The End of the Year, 2018

I was lucky to visit Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge on the last day of the year. The weather was wonderful and the refuge is like home. We go back a long time, at least fifty-three years.

Lone Point Shelter

I started off by climbing up part of the Canyon Ridge Trail, up to the top of the ridge. The last 20 feet or so are a climb on stone steps, and suddenly the trail opens up in an area of live oak and yucca. And right there, to your left, is the Lone Point Shelter, a Civilian Conservation Corps structure built in the 1930s. The roof is gone, but there is a nice rock bench on each side to sit and look out over the lake. I took some notes and set my thermometer out – it registered 61 degrees F.

Live oak, yucca, and juniper grasslands (with a generous helping of prickly pear cactus)

Walking down the trail from there, I could have imagined being transported to somewhere on the Edwards Plateau; at least the live oak, juniper and yucca in a grassy savannah reminded me of central Texas. As I returned on this trail, I took a photo of another CCC structure. It’s really just a fancy stone outhouse, but it’s interesting and historical nonetheless.

More of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work

At the base of one of the oak trees I found a big patch of moss, vibrant green from the rain last night. Spending a few moments, very close, losing oneself in the tiny forest of moss leaves, will wipe away some of your troubles – try it!

A moss forest

I followed the trail back down the ridge, noting that my sense of balance on narrow trails with steep drop-offs is not what it once was. However, I distracted myself by noticing some little sprigs of oak leaves that still have their fall color. They are tattered but still pretty.

Fall color in a couple of leaves hanging on

My next stop was Greer Island. It was the first piece of land designated as a nature center, the little seed from which all 3500+ acres sprang. I walked the causeway to the island, remembering that when I was a kid, people drove down that causeway and parked on the island. I guess we’ve grown a little in our willingness to walk, thank goodness!

Coots in a reed marsh beside the causeway
An American coot on the other side of the causeway
Greer Island, seen from the causeway

A number of trails crisscross the island, and I walked the Audubon Trail around part of it. Sitting on a bench beside the water, the temperature on my thermometer was 63 degrees F. I had spooked some mallards, and near the bench were more ducks or perhaps coots making their throaty whistles and muttering. They were completely hidden by a wall of reeds. A little later, I cut back across a little pocket prairie (so small that it might be called a “thimble” prairie!) and through the woods back to the causeway.

A sea of reeds hides a section of Lake Worth
The “thimble”-size prairie
The trail back

I’m grateful that this place is still there, still taken care of by Nature Center staff like the treasure that it is. It was a great way to spend part of the last day of 2018.

She Speaks for Turtles!

You remember last month, I posted an account of a trip taken by Viviana Ricardez and me to Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area (“Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek”). I’m happy to say that Viviana will join us as a contributor, and she will have lots to contribute! She speaks for turtles, sort of like the Lorax speaks for trees (for those of you who have read The Lorax – and if you haven’t, why not?).

Viviana-MacrochelysViviana speaks for turtles, and more than that. She is a dedicated supporter of the wonderful group of kids in the Spring Lake Adventure Club – which she’ll tell you about – and of other herp nerds and turtle folk who belong to that branch of the naturalist clan. Stay tuned!

First Day of Winter, Southwest Nature Preserve, 12/22/2018

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The north pond

It was sunny all day, with barely a wisp of clouds and little breeze. Weather Underground reports that it reached 68F in Arlington today; I did not have a thermometer at the preserve but it’s safe to say that it reached the mid-60’s.


I haven’t written a lot about Southwest Nature Preserve lately, but it is one of my two “homes away from home.” It is a surprising and fortunate thing that these 58 acres of Eastern Cross Timbers habitat have been saved, right here in the metroplex. The rocky hillsides with Woodbine Formation sandstone and blackjack and post oak woods mixed with juniper are prime examples of the Eastern Cross Timbers. The little “pocket prairies” of little bluestem and other native grasses fit right in. There are lots of other little treasures and surprises among the plants: Glen Rose yucca, false indigo, and farkleberry can be found there. And a meadow dominated by yucca, Texas bull nettle, and other plants has the deep sand needed for the Comanche harvester ant to have multiple colonies. Four ponds provide a home for what seems to me like a great diversity of dragonflies and damselflies. The ponds also support cricket frogs, leopard frogs, some watersnakes, and an assortment of sliders and cooters, which are a source of delight for herpers like me.

fullsizeoutput_1786There is something to delight the soul of a naturalist all the year round, and I never regret a single walk there, even after what I’m sure are hundreds of times I’ve walked up to the ridge on “Kennedale Mountain,” visited the ponds, and passed through the little prairies. I was there yesterday at sunset to mark the winter solstice and returned today to enjoy the first afternoon of winter there.

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Red-eared slider

The red-eared sliders were sunning at the ponds, one with the characteristic yellow and green pattern and red patches on the head, and at least one that was an old melanistic male.

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Two turtles at the north pond

Some insects are hiding and dormant, others may have died with the brief spells of freezing we had a while back. Others were out and about, winter or not. A dragonfly skipped around and landed in front of me, bringing a particular bit of scarlet magic to the hillside.

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Dragonfly

Among the leftovers from the fall were a few clusters of oak leaves holding on to red color, and in places the sunlight shining through them was like flame on the woodland floor. The little bluestem still have seeds clinging to the stems, catching the sunlight as if the tiniest white birds had brushed against them and left little white feathers there.

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A cluster of red post oak leaves

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Bluestem seeds

The north end of the preserve has its share of honey locust trees with clusters of long thorns, each with a cross piece of two additional thorns. Their seed pods are long and flat and are often twisted. One tree still held several of these pods.

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Honey locust seed pods

One additional treat waited at the pond at the southwest corner of the preserve, where a boardwalk skirts one edge of it and extends out over the water for fishing. A great egret was looking for something to eat, but straightened and watched me carefully. Despite my slow approach, the bird would not stay, and I was able to take a couple of photos as it flew away.

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Great egret

It was a good start to a winter that I hope provides lots of opportunities for visiting all the preserves and natural places in north Texas.

Hibernating Herps and the Wintertime Search for Salamanders

I talked about hibernation today with a small group at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I love doing anything that may connect people to the natural world to a greater extent, either through knowledge, discovery, or “losing” oneself in a place of peace and beauty. Maybe we did a little of all that today, at least I hope so.

It’s fun to consider “where do they go when winter comes?” It’s fascinating to talk about what it really means to be “cold-blooded” and think about the different strategies herps use to protect themselves from excessive cold. And then it was time to go for a walk, in bright sunshine and temperatures that climbed into the low 60’s.

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West Fork Trinity River

We walked the Crosstimbers trail, starting along the banks of the West Fork Trinity River and then bending to the west and into Cross Timbers woodland, dropping into a bottomland forest along a slough. The river usually provides some wintertime sightings of sliders or cooters, and sure enough, pulled out on a tree branch that had fallen into the water were a red-eared slider and a river cooter. Both turtles have somewhat similar overall forms. Among the differences, one of the easiest to spot is the red patch toward the back of the head of the red-eared slider, which river cooters do not have. However, some red-ears, like the one we saw today, are old dark melanistic males.

IMG_3136In the woods, we talked about possible wintertime shelters for the western ratsnakes, five-lined skinks, and other herps that live in the Cross Timbers. The downed trees or standing dead trees may have cavities that stay above freezing, and burrows beneath the leaves and soil can protect from freezing.

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Flooded bottomland

We also discussed salamanders, and the small-mouthed salamander that used to be seen more often in our area. Why wouldn’t we find them now, when late fall and winter in flooded bottomlands is when and where you would expect them? The refuge has some wonderful bottomland habitat, as well as patches of prairie with small ponds. And yet, there don’t seem to be any records in recent years of small-mouthed (or other) salamanders at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.

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Leaves beneath the water, overlaid by reflections of trees

The entry about the small-mouthed salamander in James Petranka’s Salamanders of the United States and Canadaindicates that breeding takes place after rains between January and February at about our latitude, and that they favor completely fish-less pools and ditches for breeding (since fish readily eat the larvae). More than some other mole salamanders, these can make use of very shallow pools, sometimes with depths no more than a few centimeters. In the section about conservation, he mentions loss of bottomland habitat as a threat.

So maybe this is the winter to pay more attention to possible salamanders in this part of north Texas. We had a very wet fall and we continue to have some rainfall, and so perhaps we will find one, or discover developing larvae in some ephemeral pool, sometime between February and May. It would sure be fun to go looking!

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Small-mouthed salamander, seen in another place, at another time

Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek

You may recall that Clint and I visited the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area last spring (Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands) and had all good intentions of returning to this Anderson County location during the summer. After all, it is a place with velvety-black eastern coachwhips, the occasional box turtle, plenty of five-lined skinks, and it has its share of copperheads and cottonmouths. What could be better? However, I missed traveling to this spot except for a brief visit with Carl Franklin on September 29 where we were able to photograph a very nice cottonmouth.

Now that winter is approaching, we have had some cold weather, and the leaves are dropping from the trees in the bottomlands at Gus Engeling, my thoughts turn to salamanders. And so yesterday, Viviana Ricardez and I rolled the dice (and a few logs) to see if we might spot a salamander or two.

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A flooded patch of bottomland at Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area

According to the Texas Amphibians field guide (Tipton, et al., 2012), The western part of Anderson County should be within the range of the small-mouthed salamander, the eastern tiger salamander, and the dwarf salamander, and we’d be within rock-throwing range of at least one more, the marbled salamander. Because of the extraordinarily wet autumn this season (you may recall the record rainfall and flooding in north and central Texas within the past two months), it seemed possible that some salamander breeding might already have taken place and there could be larvae in some of the pools. Low places that temporarily fill with water are great for amphibian breeding because they don’t have fish that would eat the eggs and larvae. In any case, a visit to this patch of the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion on a fine late autumn day seemed like a great idea.IMG_3086

Viviana is a veteran of lots of turtle field work, though she is ready to see any herp species that come her way. She told me of a trip to Pennsylvania during which she saw several salamander species, including our biggest, baddest, most wonderful salamander, the hellbender. We could not possibly top that on this walk, but we would have fun seeing what we could find.

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A tiny crayfish from our net

We sampled several pools, pulling a dip net across the bottom and investigating the leaves, twigs, and whatever critters it might catch. Larval salamanders would look a little like tadpoles, but longer and with a feathery frill of external gills behind the head. Late in their development they would have the four small legs typical of the salamanders of the genera Ambystoma (small-mouthed and tiger salamanders as well as others) or Eurycea (including the dwarf salamander). Instead, what we found in the dip net included a few freshwater shrimp a some tiny juvenile crayfish.

IMG_3099We also visited some upland areas, and one beautiful pond that, as Viviana pointed out, had few snags for turtles to pull out on and bask. Otherwise, it was a delightful spot that should harbor all kinds of herps. I won’t say that Viviana is single-minded in her devotion to turtles, but if she was a character in Game of Thrones, she would be known as the Mother of Turtles. In fact, some do call her that!

We walked through a patch of cut and burned land that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is attempting to restore to the savannah that was once typical in this part of Texas. Some native grasses are attempting to come back, although the shrubby growth that swallows up parts of the WMA are trying their best to reclaim this spot. Before this part of Texas was tamed, periodic fires helped keep the woody plants down and helped grasses dominate the spaces between the trees. Small, prescribed fires are the best friend this patch of habitat could have.

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Returning grassland, with the forest edge in the background

We returned to the bottomlands, and as we walked the sand and clay road toward a tributary of Catfish Creek, there was Old Man Turtle, to greet Viviana. The old man was a red-eared slider, with the typical pattern of greens and yellows now gone and replaced by dark pigment. Old male sliders often become melanistic in this way, with the carapace (upper shell) a sort of charcoal or vaguely olive-gray color with black borders of the scutes of the carapace. The head, neck, and limbs similarly darken, with the thin green lines breaking up into dots and dashes of darker and lighter gray or olive.

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The Old Man – a melanistic male red-eared slider

Viviana, of course, spotted him first, and she picked him up to examine the details of his shell and pattern. There was a notch, an old injury, on his marginals just a little to the right of center near his neck. There were subtle but lovely shades of yellow darkening to gray on his forelimbs and parts of the shell.img_3089.jpg

His response might have been, “Good day, Khaleesi – to what do I owe the honor of your examining me?” Truly, you would think that this would be the only fitting response to Viviana’s joy and respect when she handles any of these turtles. However, he was not thrilled with being interrupted in his walk to the nearby creek tributary, and his opened mouth was not exactly a grin.

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An exchange of gestures

After a series of photos of this delightful old turtle, we let him finish his trek across the road, plunging into the creek and immediately vanishing into the dark water. We were grateful to make his acquaintance, and happy to see him return to his watery domain as a free turtle.

We did not find salamanders, but we got to walk through some wonderful autumn woodlands and savannah, and meet Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek!

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Leopard Frogs and “Horse-Apple Soccer”

Two years ago I took a co-worker, her daughter Embry, and Embry’s friend Maddy on a walk through the bottomland forests at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. We had fun and some good discussion about the things that live in the forest. Here are my notes:

We had barely started our walk down the old trail down through the bottomland forest when the girls froze in surprise and fascination. Ahead of us, a whitetail buck stared back at us, his head up and alert and ready to bolt away through the quiet woods. After a moment, he turned and disappeared behind a ridge, leaving Embry and Maddy fumbling for cameras. We walked toward where he disappeared, with as much stealth as we could, and peered around the ridge, but the deer had gone. These moments, even with a common animal like this, are magical and evanescent; one moment he is present, with his black, shining nose, dark eyes, and rack of antlers, and the next moment he has vanished.

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Embry and Maddy

We walked further down the wide track that cuts through the cottonwoods, burr oak, beech, and bois d’arc in this bottomland near a marsh within the refuge. Despite the abnormally warm autumn, many of the leaves were yellowing and some were falling, evidence that the trees knew the significance of the shorter days despite the warmth. Embry and Maddy, alert to every movement in the sedges and leaves, spotted wolf spiders and one that might have been a rather dull six-spotted fishing spider (my spider identification skills were not up to the task). I reassured them that these spiders held no danger and were trying to get out of our way. This was an odd role for me – if I ran into a web with one of the big orb-weaving spiders, I’m sure I would freak out as much as they would. The experience of having a spider on me overwhelms any objective knowledge of their benefits and general harmlessness.

At the edge of the path, I turned a section of fallen log and at one end, head tucked a little beneath an elm leaf, was a southern leopard frog. Its color was dark, with the spots practically obscured along its three to four-inch body. When more alert, they are often brighter and some have areas of pretty green color. At night, they snap up a great many insects, and jump away in long leaps if disturbed. Embry stepped in for a closer photo, positioning her phone over the frog to take a shot. Then I reached down, hoping to capture the frog for a moment and show its bright eyes and powerful legs, but at that moment it made its getaway.

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Leopard frog

At some point we came to a pool of water, four or five feet across, with tiny disturbances in the surface of the water here and there. What could this be? We talked about how bottomland forests flood from time to time, and the rain-swollen river and marsh stretch out to cover the ground where we stood. The flood waters carry fish along, and when the waters subside, smaller fish may be trapped in pools like this. A couple of dozen mosquitofish swam among the leaves and along the surface of the water, creating little disturbances when they suddenly turned or darted away. The girls showed a slight revulsion when I mentioned “mosquitofish,” until I explained that they were small fish that ate mosquito larvae. Embry was determined to catch one, circling around and trying to ambush one. Her mom commented, “You won’t catch it,” correctly judging that human hands are not effective tools for catching such a lightning-fast little fish. Nevertheless, it was delightful to watch Embry spot one and then another of these fish and make a quick grab into the water. Her enthusiasm made this common little fish new and exciting.

Isn’t this one of the things we treasure about children? I might have walked past this pool and noted that there were mosquitofish in it, with little reaction. Thanks to Maddy and Embry, I remembered what it is like to want to see them close up, and try my hand at grabbing one, in the process learning a great deal about how fast fins can propel streamlined bodies through the water. I once again see the crosshatched pattern of fish scales on a partly translucent body, and the iridescent blue that these fish show in the right light. I promised myself to bring a dip net on the next walk through the bottomlands.

They taught us the same lesson regarding the lowly bois d’arc tree, also known as the Osage orange or “horse apple” tree. They are medium-sized, somewhat thorny trees that grow well in deep, moist bottomland soil. The iron-tough wood was prized by Native Americans for making bows (thus the French “bois d’arc” or “bow-wood”). And, as most kids used to know when we spent more time in the woods, they produce a green, wrinkled fruit that roughly resembles a green orange or maybe a bumpy green apple. Just the right size for throwing, but completely unsuitable for eating. They are a fibrous, spherical collection of seeds that oozes a milky substance if cut. But the girls knew another thing that you could do with these horse apples. They could be kicked like soccer balls!

And so, there was an impromptu soccer game in the woods, with Maddy crowding Embry out to move the ball to the goal (under the fallen log over there), and Embry giving one a little side-kick to position it for the goal shot. Horse apples rolled over a layer of leaves, between downed logs, and past stately cottonwoods and oaks. It was great!

We also encountered several places where feral hogs had rooted the ground up to find things to eat, and we talked about how these animals didn’t really belong here but a few might do only minimal harm. Turning the soil might even be seen as a plus, but these hogs reproduce quickly and there is little to hold their population in check. Large groups simply tear up habitat and eat everything in sight, and a sow, surprised with her piglets, can be quite dangerous. So can any hog in close quarters, so we would certainly not want to approach them if we saw any.

Cottonmouths were another species that we might have run into in the bottomlands. These venomous snakes are common in the bottomlands around Lake Worth, and on an autumn day with temperatures in the 70s, it would not have been surprising to see one. Embry and Maddy were on board with looking for snakes, but were not so sure about cottonmouths. That is hardly surprising, as many stories as people tell about being chased or attacked by these snakes, which are really quite nonaggressive if left alone. I told them there should be no problem as long as we saw it first and avoided stepping on it, and I said it was my job to spot them. That settled, we resumed our walk, the girls confidently in the lead as we explored the woods.MS-willow-FWNCR-5Nov16

IMG_0699At the farthest extent of our walk, at a very old, twisted willow at the edge of the marsh, we found and photographed a gigantic black ant on the tree, which discouraged some climbing that the girls had considered. Embry had no hesitation to bring the phone in close, finding the ant at the end of my finger (I pointed but did not touch!). Afterwards, I asked each one if they had any thoughts about today’s experience.

“At first, I thought about whether there might be something that could hurt me,” Embry offered, “but then I knew it was OK.” She had enjoyed a walk through these woods with curiosity and confidence. Maddy added that the things that lived in this place really did not want to hurt you. I loved hearing that. This was a place that offered beauty, tranquility, and fascination, along with a few things that needed a little watchfulness and care. Even the “creepy” things turned out to be fascinating. I hope that they will carry this and a hundred (or a thousand!) experiences of nature with them through their lives. Maybe they will hold on to that sense of wonder at seeing fish in a pool, or a frog hiding under a log. I hope, as adults, that they can still be playful with horse apples and bring their own kids to walk through the woods and have the delightful surprise of seeing a whitetail deer staring back at them along a forest trail.

Autumn

fullsizeoutput_172eIt is autumn, a time to be in the woods. Time to be attuned to colors, smells, the chill in the breeze that seems to carry some lost recollection, just beyond memory. The leaves that partitioned the woods into a series of intimate rooms now fall to become a soft carpet, opening the view through the trees.

fullsizeoutput_172cBut before falling, the leaves can turn brilliant colors. In a year like this one, with rainfall in the last month or so and some early low temperatures, the woods can become a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, burgundy and orange. The work of the leaves is done, the green chlorophyll breaks down, exposing the other leaf pigments. The tree prepares the leaves to drop, and for a time the woods is painted with thousands of dabs of color.

fullsizeoutput_1047An evergreen like the juniper stands silently, keeping its green amid all this changing color. It can get through winter with its needle-like leaves intact, and so it remains like a dark green sentinel as the deciduous trees strip down to trunks and branches.

IMG_2820Sunlight comes at a slanting angle as our patch of earth tilts away from the sun. The quality of light on a bright November afternoon in the woods is part of the essence of autumn. The light filters through branches and creates long shadows, making a quiet afternoon even more contemplative. The life of another year in the woods is wrapping up; it is a time to reflect on where you have been, and what it meant.

Days keep getting shorter. The afternoon shadows deepen, the woods become dark. Time accelerates, the sunset comes when it seems it should still be afternoon. What is left to be done in this year had better be done soon. A reminder that nothing lasts forever, neither years nor lives. Make the time count. There’s not a moment to waste.Cp%yXthiSjWxYFqLM2cy9w

Why Did We Do It?

Why did we write Herping Texas, and travel around to all those places? I’m sure that some people would wonder why two grown men would keep chasing after snakes and frogs long after the time when you “should” outgrow such things. So I guess it’s a fair question, and I will offer a few answers.

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A guy who still chases snakes and frogs

One answer is that Texas is full of beautiful places, if you go out of your way to seek them out. The reptiles and amphibians that we wanted to see are most interesting, natural, and beautiful when you see them in places that are relatively undisturbed. That’s our opinion, anyway. As a result, we planned trips to preserves, national parks, refuges, private land, and wildlife management areas. All (except the private land) were accessible to most Texans and a few, like the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, were at the edge of cities. Even Big Bend or Guadalupe Mountains National Parks are no more than a day’s drive from most places in Texas.

The Texas Banded Gecko is a pretty common lizard in parts of the Trans-Pecos, but the one we found on a night walk in the Chihuahuan Desert might have been the best one of its kind I had ever seen. It was very quiet except for a light breeze and the occasional rumble of distant thunder rolling across the desert. It was also very, very dark, with a brilliant field of stars overhead. The little lizard was beautiful, especially in that context.

Additionally, we wanted to visit each of Texas’ ten or so ecoregions. The boundaries between them are sometimes indistinct, but each one is like a different country. Obviously the dry desert flats and mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos are different from the woodlands and wetlands of the Piney Woods. Even across north Texas’ grasslands and woods, the Rolling Plains are very different from the Cross Timbers, the Blackland Prairies, and the Post Oak Savannah. You might find a Marbled Salamander under logs or leaf litter in a bottomland forest on a sunny winter day in the Post Oak Savannah, but on such a day a walk out on the Rolling Plains may be windy, colder, and will turn up no Marbled Salamanders.

Another reason is that the past seventeen or eighteen years have provided us quite a natural history education about herps and their habitats. Maybe it has been more like a practicum course, after reading field guides, natural history books, and journal articles. There was no better place than the Big Thicket to see just how persistent a male snake like a tan racer can be in courting a female, even one who has been killed on the roadway. I cannot imagine a better way of seeing how a mother alligator can be protective of her babies while remaining calm and watchful than in a coastal marsh at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. All that time in the field and the experiences that we wrote about were priceless. We still have plenty to learn, but a large part of what we do know, we learned during our travels.

I have often noticed how safe these places feel, even in the desert at night in the company of Mohave rattlesnakes, or on the slopes of the Guadalupe Mountains. Maybe some of this is related to the sense of peace and well-being that comes from doing something you love in a beautiful setting. It is true that if you want to prove to yourself how dangerous such places can be, you can do it fairly easily. However, with some preparation and experience, common sense, and a desire to watch and learn (rather than a desire to prove something about yourself), you can visit the wild places of Texas free of worry. I feel safer in any of those places than I do in the malls and on the streets of Texas cities.

We could have traveled and experienced all this without writing a book. However, I want to carry all this with me in future years, past the time when I might not be able to hike the Chisos Mountains or wander through the bottomland forest along the Sabine River. I want these memories and photographs in case some of the places disappear, for reasons that could include fracking, being sold off, or being walled off at the border. But the absolutely most important reason is to pass the experiences along to others who may want to go there, or who may want to live it through the pages of a book. Nothing could be more gratifying than to hear someone say, “After reading what you wrote, I had to go visit,” or “Your book made me think of reptiles and amphibians more positively.” We want the book to be an invitation into a world we know and love.

That’s why the dedication of the book is “to all young herpers and naturalists who follow their dreams into the field.”

An Excerpt from “The Cross Timbers”

I wish Steve Campbell was here to see the publication of “Herping Texas,” as Clint and I draw on recollections of Steve in more than a few stories we tell in the book. Steve passed away six years ago, and he was a wonderful and funny friend to many of us. In the chapter on the Cross Timbers I talked about the western massasauga rattlesnake, a small rattlesnake that was once common in prairie habitat west of Fort Worth. One of the stories in which Steve played a part involved a massasauga:

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Western massasauga

“One other observation of a massasauga’s behavior helps explain why people may claim that one or another venomous snake chased them. On a spring night out on the road near Weatherford, Steve Campbell and I came up on an adult massasauga. It was Steve’s first encounter with this species, and so we got out and lingered over it for a couple of minutes, admiring it. The snake remained motionless on the caliche road under our lights, and we talked about the intricacies of its pattern. At some point I wanted to see it in a different position, and I nudged it with my snake hook. It exploded into movement, heading straight toward where Steve had crouched to look at it. He, of course, also exploded into movement, and in my memory it is always something close to a back flip that I witnessed, although I doubt he was that acrobatic. In any case, as he moved out of the way, the snake continued on past him and toward whatever spot it may have considered to offer shelter. There was no chase, and no attack – the snake was simply racing for cover, with no thought of who might be in the way.”


Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles & Amphibians, Michael Smith & Clint King. Texas A&M University Press (release date November 5).

Ghosts of Alligator Snapping Turtles

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Skull of an Alligator Snapping Turtle

When Carl Franklin calls, you know there’s going to be something cool happening as a result. This time, today, it was the skeletons of two Alligator Snapping Turtles that could be salvaged for the university – did I want to come along? Well … sure! The two unlucky turtles were beside Catfish Creek in Anderson County, and we were soon making the hundred mile-or-so drive southeast of Fort Worth and Dallas. (It was a plus that the skeletons were supposed to be pretty clean; if he had invited me along to salvage a couple of rotting corpses, the decision might have been different.)

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Carapace (upper shell) of one of the turtles

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is a behemoth; it has a carapace as long as 29 inches and weighs (in the wild) as much as 175 pounds, according to Carl’s Texas Turtles website. In addition to that large upper shell, it has a long tail and very large head, making it the largest freshwater turtle in the western hemisphere. This turtle is found in bayous, rivers, sloughs, and lakes in east Texas (and follows the Trinity River drainage up to the metroplex), and it spends so much of its time underwater that people may not see it, even if it is living in their midst. People also may not see it because it is generally not common and in many places it is declining due to things like poaching. It is legally protected in Texas, but taken by poachers in unsustainable numbers.

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The carapace includes fused spine, ribs, and other bones (a view underneath the carapace)

It also may be killed, as these two turtles probably were, by fishermen who consider them a nuisance or believe that they could deplete the fish they are trying to catch. The Alligator Snapping Turtle does eat fish, though not in numbers that should worry any angler. They also eat lots of other things including acorns that drop into the water, plant material, mollusks, frogs, smaller turtles, and perhaps an unwary nutria. They are fairly well-known for the little fleshy part of the tongue that is wiggled in the floor of the turtle’s open mouth like a worm – a lure to attract a fish or maybe a crayfish or mud turtle. Whatever comes to the lure may cause those enormous hooked jaws to slam shut, and then the predator becomes the prey.

Although, as probably the most passionate turtle researcher in Texas, Carl might have been able to bring us straight to these specimens by sniffing them out or detecting their auras or something, we had GPS coordinates to go by. And so, we found them easily, discarded beside a place where people go fishing. One had a bullet hole in its carapace, and each had an apparent bullet hole in the skull. After we took a few photos, we carefully placed each carapace into a plastic bag and added skulls and other bones that were still present, along with a number of scutes. These specimens will add to the documentation of this species in Anderson County.

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The mushrooms in lowland habitats were pretty

Before heading back, we took a drive through Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area, which is not too far away. Clint and I visited there in early March, and it’s always a good place to visit. As we drive through it, we saw what looked like a chunky brown line stretched out along the edge of the road. It was a Northern Cottonmouth, an unsurprising and a welcome find. We hopped out of the car to get some photos, and the snake responded to our approach with some good old-fashioned mouth-gaping. The snake got its “cottonmouth” name from this bluff display, which it often uses instead of attempting to bite. It simply gapes its mouth, exposing the pale tissues lining the mouth. This one’s fangs were clearly visible, along with its several rows of teeth (including two rows down the center of the roof of the mouth, the “palatine” teeth). This little cottonmouth never actually tried to bite. It simply sat there, sometimes closing its mouth but responding when we moved by gaping again, or widening the gape.

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Northern Cottonmouth, gaping. The fangs are folded and sheathed, extending back to about the eye; the rows of palatine teeth on the roof of the mouth should not be mistaken for fangs

After several photos, we wanted to get the snake off the road so that it would not be run over. This was a little problematic, as neither of us brought a snake hook. Carl handed me a windshield shade with which I gently poked the snake. It neither turned to leave nor struck at this object. We did eventually pester the snake until it left, and it never attempted to bite. This sort of encounter always makes me think of a well-known study in which Whit Gibbons and Michael Dorcas found lots of cottonmouths out in the wild and tested their defensive behavior – some might say “gently pestered” them – and found that for the most part, cottonmouths either try to get away or bluff and often do not attempt to bite. Of course, fair warning, you should always treat a cottonmouth with the respect it is due and assume that it would bite if pestered.

Gibbons, J.W., & M.E. Dorcas. 2002. Defensive Behavior of Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) Toward Humans. Copeia, Pp. 195-198.

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A pond near where the cottonmouth was seen