“Herping Texas” – Telling Our Stories of Reptiles and Amphibians

Clint King and I have been writing together for a long time. We have spent time in every ecoregion of Texas looking for reptiles, amphibians, and other wildlife, and we have written about those experiences. Our goal has been to increase the reader’s understanding of these animals and the places where they live, and pass along our love for the wild places in Texas. It is particularly important for all of us to realize that some of the places in Texas are world-class landscapes with species just as fascinating as the wildlife we see on TV, and just as worthy of conserving. Eventually, of course, we had to take a shot at writing a book, and that book should be out next year.


A world-class place: pitcher plant bog in the Big Thicket

I met Clint in the early days of the Dallas-Fort Worth Herpetological Society, and while serving as Editor for the society I had the pleasure of publishing Clint’s remarkable account of a herp trip he took with Steve Levey to Arizona. “In the Tire Tracks of Kauffeld” was an exciting story, filled with wit and sarcasm and encounters with species we all dreamed of, like Gila monsters and sidewinder rattlesnakes. Meanwhile I had been writing about box turtle conservation, problems seen when we try to relocate reptiles, and my own accounts of herp trips. In 2010 we started co-publishing an e-publication, Texas Field Notes, that came out roughly quarterly. Some of the articles discussed the natural history of one species or another, but we also wrote about our trips in an attempt to get others to go see the places and the animals that we were seeing.

When it came to writing a book, we knew from the beginning that we wanted to organize it around different areas of Texas. Werler and Dixon’s Texas Snakes, one of our favorite go-to books, had some wonderful introductory material on the biotic provinces of Texas, and these authors spoke highly of Richard Phelan’s book, Texas Wild. Both books inspired us to include a description of each of the ecoregions we visited in the book we wanted to write. We also wanted to write about common species as well as the uncommon or charismatic species like the Texas indigo snake. As a result, we write about cricket frogs and watersnakes with as much interest as we do the speckled racer or Texas lyresnake.


One of the common species, a broad-banded watersnake

We also wanted to provide lots of photographs of the reptiles and amphibians and their habitats. We have taken cameras along with us everywhere we have gone, in the desert and mountains of the Trans-Pecos, in canoes on Caddo Lake, in the wintertime misting rain in east Texas, on the beach at the Gulf Coast, and the result will be over 150 photographs documenting our experiences.

Although the road from book proposal to publication is long, we’re glad to be working with Texas A&M University Press to get this book to you, and it looks like the editorial process is done and they will now be designing the overall look of the book. After numerous conversations about a title (our working title had been “The Great Rattlesnake Highway,” a metaphorical reference to the path we have followed), the book now has a name: “Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles and Amphibians.” We hope you’ll keep an eye out for it, with a planned release next fall.

A Walk at the Grasslands on a December Afternoon


LBJ Grasslands, Wise County

Fall is my favorite season, which doesn’t align perfectly with my interest in herpetology, because as fall deepens, there is less reptile and amphibian activity, for the most part. But the quality of the lower, slanting light deepens shadows and contrasts, and there is something nostalgic in the way the light suggests that the day is ending, the year is ending, and it’s a time for reflecting on what has come before. The colors are part of the feeling of fall. Even when the leaves don’t turn that brightly, the countryside is a study in bright straw yellow, russet, muted orange, rust, brown, and gray, under what, on some days, is a deep blue sky. A walk in the woods, when you can find a quiet woods, is calm and peaceful, with the crunch of grass or leaves underfoot, and the far-off call of a crow. The smell of the carpet of leaves on the ground is subtle and good – it is good the way that the earth should smell in the woods as it prepares for winter’s sleep.


Cross Timbers woodland

“Winter” is hardly a word that came to mind yesterday, December the second, as Clint, his son Zev, and I arrived at the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) National Grasslands. The high temperature that day in Decatur was 79°F, twenty degrees higher than average. However, it felt comfortable, compared to many of the late spring and summer walks I have had there, and so we set out across a patch of grasslands and into the oak woods. The path became very sandy, like walking through several inches of fine beach sand. To either side, the mixture of grasses, trees, and woody plants like sumac provide a thin layer of organic debris and tie the ground together, but on the trail, the steps of humans and horses churn the sand and keep it loose and powdery. In many places along the trail, harvester ants were on the march, collecting bits of vegetation and seed to carry down to the colony, to see them through the winter.

The Western Cross Timbers, of which this place is a part, is built mostly on sandstone and clay, and at the LBJ Grasslands the soil shifts between patches of deep sand and patches where red clay dominates. It is a place where erosion often cuts into the land, making the land drop unevenly or seem torn into open ravines.


Erosion cuts through the grassland

We soon came to such as place, where the grasses gave way to a gully where the water cut through the sand and clay and washed it down into one of the area’s many little ponds. Clint and Zev were inspecting the edge of the pond well before I took yet another photograph and made my way down one of the cuts to the water’s edge. As is always the case, Blanchard’s cricket frogs are still active long after other herps dig into shelters for protection from the night time cold, even if the days may warm to record highs. The little frogs make every day of their short lives count, and when the sun is shining they are likely to be sitting by the water, waiting for the tiny invertebrates that they eat. Nine-year-old Zev is already known to be a master at catching cricket frogs, but the need to keep his shoes dry kept his success at cricket frog capture just out of reach. He walked the narrow space between the dirt embankment and the pond’s edge skillfully, ducking under brush and exposed roots like a tightrope walker, like a confident nine-year-old boy with more experience walking in the woods than most men.

On down the trail we walked, past the stands of post oak and blackjack, juniper, the wild plum thickets, and the open patches of bluestem and Indiangrass. While the dominant trees of the Cross Timbers are post oak and blackjack oak, many other trees flourish there. In places, the junipers are almost numerous enough to suggest the phrase “cedar breaks,” those dense patches of juniper (or “cedar”) on the Edwards Plateau where almost everything is crowded out by the junipers standing shoulder to shoulder.


Blister beetle

Somewhere along the way, Clint and Zev came upon a sizable black beetle making its way across the trail. Clint identified it as a blister beetle, and puzzled over the fact that its wing covers (elytra) looked a little too short for it to be a black blister beetle (Epicauta pennsylvanica). Whichever member of the family Meloidae it turns out to be, it was black as midnight, and carried a skin-blistering toxin called cantharidin that it would release if harmed. The insect exudes this fluid in a defensive reaction known as “reflex bleeding,” where fluids are released from pores in the exoskeleton. Clint said the point of release in these blister beetles was the leg joints. We photographed it and sent it on its way, unharmed and presumably with all its cantharidins safely within its own body.


“Fire” in the forest

In some places, one of the oaks would have some leaves with color remaining. Often these were blackjack oaks, but sometimes they were post oak, and they created a nice effect, like a glimpse of orange fire within a forest primarily lichen-gray with green junipers here and there. We appreciated these patches of color even more because they were uncommon.


Zev, halfway up a juniper

The trail meandered through this woodland, and sometimes required the trimming of a tree or two to accommodate the hikers and horse riders that use it. A few times, the cut limbs of a juniper made just the right set of rungs for Zev to climb. We talked a little about how to go about this successfully. He mentioned the cut limb stubs offering great places to step, while testing other branches to make sure they were not brittle and would not break. I’m really thankful for kids like Zev, who not only have opportunities to explore places like this but who eagerly embrace the experience of climbing trees, catching frogs, and wondering at the intricacies of the little webs of bowl and doily weaving spiders that Clint pointed out among the twigs of the tree limbs. Magical places like the grasslands will be in good hands if inherited by people like Zev.

On the way back, a little bit off the trail, we saw an armadillo snuffling along the woodland floor, pushing neck deep through leaf litter in search of invertebrates to munch on. The nine-banded armadillo is a staple of Texas culture, and it is even designated as the state small mammal. The Armadillo World Headquarters was a venerable spot in the Austin music scene in the 1970s. The real animal is a fascinating creature, armored from neck to tail in hard but somewhat flexible, leather-like skin with bony plates strengthening it. The tail is covered in rings of that same material. In the middle of the back, the animal’s bony shield is broken up into nine bands, adding to its flexibility. They dig multiple burrows that may be anywhere from one to five meters long; short ones may function as not much more than a pitfall trap where insects collect and will be eaten, but longer ones are used as refuges. According to David Schmidly’s The Mammals of Texas, studies of stomach contents show that 93% of the diet is animal matter, such things as insects, grubs, caterpillars, termites, and at times crayfish! The occasional reptile or amphibian is taken as well, as this small mammalian tank plows through the woodlands.


Nine-banded armadillo

Anyone who has tried to approach an armadillo knows that their vision is poor and their hearing is probably not much better, but their sense of smell is well-developed. By staying downwind, moving slowly or only when the armadillo is head-down in the leaf litter and digging for food, one can often approach them quite closely. I did manage to get a few pictures of this one, initially digging and then sitting up on its haunches to sniff the air. They are inoffensive but exceedingly strong. I freely admit to trying to catch one here and there during my adolescence, and when touched or grabbed their first reaction is to buck (sometimes launching themselves into the air) and then scramble away noisily through the thicket. While they only have small, peg-like teeth, their legs are equipped with very strong claws adapted for digging and are almost impossible to hold onto.

We emerged from this walk tired, after about three miles on the trail, and ready to do it again at a moment’s notice. If you want to visit the LBJ Grasslands, there are trails for hiking or horseback riding in several locations, and a downloadable map at the Forest Service website. You will find over 20,250 acres of Western Cross Timbers habitat, that is, belts of oak woodland and patches of prairie or savannah.fullsizeoutput_1473

Holiday Homecoming in the Cross Timbers


Light playing with oak leaves

The day after Thanksgiving, November 24, the itch to get outside combined with perfect weather – I had to go somewhere.  I headed for the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, a place that, after practically a lifetime of walking its trails, feels like home. I have a dim recollection of going to Greer Island with Rick Pratt, from whom I learned a lot at the museum as a young volunteer, soon after the first 380 acres had been set aside as the “Greer Island Refuge & Nature Center.” That was in the mid-1960’s. A lot has changed in the fifty years that followed; the refuge expanded to become the largest city-owned nature center in the country, and the twenty miles of hiking trails leads you through cross timbers woods, prairie, bottomland forest, marshland, and limestone caprock at the top of a ridge. It feels familiar and welcoming, like an old friend who you see from time to time and immediately resume a comfortable and warm relationship. It is like home.

In yesterday’s homecoming, my aim was to visit some places along the oak motte trail. One of them is a patch of prairie within the oak woodland, where a giant live oak tree overlooks a gentle hillside with prairie grasses and yucca. Here is some of what I wrote in my notes, at 1:30pm:


Live oak

I’m sitting beside a very big live oak tree with the early afternoon sun at my back, looking out across a little prairie within the Western Cross Timbers. Here, the soil is a sort of ash-gray, but as the elevation drops, more caliche and limestone appears, with more yucca and the grass is more sparse. Below that, a rusty beige line shows where little bluestem is dominant.


A patch of prairie

As I walk down to the line of bluestem, it is obvious that (a) a tremendous diversity of grasses and forbs is present, and (b) my plant identification skills are not nearly up to the task. There appears to be broomweed growing amid the yucca, and who knows how many other species, from small, ground-hugging plants to a few big clumps of Indiangrass growing more than head-high. The prairie is dotted with a mesquite here, a couple of junipers there.


American snout – the reason for the butterfly’s name is clear!

An American snout butterfly comes in over me, low and hard, fluttering away in a strong tailwind. These butterflies are out in force today, and for the most part they make it hard to photograph because they take off when approached. They must have some orange or yellow on the dorsal wings, but their flight is constant motion and when they rest on a stem of grass, their wings are folded, showing shades of gray with a little orange showing where one wing disappears beneath another.


Northern cardinal, male

So far I have seen a northern cardinal, a mockingbird, a few turkey vultures soaring overhead, and only a couple of other small unidentified birds. The woods and fields are mostly quiet.

As the afternoon progresses, the sun is getting low and the quality of the light makes everything look more beautiful. Autumn here is an amazing mix of yellow, tan, rust, brown, orange, and red, with splashes of green. The yellows and russets of the grasses paint pictures with so many textures and patterns. It is 78 degrees (F) and 22% relative humidity. There is a light breeze. I want to stay!


A sort of pocket prairie within the oak-juniper woodlands

First Weekend in November

A Hot Afternoon at Southwest Nature Preserve

fullsizeoutput_10acI walked north toward the pond at the northwest corner of the preserve, along a shallow hillside where post oak and blackjack oak woods open here and there to pockets of little bluestem grasses. It was a clear day, hot and dry, with leaves yellowing and falling as if from exhaustion due to a summer that refused to give up. We were about six weeks into autumn; in Texas the turning of the seasons from summer to fall tends to be gradual, but today felt like not so much a turning but a thinning of the same hot, dry season we knew in August. In fact, we set another record today, based on information at Weather.com showing that the record high temperature for this date was 88 degrees. At the north pond, the temperature in the shade, about three feet off the ground, was 92. The relative humidity was 41%.


fullsizeoutput_10b4The mud banks of the pond were getting broader as the water recedes, and cricket frogs jumped for the safety of vegetation or into the water as I approached the edge. In one spot, a red admiral butterfly sipped moisture from the mud, and the damselflies and dragonflies were still very common. There were plenty of red-eared sliders in various spots around the surface of the pond and basking in the afternoon sun on a couple of snags. A big bullfrog that had jumped into the water later revealed himself, a pair of eyes watching me carefully from the shallows. He allowed one photo and then – was gone.fullsizeoutput_10b9

Sitting on top of “Kennedale Mountain” on a sandstone ledge was pleasant, in the shade. The oaks at the top of the ridge blocked out the city, but did not block out the sounds of the nearby streets and highway. It was enough, though, getting away for an hour and a half or so, surrounded by things that are no less beautiful for being common: the cricket frogs, the sliders, the butterflies and dragonflies.fullsizeoutput_10ba

I do find myself hoping for winter. I am hoping for days when the high temperatures do not break records, when a jacket might even be necessary. I even wish for snow, for a quiet walk through a woodland white with several inches of snow, for big snowflakes falling from a cold, gray sky. For now, I’ll enjoy whatever kind of day the preserve offers.fullsizeoutput_10ae

A Night on Greer Island 

(I wrote this story nearly ten years ago, while editor of the Cross Timbers Herpetologist, newsletter of the DFW Herpetological Society. Happy Halloween!)

The car windows were down as I crossed the bridge back over Lake Worth, and the Allman Brothers were on the CD player.  After all this time, still putting out high-energy rock and roll, with the new release taking me back to 1969 when “Eat a Peach” came out.  The wind whipped by as I exited for the Nature Center. 

After an autumn day looking for reptiles and amphibians, a group of us had called it quits and headed home.  However, once on the road I realized we had not picked up some minnow traps we put out at Greer Island.  A minnow trap is a sort of wire mesh bucket with a wire funnel leading in from each end.  In the hands of herpetologists, minnow traps don’t catch minnows so much as frogs and snakes.  We placed several of them in shallow water along the island’s shore, partly exposed so that anything that got in could breathe.  However, I could not leave any animals trapped, and so I was headed back into the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge. 

As I drove along the road at the edge of the lake, Greg Allman sang: 

“Can’t you feel a cold wind is howlin’ down, blowin’ my song?

Well I ain’t an old man, but you know my time ain’t long.” 

I thought about the cold wind that would soon be blowing on the refuge as fall changed to winter.  Oh well, I was ready for a change.  The end of summer had been unusually humid, and cool weather would feel good. 

The sunset glow still provided some light as I walked the causeway to Greer Island.  The wind picked up, scattering yellow cottonwood leaves to drift down through the remaining light.  I felt a slight shiver.  The thought of walking around alone on Greer Island in the gathering dark did not bother me, did it?  I’ve been on the island many times, and it is as peaceful as any other part of the refuge.  Maybe that Allman Brothers line about a cold wind howling down had gotten to me. 

FWNC-Dec04-GreerOn the island, I pulled the first minnow trap up from where it had been nestled beside a fallen tree branch at the water’s edge.  Inside was a water snake, its chocolate brown scales glistening as it frantically tried to find a way out.  I put on the gloves, unfastened the trap and reached inside.  The snake writhed and bit at the glove, with the small needle-sharp teeth barely penetrating to my skin.  Although nonvenomous, water snakes defend themselves by repeatedly biting and by expelling a nasty-smelling musk.  I wanted to get this done as soon as I could.  Just before I released him, up came a small leopard frog the snake had eaten earlier in the day.  “More data for the survey,” I thought, as I recorded the details of both snake and frog. 

I searched for the next minnow trap with my flashlight, as it had now gotten dark.  Pushing through buttonbush and stepping carefully among the deadfall, I squished through the saturated ground to the next trap.  When I found it, it was open.  This was very puzzling, because the two halves of the trap fasten pretty securely.  I looked around, certainly not expecting to see something.  No one else should be on the island at night, and besides, it was ridiculous to think that just because the trap was open, someone had opened it. 

More wind whispered and sighed through the treetops, and the flashlight’s beam caught the flicker of a few more leaves fluttering to the forest floor.  I reached the site of the third trap, but did not see it in the water.  I moved the light around and caught a flash of metal.  There!  Hanging from a tree branch was a tangle of smashed wire dripping in the flashlight beam – the minnow trap!  My hands felt numb and the two other traps dropped from my fingers to the ground.  Not bothering to pick them up, I turned and walked quickly back toward the trail.  I wanted out of there in a hurry.  I pushed through underbrush and spider web, resisting the urge to run and trying to keep my bearings.  The flashlight illuminated a narrow section of woods, and everywhere else the darkness seemed menacing.  Some of the fear dissipated as I walked, and I emerged into an upland area where the woodland was less thick and the image of the mangled minnow trap was less immediate. 

Finding the trail, I set out toward the causeway.  Just a little bit now, I reassured myself, and I would be walking on that narrow strip of dirt and gravel under the stars toward the safety of the car.  The path re-entered thicker forest and I concentrated on the circle of light from the flashlight.  I kept it on the trail, unwilling to risk a glance to either side.  The dirt path narrowed, understory shrubs and then tree trunks increasingly closing in.  The trail ended!  I must have gotten turned around, I told myself, but there were no trails on the island that simply ended.  I turned, backtracked, and shone the light around.  Nothing but oak and understory shrubs around me.  Finally it occurred to me to get into the backpack for the GPS.  It constantly plotted my path on its screen, like an electronic version of the trail of bread crumbs in “Hansel & Gretel.”  I had used it on more than one occasion to help me backtrack through the forest.  As I felt inside the pack for the GPS, I heard something some distance away.  It was something like the wail of a large animal, rising in misery and then strangled in a series of barking or coughing sounds.  I was frozen for a moment, staring stupidly at the flashlight beam shining where I had set it down, illuminating a tangle of greenbriar and Virginia creeper.  Another wail pierced the forest, greater in intensity and ending in several guttural cries like shouts of rage. 

Snatching up the flashlight, I ran back along the trail and then cut through a small clearing in the direction I thought I should go.  My mind raced back to another memory from 1969 – what was it?  The Lake Worth monster?  A goat-man that had been seen numerous times but never found?  The memory was cut short as I tripped over a downed branch and fell.  I picked myself up and tried to run again, but a snare of entangling greenbriar brought me down like a staked dog reaching the end of its tether.  I made a bleeding mess of my hands trying to pull the tough, thorny vines away and then finally yanked free.  Back on my feet, I set off in a blind panic, the GPS lying useless in the dirt somewhere behind me. 

I’m not sure how far I ran, and I’m even less sure of the direction.  As I staggered breathlessly up to a higher elevation, the roof of a small pavilion came into view.  My heart sank.  This structure, with its concrete slab and two protective walls, was far from where I wanted to be.  I took a few more steps up the slope, and saw the glow of a small fire burning on the concrete floor.  The fire itself was obscured by someone or something sitting with its back to me. 

I hesitated.  The figure poked the small fire in front of it, without turning toward me. 

“Ain’t no gittin away, try as y’might.”  The high, thin voice spoke as if we were in mid-conversation.  It had some of the hard edge of a threat, but the unsteady quality of a man barely containing his excitement, or maybe fear.  Still I stood immobile, wary of doing anything. 

“Sit right still, he’ll come,” he added, while drawing distractedly on the concrete with his stick. 

I turned and ran, and after me came his high, unsteady shout: “Ain’t no gittin away!”  And as if in answer, over to my left came another screeching cry, clipped off and followed by two short bellows of fury.  I heard a large branch snap, up in the treetops.  I turned and focused the light to see a large figure in the trees, eyeshine reflecting back at me.  And then it dropped straight out of the treetops and out of sight.  Running away from it would take me away from the causeway.  My way out was blocked. 

I crouched by a log in dense brush, waiting and trying to think.  Bits and pieces of old news accounts returned to me.  In 1969 there had been a series of frightening encounters with residents describing something half-man, half-goat covered with light gray fur and scales.  Once it was said to have jumped out of a tree and onto a car parked at Greer Island.  On another occasion, several bystanders at Lake Worth watched it until it supposedly hurled a car wheel (tire, rim and all) 500 feet in their direction.  They mystery had never been solved. 

My thoughts were shattered by a voice right beside me – “Ain’t no gittin away, told ye.”  I jumped and fell backward in leaf litter and twigs, and when I was able to sit up I saw the old man from the pavilion.  His eyes were too wide open and they darted around, not really connecting with mine.  He had a desperate look about him, and he was covered with filth.  As I started to say something, he swung a bag with something heavy in it, like gravel, and clubbed me. 

In my next moment of awareness, I was slung over his shoulder watching the ground go by as he carried me.  My wrists were bound.  My captor was muttering crazily, “Billy brekkist, Billy lunch, he’ll come, oh yes.”  We reached the pavilion and he put me down, and then set busily to work tying me to a support pole.  Here and there he paused to look at me with a sick grin that exposed broken teeth and receding gums.   

He sat down beside the flickering little fire and looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for some sort of performance.  Away and to the side, I saw lightning flash on the horizon. 

“Billy!  He’ll come – oh yes oh yes.  You’ll see.” 

In the nearby woods, another wail – chopped, at the end, into staccato yells.  The old man became agitated, gibbering “Billy, Billy, Billy, no gittin – no!”  He backed away and stumbled into the darkness, eyes as big as saucers. 

Why did he keep repeating that name?  And suddenly it hit me!  It was the children’s story about the goats who try to cross the bridge where the troll lives.  I was the bait, and he was going to catch his billy goat. 

I exhaled as far as I could, rolled my shoulders forward, and dropped down.  The first loop of rope slipped, and I started working out of the bonds that held me.  My captor flew into a rage, squealing “No gittin, no gittin!” as he jumped back up onto the concrete.  As he got close enough, I kicked him away.  I slid further down, escaping more of the rope and then was able to get free.  My tormentor made another run at me, screeching “No gittin! No – no!” 

Just then, an enormous form jumped in front of me, hitting the old man with such force that they both rolled ten feet away.  There was a sickening sound of snapping bones.  I looked toward them and in the dim firelight I got a glimpse of fur and horn – and a head turned and stared at me for an instant with the horizontal slitted eyes of a goat.   

I leapt away from this horror and ran through the woods, branches and vines slapping me as I went.  Somewhere I found the trail and was able to go faster.  Behind me a long wail arose, riding on a gust of wind.  Lightning flashed.  I was aware of noise in the treetops, but could not tell if the trees were disturbed by wind or by some terror pursuing me.  The trail widened and big raindrops began to spatter down among the leaves.  I followed the bend in the road and emerged onto the causeway. 

The rain came down in sheets as I reached the car and got in.  As the cold wind blew through the treetops, I made my way out of the refuge.  I could not get the old man’s shrill voice out of my head as I drove along Shoreline Drive.  I had not gone very far through the heavy rain when a gust of wind blew something onto the road in front of me.  I stopped the car and leaned over the steering wheel to look.  It was a minnow trap. 

“Billy goat for breakfast; Billy goat for lunch, 

Billy goat, Billy goat, munch, munch, munch” 

The Magic Is In the Finding, Not the Keeping

Clint and I have been hitting the road together for over ten years, and we each started herping a long time before that. Like others, we’ve gone through an evolution during these years of getting out in the field. To put this most recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley in context, here’s a little of my own evolution as a kid who liked snakes, to a herper, to a naturalist.

When I was about ten, the girl across the street came over and asked if I wanted to go snake hunting. Sherry was certainly breaking the mold for what girls were “supposed” to do, and I like to think she grew up continuing to be interested in the natural world and uninterested in what women are “supposed” to do. At any rate, we scoured some of the fields on the western edge of Denver, caught a plains gartersnake, and I was hooked.


A juvenile plains gartersnake

When our family moved back to Texas, I wanted to see and catch more snakes, but had little interest in the rest of the natural world. My parents got me involved with the Natural History department at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum, and my fate was sealed. I went on field trips, got together with other kids who also liked snakes, learned something about the value of preserved collections and put in a lot of hours injecting formalin into specimens. But I put in even more hours wading the creek and wandering in the woods, collecting snakes that came home to live with me, and picking up specimens that came to the museum to be preserved in a jar.

There was no way to hang out with the museum people and not pick up some appreciation for the broader natural world. I learned a couple of things about birds, not that I cared much for ornithology but I respected the biologists who did. Under Bill Voss I learned a few things about arachnids, even though I was still somewhat afraid of spiders. Gradually I learned that if you wanted to understand a particular snake or turtle, you needed to understand the place where it lived, what its predators were, and what other organisms were in its diet. My horizons broadened.

I still mainly wanted to collect snakes, and had a sweet tooth for turtles, too. I brought back a juvenile Texas tortoise after our family lived in Corpus Christi for a year (before the tortoises were protected). I was captivated with softshelled turtles after finding a couple of hatchlings at the creek. Everything had to come home with me, because when something was as wonderful as a coachwhip, or a Texas tortoise, you wanted to have it.

I got married and Jo appreciated these animals as well. We got a boa constrictor as one of our wedding presents, and of course in the 70’s we made the short-sighted decision to buy the cutest little baby Burmese python. The snake was beautiful, not finicky about eating, and gentle when handled. Then we learned that they grow fast and then become quite impractical for most people to keep. Meanwhile, we collected many of the snakes we found, because to pick up such an incredible, beautiful, fascinating animal and then just let it go was so hard.

Eventually, it occurred to me that the magic was in the finding, not the keeping. A snake in a box had only a small fraction of the wonder that the snake had in the field. I began to be able to look at and release all but the most desirable species. Meanwhile, those that I did bring home cruised around in their boxes (whether literally a plastic shoe box or an expensive display cage) and generally could be kept healthy, would eat, and even breed. Gradually, an appreciation grew within me for how their lives might be impoverished by living in a little patch of wood shavings, hide box, and a water bowl. They are designed to move about within a home range very much larger than a snake cage, and their travels provide a good bit of stimulation and variety. My training in psychology and neurosciences tells me that brains – human or nonhuman – develop in a working partnership between neurons and experiences. Behavioral health depends on an adequately stimulating environment, and while the reptile brain is very different from our own, the same principle should hold. No anthropomorphizing is intended here; I am not trying to assign human characteristics to reptiles, just trying to understand what reptile characteristics belong to reptiles. The more we learn about maternal care in rattlesnakes, reptiles’ ability to recognize a home range and find their way back to it when moved a small distance, and so on, the less I am able to look at a snake as a pretty automaton with no more brain than necessary to house a collection of “instincts.”

I mean no condemnation to those who keep snakes in captivity, especially those who maintain collections for study or other worthy purposes. If you like keeping snakes in cages, I’m not fussing at you. Do it as well as possible, keep them healthy, and give them as much space as you can.


In the Sabal Palm Sanctuary

At the same time that my interest in collecting decreased, my interest in the broader natural world increased. Bit by bit, I tried to learn more about invertebrates, trees, plants, and ecoregions like the cross timbers. By the time Clint and I planned to go to south Texas, we weren’t concerned with how many snakes we might find (though that was the first love for both of us), or targeting places where collecting was allowed. In fact, in recent years we have benefitted a great deal from visiting the places least affected by human activity, and that is often a preserve or refuge where no collecting is permitted. Seeing the places themselves, visiting relatively intact habitat – reminding ourselves that some of it still survives – that’s the thrill. We found a Texas coralsnake, Clint saw a Texas indigo snake, we saw three big western diamond-backed rattlesnakes, we saw over twenty rough greensnakes, as well as green anoles, Texas spiny lizards, rose-bellied lizards, keeled earless lizards, short-lined skinks, Texas brownsnakes, Gulf Coast ribbonsnakes, and so on. When we were not seeing reptiles, we saw black witch moths, green lynx spiders, Texas tan tarantulas, tons of other invertebrates, a marine toad, caracaras, Harris’s hawks, green jays, chachalacas, and the list goes on. We learned a little (only a little!) about the trees and other plants of the valley, such as tepeguaje, barbed wire cactus, retama, ebony blackbead, and so on. Because of the richness and diversity of all the different species, there was almost always something to admire and photograph.


Western diamond-backed rattlesnake, near La Sal Del Rey

We hope this way of thinking comes through as you read about our time on the road. For us, a broad interest in everything from ecosystems to various plants and animals works wonderfully. I’m no expert in most of these things, but I don’t have to be – it’s enough to be open to really seeing all of it, wondering about it, and seeking to learn more.

At the National Butterfly Center – South Texas, Day 3

IMG_2544.JPGWhen you first arrive at the National Butterfly Center, you see a quiet pool with lotus and other plants, and then walk to the visitor center entrance through patches of flowers alive with bees and butterflies. In our visit on October 18, these plants were heavily visited by queen butterflies (among many others), creating a kaleidoscope of black-edged orange wings with a sprinkling of white spots. But amid the peace and beauty of the center’s gardens looms a threat to the center’s integrity, as well as a threat to our system of fairness and due process. Clint and I were there to learn about the beauty of the place, the work of the center staff, as well as the threat that the property will be torn apart by a border wall. The Center’s director, Marianna Trevino Wright, was very generous, taking us on a walking tour of the 30 acres at the front of the center and then a tour of the 70 additional acres of habitat behind a canal and levee that currently can be driven or walked over.


The marine toad on his perch

Knowing our interest in reptiles and amphibians, she first took us down a trail where an indigo snake periodically turns up. While we did not see the indigo, we did find a marine toad (or “cane toad”) hunkered down in a big lump on top of a cut tree stump, several feet off the ground. Wright said that they climb, and here was a clear demonstration of that! Marine toads are found in Central America and the Mexican coasts, making it barely into the United States along several counties of the lower Rio Grande Valley. It is our biggest toad, growing to roughly four to six inches long. Unfortunately, the species has been introduced in several spots around the world and is a harmful invasive in those areas. Marine toads have very large parotoid glands that produce toxic secretions that discourage predators, and while they are not dangerous to humans (provided you don’t eat them!) it is important to wash your hands if you handle a marine toad.


Chachalacas, photographed in Harlingen

A little later, as the trail bent around to another area with plants for pollinators, a group of chachalacas ran, hopped, and briefly flew nearby. These birds are roughly chicken-sized, mostly a sort of gray-brown color with a buff-colored belly and white-tipped tail feathers, and we saw several groups at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. There, they usually moved about on the ground and on low branches, and sometimes one would trot along in a way that reminded me a little of a big, chunky roadrunner. Like the roadrunner, their flight was often low and for short distances. Here at the National Butterfly Center, this small group emerged from the brush, hopped onto something and flew on to the next group of trees.

Wright showed us the canal and levee that divides the front and back of the property. The North American Butterfly Association (NABA), which is the parent organization to the Center, owns the land that the levee is on, but the government has an easement at the levee for flood control. The easement would allow government officials or contractors to enter the land and use it for specified purposes. While the language about the purpose of the easement may not say “border wall,” the government can describe the wall as a “fence” and assert that it is an improvement to the levee, thereby attempting to stay within the purposes of the easement.


Part of the property behind the levee

On the other side of the levee, the Center’s property is mostly a combination of forest and the kinds of plants that make up the south Texas thorn scrub. The low mesquites, acacias, and other trees shelter cacti and various shrubs that can support a variety of wildlife. A little over a mile down the road, we emerged at the banks of the Rio Grande, in this spot looking wide and grand, indeed. The possibilities for supporting wildlife and providing education and research opportunities are clear. Wright described how the Center, as one part of the chain of refuges, preserves, and parks, is supposed to function as a conservation corridor, connecting habitat up and down the river to support everything from indigo snakes to ocelots, Texas tortoises to great kiskadees. Along with preserving a piece of the lower Rio Grande habitat, the Center is also busily helping schoolkids and others learn about wildlife. Wright said that they worked with 6,000 kids last year, and they are working with Streamable Learning to provide virtual field trips to classrooms anywhere and everywhere.


The Rio Grande, at the south end of the Center’s property

Unfortunately, the border wall will significantly limit some possibilities and destroy others. The threat is not off in the distance, it is here right now. Last July, a government-contracted work crew showed up on the back property, with no notice and no communication to the Center, beginning to take earth samples and cutting trees and brush to widen an already wide dirt road. It is worth noting that this was not on the levee itself, where the government has the easement, but along a 1.2 mile road owned by the Center running back to the Rio Grande. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) come onto the property at will, and occasionally things are tense. Wright said that the NABA has filed a notice of intent to sue CBP regarding their destroying habitat and property without due process – the Center got no notification and no opportunity to challenge what was happening in court. Keep in mind that CBP’s plans not only include a wall of concrete and steel bollards on top of the levee, but clearing a 150-foot zone around the wall that will be barren, and setting up lights and surveillance around the wall. Wright told us that she has been told that the workers will be back, accompanied by armed CBP agents. It appears that the intent to go to court means nothing, and they may show up and clear the land, getting it done before NABA would even be able to try to get a court injunction that would make them wait until the legal question is settled.

For some background information about the wall in the lower Rio Grande Valley, you could read “Over the Wall,” an article from this past June in the Texas Observer. Another article described how the wall would destroy the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, in the words of a federal official quoted by the Observer.

We know that readers of this blog may be united in an interest in wildlife and habitat but have diverse political opinions. However, my perspective is that this is not necessarily a political issue in the usual sense. I don’t care who you vote for, but chances are you support conservation of wildlife and habitat, nature education, and the preservation of our rights as private citizens (or private nonprofit organizations) to hold private property without worry that the government will simply take it, overrun it, or destroy it without due process – without our having our day in court to say why it shouldn’t happen.

It you would like to support the National Butterfly Center, there are a couple of ways to do this, through their website. One is to support their legal defense fund, and the other is to download and send their model letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supporting NABA’s right to due process prior to CBP taking part of their land, making a strip of it completely unusable for its purposes, and consigning over half of their property to a “no man’s land” behind the wall.


The mercurial skipper, a rare species seen while we visited the Center

A Day at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary – South Texas, Day 2


Historic Rabb House, the visitors center for the Sabal Palms Sanctuary


Sabal palm

Today I hiked through the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, a 557-acre preserve along the Rio Grande, about as far south in Texas as it is possible to go. It is known for birding, butterflies, and among herpers, its claim to fame is the presence of such species as Texas indigo snakes, black-striped snakes, and speckled racers. The Master of Ceremonies, however, is the sabal palm or sabal palmetto, a palm tree that can reach over 60 feet in height and has a crown of fan-shaped leaves. While sabal palms used to grow in groves along a considerable portion of the lower Rio Grande valley, these wild-growing groves or forests of palms have mostly disappeared. The trunks of these palm trees often have a cross-hatched, latticework appearance because when it loses leaves, the bases of the leaves often remain in a sort of upside-down “Y” known as a “bootjack.” The diagonal portions of the “Y” are overlapped by newer bootjacks, leading to the distinctive appearance. On the other hand, if these bootjacks are removed or lost, the trunk has a fairly smooth appearance.


Detail of the trunk, showing “bootjacks”

We drove down Las Palmas Road, and over a levee and through a gap in the enormous border fence, while a Border Patrol vehicle looked on. The first person we spoke with at the sanctuary said they really have no comment about the border wall, because of the controversy. A different person we spoke to before leaving said that he understood no further wall was planned at this location, other than the existing “fence” of 18-foot reddish-brown upright steel bars.

When we arrived, of course Clint contrived to get the very first sighting, suitable for posting to iNaturalist: it was a Mediterranean gecko, and a dead one at that, lying on the sidewalk into the visitors center. Some people will do anything for an added sighting at iNat!

We started our walk through some open woodland and checked out the overlook to the Rio Grande, and then headed for the butterfly garden. Along the way, Clint found several noteworthy invertebrates – one was an ant mimic, apparently a type of assassin bug that looks at first glance like an ant. We began seeing large numbers of what appeared to be the milkweed tussock moth caterpillar, a hairy beast with tufts of black and white with a few spots of orange, advertising to any and all birds that it is too toxic to eat.


Ant mimic

An additional caterpillar was a little black-and-white banded critter with yellow projections or knobs around it. This was the larval form of Forbes’ silkmoth, a very uncommon species. The adult winged form is huge and decorated with bands of reddish brown and yellow, with four translucent teardrop-shaped spots that give it the name “cuatro espejos” (four mirrors) in Mexico.


Forbe’s silkmoth caterpillar

We then entered the Forest Trail, winding through a more closed canopy of sabal palms and other trees. At 11:32am, a fair distance in, the temperature was 77 degrees with a comfortable relative humidity of 49%, with breezes sighing overhead. The forest here is like the Rio Grande Valley’s version of the Big Thicket: dense, biodiverse, and looking like it had been undisturbed since before Texas was settled. Palms were mixed with acacias, ebony blackbead trees, and the understory a profusion of vines. Without enough sunlight for grass, the ground was covered in such things as palm fronds, seed pods from the ebony trees, and downed palm trunks here and there, growing moss. It was like sitting on a bench in a prehistoric forest.

The trail took us on a short boardwalk over a low place and further along through this semi-tropical wonderland. In a couple of places, an odd cactus grew in the dappled light, with long strongly-ribbed stems that lean this way and that, with tufts of spines along each rib. It is called barbed-wire cactus or triangle cactus (presumably because of the shape, in cross section, of the stems). It is said to be night-blooming in the summer, with big white blooms that attract hummingbird moths.


Barbed-wire cactus

By this time we had gone down separate paths, as Clint and I often do on these trips. I went past fragrant thickets of some bush with small white flowers, with clumps and patches of Turk’s cap scattered through it. The hum of the bees and the fragrance of the flowers was hypnotic, and tiger swallowtail and sulphur butterflies danced among the flowers. The trail led back up and into the forest.

By this time I wondered if Clint was anywhere near, and I called him. He said he was near the blind, an elevated structure extending partly over the resaca where birders can watch different species without spooking them. He said he had seen an indigo snake, and so I set out to join him. When I arrived, he said it was gone; it had been cruising through some cut brush near the water and had then made its way up and disappeared within the layers of vines, palm fronds, and other vegetation. That was a disappointment, as the Texas indigo snake is such a great find that even a short glimpse of this large, glossy serpent is a big deal.


A glimpse of a Texas indigo snake

Down a path into a particularly lush part of this jungle/forest, I sat on a bench for a while looking at the magnificence of the place. Something grew in every available inch of space; vines threaded their way up the latticework of palm trunks, and on the ground under the carpet of living plants must be a complex layer of decaying palm fronds, fallen branches, and fungi, returning previous years’ plants to the soil. How many frogs must by hidden in all this complexity? What lizards prowl through the leaf litter? There are certainly worlds within worlds in this place, from the birds in the canopy to the communities of invertebrates and their predators in the branches, to the various things below that living carpet of plants, the scavenging, root-munching, soil digesting invertebrates and the insects, reptiles, and amphibians that search them out and eat them. We could study these communities of life for years and still have more to learn.


In the sabal palm forest

And then it was time to visit more worlds. We walked along a boardwalk over a part of the resaca (which is a body of water that started out as a bend in a river but then got cut off and isolated, but can be recharged during floods or by rainfall). Further along the trail, at the edge of a small pond, we saw a white peacock butterfly, which was an unusual enough find to catch Clint’s attention. The upper wings are pale, with beige and light brown markings that has been suggested to resemble antique lace. According to the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, it is found in south Texas and down through Central America, and its habitat is “open, moist areas such as edges of ponds and streams” – a perfect description for where we found this one.

MS-whitepeacock-SabalP-17Oct17 – Version 2

White peacock butterfly

One last interesting find waited for us on the way out. We had seen Texas spiny lizards, green anoles, and whiptail lizards, and now we would see a pretty invasive, the brown anole. This anole is native to Cuba and the Bahamas, and has been introduced to parts of the southern U.S. where it aggressively out-competes our native green anoles. This is a sad state of affairs, but one that we could not correct with this little lizard, busily climbing a piece of rebar in a small butterfly garden near the visitor’s center. So, we admired him and let him go on his way, hunting for insects for a late lunch.


Brown anole

A Little Salt in the Thorn Scrub

(A Continuation of “From La Sal Vieja to La Sal Del Rey”)

We drove from La Sal Vieja westward to La Sal Del Rey (“The King’s Salt”), which is another part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. La Sal Del Rey refers to a shallow lake sitting on salt deposits, which make it ten times more saline than ocean water. Clint and I visited this place some years ago, on a searingly hot summer day that had us staggering back to the car, desperate for water.


Sign within the refuge



In contrast to the first photo, this one shows that the thorn scrub can be pretty impenetrable.

This mid-October day was far more pleasant. The sky had been clearing, and by now it was a sunny, warm day, with a breeze that kept things comfortable. The first part of our walk took us past mostly open mesquite woodlands with thick grass and huge prickly pear cactus growing in mounds sometimes standing well over head high. Other plants and trees included the ebony blackbead, tepeguaje, and a bush that appeared to be some sort of acacia. This latter plant seemed to be an invertebrate Mecca, attracting all manner of invertebrates. Clint found a pair of stick insects, the female perfectly camouflaged as just another gray branch, and the male more spindly and with green color, as would befit a thinner new shoot off the main branch. There was a large predatory wasp with a red abdomen that never would sit still for a photo and kept flying off, only to return shortly to this apparently irresistible bush. Scattered among the branches were the little ailanthus webworm moths, with folded wings looking like a mosaic of orange and yellow edged in black. There was a mesquite borer, double-banded longhorn beetle, and mantid flies. Snout butterflies fluttered among the branches. And growing fat among this buffet of insects was a green lynx spider that had pounced on some sort of colorful fly which was now being drained like some dipteran Slurpee.


Stick insect, female


Stick insect, male


Green lynx spider with fly

We arrived at the lake and I walked up on the observation deck to see the broad salt flats shading into the lake, with a large group of sandpipers milling around at the water’s edge. It was like a glimpse of the beach in microcosm, only the water was undisturbed by any wave or movement. The birds presumably were poking in the sand for prey. I approached, and at one point they spooked, briefly flying in a tightly coordinated group, quickly returning to the wet sand to continue their activity.


Scrub, then salt flats, and finally the lake




I walked out over the salt-crusted sand and silt toward the water, in places crunching on a glittering deposit of salt. I approached the sandpipers, which shuffled about nervously but did not fly away. Several of their group hopped about on one leg, like little one-legged pirates. My reaction to the first bird that did this was a concern that it had lost a leg and was forced to hobble about with his brethren. Then I saw that it appeared to be a habit among numerous members of this troupe, and I was less concerned.

Walking back from the bare salt flats into scattered vegetation, I wondered what could live in the salty, bare sand, in many places under a brittle glaze of salt. I took a photo of one of the principal plants which appears to be a saltwort, with succulent little fingerlike leaves, pale green or blue-green toward the top but pinkish toward the base.


Silver argiope

Walking back, I spotted a kind of argiope spider sitting in its web constructed in a clump of prickly pear cactus. Clint identified it as a silver argiope, a more southern resident that barely crosses into the United States. It has the basic argiope or garden spider form, but its abdomen has some projections that were fairly subtle in this young one but Clint says become more pronounced in adults.

We did see a couple of whiptail lizards, and the second, tiny one reminded us that this year’s eggs have fairly recently hatched. We saw lizard scat, suggesting that there were many other lizards we did not get a chance to see. But our walk had been a pleasant one filled with invertebrates of amazing form and color, sandpipers, and a pair of magnificent caracaras soaring over the thorn scrub.

Western (Texas) Ratsnake

fullsizeoutput_1011Many years ago I was contacted to go to my son’s day care, which had some land and kept a few animals around a small barn. They said that a big snake had been eating the duck eggs, and the culprit had been spotted earlier in the day. I went over and had a look, and as I raked hay away from what appeared to be an old burrow in the floor of a stall, I caught sight of the dark coils of a ratsnake. After pulling about five feet of Texas ratsnake from her refuge, I then had to get a very unruly snake into the bag so that I could relocate her. A day or two later I took the snake to the wooded corridor of a large creek and tried to pose her for some photos before letting her go. This did not go particularly well; draping a big ratsnake along a log by the woods gives the snake an immediate plan for escape and a very impatient attitude about sticking around for pictures. Of course she turned and bit me. I stood, finger dripping blood into the creek, wondering how many hundred times I have been bitten by Texas ratsnakes. Meanwhile I did get a photo or two before the big snake climbed into the highest branches of a nearby pecan tree.

I wished her luck, and she would need it. Relocated snakes often do not do very well, because they learn to recognize a particular area (their “home range”) where they live, and when taken somewhere new, even if the habitat is pretty good, they may act as though they are lost, and wander without settling down. Many studies of translocated snakes show that they’re more likely to die, failing to avoid hazards and/or to take advantage of resources in the new location. However, sometimes a snake like this Texas ratsnake faces a dilemma: stay and be killed or get relocated and “lost.” At least in her new woodland, she had a chance.

While I stubbornly hang onto the name “Texas ratsnake,” this species was re-named a few years ago after improvements in the scientific understanding of the relationships among North American ratsnakes. Its proper name is now the western ratsnake, Pantherophis obsoletus. What used to be called the “black ratsnake” and “yellow ratsnake,” east of the Allegheny Mountains, is now the “eastern ratsnake,” Pantherophis alleghaniensis. In the middle part of eastern North America, they are Pantherophis spiloides, a new name for the gray ratsnake. West of the Mississippi River, they become western ratsnakes, but some habits are hard to break, and so I still call them Texas ratsnakes.

This species may be the subject of more run-ins with people than any other snake in our area. Lots of “snake calls” are generated by people seeing a Texas ratsnake in their trees or yards. Soon after eggs hatch at the end of summer, babies sometimes turn up in people’s garages and sheds. Lots of them are killed on the road each year. Yet somehow, they continue to be abundant year after year around parks and suburbs (as well as in more remote locations).

This is one of our longest snakes, averaging about 3.5 to 6 feet long, with a record length of seven feet, according to Werler & Dixon’s Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution, and Natural History. Like several other ratsnake species, the Texas ratsnake’s body, seen in cross-section, is rounded on top and squared at the bottom, like a section of a loaf of bread. This is thought to aid them in climbing trees.

The adult snake’s fairly broad, flat head is dark gray on top, shading to white on the lips and chin. Starting with the neck, there is a pattern of dark saddles going down the back. The dorsal ground color may be yellowish-gray to gray or charcoal. Along the sides is another row of blotches, these being somewhat diamond-shaped. The skin between the scales of the neck and forebody generally includes reddish or orange color, more visible when the skin is stretched. Some of the skin between the scales within the blotches is light gray to white, showing as small flecks of white in a patch on the lower parts of the blotch. Add to this one further complexity of pattern – many adults have the suggestion of vague, smudgy stripes where the edges of the blotches seem to smear a little and join each other down the back. On the belly, the scales are light on the throat, darkening from front to back with large pale squarish blotches and then a mottling of gray and yellow toward the tail.

Texas rat snake - subadult female

A young adult Texas ratsnake with more yellow in the background color


An individual with lots of gray color, though considerable red can be seen between the scales

Hatchling Texas ratsnakes have brighter and bolder patterns than the adults, with a light ground color so that the blotches stand out more. On the top of the head, juveniles have some dark spots and flecks, and a broad, dark band across the snout just in front of the eyes. That band then goes through the eyes diagonally to the jawline. The pattern darkens with age.

E-o-lindh- juv-LBJG-Jun02

Juvenile Texas ratsnake

Texas ratsnakes take advantage of a wide variety of habitats within roughly the eastern two-thirds of Texas where they are found. They occur in east Texas and down the Gulf Coast to Corpus Christi, and in central Texas to a little west of Wichita Falls, out to San Angelo, and southwest nearly to Del Rio. This means that they live in east Texas piney woods, bottomland hardwoods, cross timbers woodland, and savannas from north Texas down through the Hill Country. They are excellent climbers, and this may be one factor in their success, keeping them away from ground-based predators and people at least some of the time. While up in the trees, they may eat birds and their eggs.

My field notes and my memory indicate that I’ve found lots of Texas ratsnakes in patches of prairie, old fields with at least a creek nearby, and woodlands and forests. During the day, I have been more likely to find them by flipping cover such as discarded plywood or logs. I’ve seen a great many on back roads at twilight or at night, quite often in brushy or wooded areas, or within a short distance of a creek. Undoubtedly they use wooded creek and river corridors to move around in more dry, open areas further west in their range.

Both the accepted common name, “rat” snake, and the often used name “chicken” snake refer to some of their preferred food. A stomach contents study cited in Werler & Dixon, looking at 100 wild specimens in north Louisiana, found mice, rats, and a few squirrels and rabbits in their stomachs. This snake is more than happy to eat birds and their eggs. Coming upon nests, it may eat eggs or fledglings. A big adult reportedly can swallow an adult chicken. While this may not make the Texas ratsnake popular with either farmers or birders, it is simply doing its “job” and may eat enough rats that it does the farmer more good than harm.

The most memorable activity seen in Texas ratsnakes may be their belligerent self-defense when cornered or handled. When first approached, the snake may “make a break for it” or may stay where it is. I have often seen one pull its body into a series of short kinks and sit still, hoping that it won’t be seen. Once picked up, the snake thrashes in an attempt to get away, and may bite repeatedly while discharging musk from the other end. While some snake musk is only moderately disagreeable, musk from a Texas ratsnake is very offensive, a little reminiscent of burnt tires. But the open-mouthed gape while looking for an opportunity to bite is worse. Very commonly, having picked up one of these snakes, it remains coiled on one of your arms as if it were a tree limb while gaping at your hand or other arm as the obvious visible target. If your hand moves closer, the snake will strike, leaving a series of pinprick holes. Occasionally it will hold on and chew. It is important to remember that this only happens to humans who harass and pick up a ratsnake; an observer who simply watches and photographs will not be attacked.


The famous Texas ratsnake gape, ready to bite the attacker

One additional note in defense of the Texas ratsnake, showing that biting is only self-protective and never because it wants to pick a fight: I have many times been able to pick up a Texas ratsnake by slipping a hand under it and supporting it while giving it no target that looks like an enemy. A freshly-caught ratsnake may crawl from one arm to the other as long as nothing comes at it like an attacker. However, this is in no way foolproof, and fairly often it pauses and seems to recognize that this is no tree, abruptly biting my arm. And again I would stress that I have never, ever been bitten by a Texas rat snake that I was  not handling or attempting to handle. They have no venom and they have no interest in becoming aggressive as long as they are left alone.

Spring mating results in the laying of a clutch of five to twenty eggs in June or July. The eggs are laid in rotting logs, in a protected area under leaf litter, in abandoned mammal burrows, or under rocks. It is also known to use above-ground tree cavities for nesting, and the description in Werler & Dixon notes that the tree cavity was used by perhaps four different females for communal nesting. The eggs hatch in August and September, and the baby snakes have much the same temperament as their parents!

(This article is adapted from one I wrote for the January, 2003 issue of the Cross Timbers Herpetologist, newsletter of the DFW Herpetological Society.)