with the irate mother-to-be dancing haphazardly between the broken strands of silk. 

Now the spider is gone, the only evidence of her presence is the remaining threads of web, which still remains partially intact due to its protection from the elements. The dried hull of an unfortunate paper wasp hangs suspended here, its inner contents long turned into soup and drained out by the spider’s fangs, turned into nutrients that produced a third egg sac in late August. A stray pecan leaf has fallen into the web as well, its brittle veiny skeleton adhered to the sticky strands. 

As I approach the tree the squirrels race around to the other side…around and up, following ages of instinctual successful predator evasion. While I have no intent to cause them harm, this does not hold true for another, keener pair of eyes that observes their comings and goings with less curiosity and more focus. At the edge of the field, just beyond the road, our resident redshouldered hawk sits, its lethal talons gripped firmly into the top of a telephone pole, turning its head with each and every movement that passes between me and the squirrels, missing nothing. 

The hawk is a fairly new addition to our little biological community here, having arrived only a couple months back. It is a young one, not completely fully grown but large enough so that the telltale retrice feathers stand out in their stark black and white banded contrast against the yellow, predormant pasture. It was first noticed by our late cat, Traveling Jones, former guardian of the front porch, whose sharp feline senses missed little. Jones had been sprawled across the double lawn bench that sits on the porch, scoping the world through tired eyes that looked like a pair of marbles beset between his marmalade ears. I was beside him, halfway through a cup of coffee, feeling lazy and listless myself, with the still-warm late afternoon sun hanging in a cloudless, powder-blue sky. Above us, the enormous paper wasp colony that claims territory in a corner between the archway and a support post were busy making preparations for the coming fall. Jones was disinterested in wasps, but his ears suddenly perked rigid, accompanied by ranks of long orange hairs along the back of his vertebrae, which folded up suddenly like porcupine quills. His bored stare disappeared, and he rose up onto his front paws, looking out across the yard at whatever had just captured his interest. I followed his gaze, and there, balancing immaculately as a porcelain ballerina in a snow globe, sat the young redshouldered hawk atop a t-post along the fenceline. It was looking right back at us. I thought about going in to get my camera, but I didn’t want to take the risk of startling the bird, so I raised my coffee cup to my lips in a slower, more practiced motion, and we simply watched each other. It was more than enough to satisfy. 

Now Traveling Jones is gone, slipped from this strange, unexplainable existence into that black, mysterious void of the hereafter, reduced to a savage, swift end that is not uncommon to the lives of vagabond cats who ever-precariously walk the tightrope between domestication and ferality.  One day he was there, same as ever, and the next he was stretched out in the grass in the yard, limbs stiff from rigor mortis, with his spine bowed in a permanent arch that ran down to his tail, glassy lifeless eyes wide as if still staring eternally now at whatever swift angel of death had swept in and robbed him of his existence. I stood over his body with my wife, our hands on our hips, filled with a mixed sense of wonder at this delicate yet savage life we all live and frustration as to how we were going to break the news to my son, who has never known life without Jones. 

The cat is gone now, returned back to whatever microscopic particles and stardust he came from, but the hawk is still here, eyeing the acorn-fat squirrels from its own comparatively benign perch at the top of the food chain, destined one day as well to perish like the rest of us, but not likely of fright or at the indifferent tooth or nail of some larger beast. The squirrels, even moreso than cats, cannot afford such luxury. Their lot in life is one of constant nervous attentiveness and caution, bundles of pent-up mammalian energy, like furry, coiled springs, seemingly always either in hyper mode or twitching and tensing at its threshold. Natural selection has ensured this trait is copied down and hardwired into their genetic makeup. Lazy, unobservant squirrels are dead squirrels. Lazy unobservant squirrels end up clutched between the merciless, plucking talons of a redshouldered hawk. 

But these squirrels are long-time residents, and they do not maintain their overfed dimensions through such deadly lack of caution. They have survived the brief seasons of young squirrelhood, in spite of nimble arboreal nest-raiding rat snakes, coyotes, and resident raptors, and they are born-again hard, in spite of their meek and merry appearance. Eventually the killer atop the telephone pole tires of the unlikelihood of their eventual capture, and wings off across the open field for the oak motte, its sleek feathered head pivoting left to right as it scans the open ground for a cottontail rabbit that hopefully possesses a preoccupation of whatever sort that will allow the bird to fall like a stone and slide into its soft fur and the quivering flesh beneath with lethal precision. But the hawk finds nothing, and the spread horizontal shape of its departing silhouette, like a stretched letter “M”, disappears into the cross timbers. 

The hawk is gone. The squirrels are gone. The cows are gone. The cat is gone and the black widow is gone. Now it is just me and the torpid wasps, huddled together in silent immobility, their ectothermic systems waiting for the sun to come piercing through the thick wall of dawn cloud cover and set them to flight. The coffee has released plenty of its thermal energy into my own endothermic shell, as well as into the cool surrounding air. As a result it has grown cold, and i quaff the chilled remnants with a bit of resistance.  I stare out across that great field in perfect solitude, its still-life appearance disguising the hidden wonders that lie within all those undiscovered worlds hidden away out in the deep brown weeds and tangled thickets and red clay banks. The prairie grasses sway to the caress of a gentle breeze that also whisks its way around the corner of the house from the northeast, sending a fresh outbreak of gooseflesh across the bare skin of my forearms. In this way, somehow, I feel a sense of connection. We are one, the prairie and I, caught up together in that ancient, beautiful, cataclysmic scheme of things, momentarily suspended here against the breeze of an autumn wind that, like this life itself, cannot be physically seen but must be felt and experienced to maintain its reality. It traces against our forms with phantom fingers and, in our own way, we both respond accordingly. 

The coffee mug is empty now. The forecast calls for an eventual spike in temperature, up to 76 degrees by noon, but for now there lies not a hint of it in this cold, pallid morning dominated by fog and escaping vapors of breath and the subdued and vibrant composition of autumn. For now it is a world rapidly being engulfed in dead leaves, bowing dried stalks of bluestem, bathed in golden glory, still and silent. A world in wait. I turn to go in to the house for a second cup of coffee, the sound of the door creaking on its hinges , an alien shriek that seems intrusive, out of place here. Unnatural.  Man-produced, and somehow wrong. The coffee can wait, and the couch and central heat and television spewing doom and radiation with it. For now I am content to sink back into the lawn bench, my legs propped up on Jones’s old cat box, eyes reduced to mere slits as I return to my post in the midst of this blessed natural world that surrounds me. It is a world I hold dear. A world I long to grasp and retain and somehow pass down, whatever is left of it to pass. When Zev gets home from school, I think, we will go for a walk in the woods, beneath the oaks, our tennis shoes parting piles of their symetrically-lobed leaves around our ankles. We will marvel at cocoons adhered to the crisp, delicate distal tips of twigs, waiting for the wind to pick up even more and send them plummeting to the forest floor to wait out the worst of the coming winter. Zev will point out the form of one of our seasonally-visiting male kestrels on a low limb, or perhaps, if the sun triumphs over the clouds, a Texas spiny lizard clinging headdown against the cracked bark of one of the oaks, watching us with copper eyes full of suspicion. We may remark on its superb camouflage or hypothesize on where it is likely to spend the winter. Wherever the trail takes us I will do my best to keep his interest in this rapidly passing natural realm kindled, so that he will carry the torch that will light its continued importance and conservation into a future I will not be able to occupy. But for now it is just me and the wind and the prairie, alone and yet not lonely on this cool fall morning before Thanksgiving. In that I find solace, and can find, in my own way, much reason for thanks, my heart full of gratitude that there is still a bit of the natural world and its tragic, glorious order devoid of such concepts as good and evil. For now, it is enough. 

Snakes and Tigers At the Doorstep

After a memorable day of hiking at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Michael and I decided unanimously to postpone our earlier plans of photographing keeled earless lizards at Boca Chica for a taqueria and an evening of writing back in Harlingen. In all honesty my still-healing left foot had traipsed across another three miles worth of trails, and I was only a few steps away from dragging it along behind me like a zombie. But by the time the thirty minute drive from Brownsville was over (after some gorditas con nopales,of course) my tense, puny atrophied muscles were given ample time to relax, so I decided to hit a little board pile I had noticed along the fenceline behind the Darling house Sunday evening as the caretaker was giving us the grande tour. With snake hook in hand (albeit more of a cane since breaking my original one the day yesterday) I strolled across the lawn, my eye already set on a lone wolf board that lay some distance from the pile, its edges overgrown with sprigs of grass. 

  It had been a hard trip for herping so far. With nighttime temps falling too quickly for nocturnal road cruising, we had been restricted to diurnal forays into the field, where, as every herper knows, sightings usually come fewer and further between. The payoff is seeing the creatures that have so long captivated you in their essence, as opposed to the black tarmac of the roadway. I had caught but a glimpse of a big Texas indigo, that iconic serpent of the Valley, at Sabal Palms; five feet of satiny-black smooth polished scales, as big around as my wrist, sliding effortlessly amidst the brown dried leaves of a fallen branch near the bird blind. While I scrambled for the camera the snake slowly made its way toward the dense tangle of vegetation growing beneath the massive, statuesque palms. In the span of a moment it would be lost in the network of ankle-deep dried fronds that make up the forest floor. The best I could manage was a shot of the trunk of the snake entwined amidst the greys and browns of the dead foliage on the dry resaca bank eight feet or more below me and separated by the tunnellike blind. 

But that was ancient history now, with the sun once again beginning to drop behind the big live oak in the front yard, and two days in south Texas= 1 live snake was improper math. That long, isolated weathered wood plank I had now reached looked like it may very likely be able to solve for y. 

I slid the hook under the board and pulled towards me, and was instantly rewarded by a small, coiled snake marked lengthwise in alternating ribbons of tan and black. My first thought was ‘black-striped snake’, as this state protected south Texas native turns up frequently in residential yards, but this was no black-striped snake.  It was a juvenile Texas patchnose. 

Patchnose snakes are splendid animals, built for stealth and speed. They have large eyes with the round pupils characteristic of most diurnal, vision-oriented species. Thin and wiry, with a physique similar to that of whipsnakes and racers, they are also striped, which aides them in escaping from predators by creating an illusion of motionlessness as they make their getaway.   Their lightweight body and diurnal habits ensure the patchnose must maintain a high metabolism, and it does so by chasing down lizards and raiding the occasional mouse nest. This one, however, was just sitting tight waiting to shed its skin, as was evident by the milky blue haze under its eye caps and the dull, dusty wash over its normally vibrant pattern. Michael and I photographed it, then put it back under the board to resume its wait. It was an unexpected find, but something about that first piece of cover always seems to hold a little magic. Many has been the time I have flipped some magnificent creature up beneath that first piece and then spent the rest of the day breaking my back over bark scorpions and fire ants.

 As it turned out, the next board (this one on top of the pile) yielded a juvenile short-lined skink that instantly wriggled back into the substrate with the last of the sunlight glinting blue-black off of its smooth, iridescent scales. But that was where my luck ran out. My intrusion into the board pile had unknowingly declared war on a nest of tiger ants, impressively large olive and brown mottled beasties that apparently run rampant across the Rio Grande Valley.  The caretaker, Gabriel, had informed us of their painful, nauseating sting, which he described as hot pain followed by flu-like symptoms and weakness and tenderness that lingered for several days. Sure enough, a quick check at confirmed that this was not an ant to be trifled with, comparing its sting to that of a “hot needle”. The duration of intensity was said to last a half hour, with additional soreness persisting for over 24 hours.  And here I was standing in their midst, with several of the soldiers already storming the edges of my boots.  So I did the ant dance that everyone does when they suddenly look down to find their feet being swarmed, and this luckily dislodged the defensive warriors. I then beat a hasty retreat back to the house, leaving the tiger ant army with the task of rebuilding their disturbed fortress of rotting wood and detritus. It was almost dark now, and there were blacklights to set up and Inaturalist sightings to post. As I headed back across the yard for the veranda a green jay called along the fenceline, its lime-green plumage visible for only a second in the final fading rays of the sun. There were hikes to be hiked, taquerias to be plundered, and herps to cross paths with on the morrow, but here and now the cool breeze ushers in the coming night. It is good to be back in the Valley. 

Tiger ant, with business on both ends

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.


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.


Bordered patch butterfly


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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!