The Woods at Ray Roberts Lake State Park

It was time to search for more areas within the eastern cross timbers, which are blackjack and post oak woodlands dotted with small “pocket” prairies and meadows. Clint and I both want to get to know the woodlands and prairies of north Texas more completely. We both grew up here, but it is surprising how you can get to know some areas so that they become familiar friends while completely missing other places.

crosstimbers map

Portion of a map showing the eastern cross timbers (29b) and western cross timbers (29c). Map citation:  Griffith, G.E., S.A. Bryce, J.M. Omernik, J.A. Comstock, A.C. Rogers, B. Harrison, S.L. Hatch, and D. Bezanson, 2004, Ecoregions of Texas, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Corvallis, OR.

In north-central Texas, two belts of oak-dominated woodland extend down from the Red River, ending just above Waco in the east (the eastern cross timbers) and around the Colorado River in the west (the western cross timbers). The eastern cross timbers is skinnier and smaller, and running underneath it is Woodbine sandstone, which makes for reddish sandy soil. The patch of eastern cross timbers that I know best, at Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington, has outcrops of iron-rich sandstone along with smaller rocks on the surface of the sandy soil. As the years progress, more of these woodlands disappear under the bulldozer in the metroplex and all up and down the I-35 corridor. But looking at a map and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department website, it seemed that the “Isle du Bois” unit of Ray Roberts Lake State Park would contain a good remnant of eastern cross timbers.

Lake Ray Roberts is a little bit northeast of Denton, and along the eastern shore of the lake there is a knob of park land that juts out into the lake. This is the Isle du Bois unit. We decided to meet there, and circumstances dictated that it would be in the middle of a pretty hot day. I got there about noon and began walking from a spot near the Quail Run campsites.


Two juvenile red-eared sliders

Early in the walk, an interpretive sign pointed back to an ephemeral pond partly hidden within the trees. I looked around the margins, expecting that I might find a watersnake, and I did see a couple of baby red-eared sliders that probably hatched last year. I always love seeing wetlands, but my goal was further upland. Soon I was seeing open patches of prairie grasses surrounded by oak woodland. I heard from Clint and his family, and they joined me soon afterward.


small prairie or meadow within the Isle du Bois unit

A good part of our walk was on a “sidewalk” that winds up through the woodlands and glades, but eventually we found a small dirt trail to follow further back into the oak forest. Sure enough, the occasional sandstone broke through the grasses in woodland glades, and much of the soil was red sand. Blackjack oak was everywhere, and it was easy to imagine this being a continuous, unbroken ecosystem extending down to the Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington.




Three views of the cross timbers woodland

This walk was a good introduction to a place we want to return to and get to know better.

The Big Bend Country as a Refuge for the Soul

This summer, I plan another trip to the deserts and mountains west of the Pecos River. If it was anywhere else, I might have had enough of it by now, but it looks like I’ll never get enough of the Big Bend country. Cool mountain meadows and bright expanses of rocky desert haunt my imagination. I need time “out west” on a regular basis.


In the Chisos Mountains, a view from the Lost Mine Trail

Those of us for whom nature is like an essential nutrient (as Richard Louv puts it, “Vitamin N”) spend time seeking out places to roam like starving people searching for a scrap of food. Urban nature refuges are wonderful, but often have unavoidable noise from highways and airplanes, and everything from discarded beer cans to fast food wrappers. These nature centers are essential and beloved oases in a sea of sprawl, despite the reminders of their urban surroundings. In fact, they are particularly loved and needed because of their urban surroundings.

Outside of these preserves, life is paved. We get from place to place on roaring highways or in glacial traffic jams. We commute from crowded hives buzzing in towering glass buildings, past urban blight and Wal Mart, to rows of boxy houses. Do we want to be constantly surrounded by our stuff? Everywhere we turn, confronted with mirrors reflecting us, our things, what we have done? Being so immersed in ourselves, our products, our excretia, we are distracted from the fact that we are part of nature. We live as if we were the beginning and the end of all things. We are not.

Out in the Big Bend country, much of our self-focused distraction is stripped away. The sky stretches away, limitless and quiet. Ancient mountain ranges are reminders of beginnings long before the earliest human memory. Life depends on rainfall, and on the aquifers flowing beneath the desert. Water, soil (however thin and rocky), green plants, and the bright, burning, radiant sun – these things support life in the Chihuahuan Desert. Wandering among the mountains, grasslands, and desert even for a short time reveals a rich diversity of life that has found ingenious ways of living in places we would consider harsh. It is reassuring that even the arid, sun-baked rocky arroyos of the desert floor provide opportunities for life to thrive. The earth is good and generous in every corner; even this place is a garden.


Chihuahuan Desert, within Big Bend National Park

For many of us, this garden – the Big Bend – is a refuge for the soul. It is one of the rare places where we can walk in real solitude. Stepping out of the overly human-centered world feels to many of us like a healthier perspective. People comment about the Big Bend being “bigger than us,” or “not made by us,” as if the scale and wildness of the place puts us in the right perspective, participating in our surroundings but not controlling them, not overwhelming them. It is as if nature is more trustworthy than human schemes and ambitions, and we need its predictability and its resilience in the face of human folly. When talking with others about this place, I have said that I never feel safer anywhere than I do in the Big Bend. How factually true is that statement? There are no guarantees of safety in the Chihuahuan Desert. An unprepared visitor could become dehydrated and overheated, could fall off a mountain, or could have some sort of emergency and be too far away from help to get through it. My internal feeling of safety comes from the sense of peace, beauty, and trustworthiness of the desert and mountains.

Not surprisingly, those of us who love the Big Bend feel protective of it, and the news that it is under assault by the petroleum industry is very troubling. If those for whom the Big Bend is nothing but a business opportunity get their way, how much of this place will become nothing more than an industrial park? Already, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline is a reality, intending to send fracked natural gas to Mexico, for export on to Asia. The first wells are already pumping in the newly-discovered Alpine High oilfield, a large area between the Davis Mountains and Balmorhea that is thought to contain 15 billion barrels of oil and gas. Those wells are not producing as much as expected, but more wells may be coming, with more roads, trucks, fracking pollution, and methane releases.


The Davis Mountains, with no wells or trucks

Will we lose the peace and beauty of the Trans-Pecos region? Will the nighttime desert landscape be lit by wells flaring methane gas, and will travelers have to dodge speeding wastewater trucks roaring down two-lane highways? Will the beautiful springs at Balmorhea be poisoned by toxic fracking water? Will the pipeline scar across the desert ever heal? I have no answers.

April 9th: Rattlesnakes on the Rolling Plains

Jacksboro was an hour behind us now, and the oak trees had been replaced mostly by mesquite as we made our way west on the Great Rattlesnake Highway into the Rolling Plains. Secure in a locking bucket in the back were three small rattlesnakes that Clint had taken in rather than see them killed. Now it was spring, and the time had come to take them to a spot near where they came from and release them. Deciding where to release rescued snakes is tricky. On the one hand, relocated reptiles often don’t settle down in a new place, and many do not survive. On the other hand, when facing certain death in the form of a human with a hoe or a gun, almost anything seems like a better option. And when the reptile in question is a rattlesnake, the idea is to find a place where it will come to no harm and also not inflict any harm if possible.


The Great Rattlesnake Highway

The smallest of the three little western diamond-backs had already inflicted some harm, biting a finger of Clint’s left hand (as chronicled earlier in this blog). Nevertheless, he wanted this little snake to find a suitable home and live out its life. After all, the little serpent had simply done what it was designed to do, protecting itself against an animal vastly bigger than itself, having no way to know that the big animal was a snake-loving human who meant no harm.

It was a beautiful, warm day out on the plains halfway to Lubbock, and we hoped to see other reptiles and amphibians once we released the rattlesnakes. Our destination was an old railroad right of way, with rails removed and wooden railroad ties scattered along what was now a wide path. The ties were in various stages of decomposition, but provided excellent cover for such things as snakes, lizards, and toads tucked away beneath the thick chunks of wood. And, not surprisingly, the jumbled ties and thickly grown grass provided both basking spots and hiding places for more rattlesnakes. This would be a very careful walk, looking twice before stepping, and thinking at least twice about how to safely turn the ties over to look beneath them.fullsizeoutput_f4c


Clint and the “princess”

Our first task was to release the trio of little rattlesnakes, and we took a moment to photograph the little princess whose kiss had destroyed the tip of Clint’s ring finger. She was the picture of scaly innocence, neither rattling nor striking while I took a couple of photos. The task accomplished, we moved on to see what else we could see.

As it happened, the first thing we found was another rattlesnake, a bigger one coiled beneath a railroad tie. I stepped over to get a photo, but the snake took off just as I was focusing, and it threaded its way through grass clumps and other objects until coiling at the base of a mesquite. Only then was I able to get a picture, after using the snake hook to gently wipe some spider web off the snake’s snout. The rattler politely allowed me to do this without protest.

A few minutes later, we flushed a male checkered gartersnake from beneath one of the ties. Like many gartersnakes, he was pretty easygoing about being gently captured and examined. I love these snakes and never tire of their bold black checked pattern, yellow dorsal stripe, and the pattern of olive, black, and cream color on their faces.


Checkered gartersnake

Under a nearby railroad tie, we discovered a drab little snake tucked away, with brown spots separated by light crossbars. It was a Texas nightsnake, one of the relatively few harmless snakes in Texas that has elliptical, or cat-like pupils. A mild venom helps subdue their prey, chewed into small lizards or snakes with enlarged teeth in the back of the nightsnake’s mouth. But Clint demonstrated another aspect of nightsnake behavior that I had not seen. When pestered, this nightsnake curled into a tight spiral with its head at the center of its coils. Presumably, coiling into a compact disc with the head at the center offers less exposed surface that could be attacked by a predator.

A little after 2:30pm, Clint flipped a railroad tie and called out, “Long-nose!” Here was a west Texas treasure that many of us have only seen on the roads at night. Long-nosed snakes tend to prowl at night, poking around in burrows and crevices in search of sleeping lizards or nests of mice. The species has a somewhat long and pointed snout, resulting in its common name. Down this snake’s back is a series of black saddles separated by red, and with speckles along the side that are cream colored in the black saddles but black in the red areas. The belly is a whitish-cream color, occasionally with some scattered blocks of black color. And, underneath the tail the scales are not divided; the “subcaudal” scales beneath the tail are divided in other nonvenomous snakes in North America. However, the pit-vipers such as copperheads also have single subcaudal scales. Long-nosed snakes apparently wanted to be pit-viper wannabes when it comes to tail scales, but they are related to kingsnakes and are perfectly harmless.


Long-nosed snake

And going somewhere with Clint means a bug-hunt is part of the action. He picked up a series of beetles along the railroad right-of-way, and we saw probably a half-dozen of the big Scolopendra heros centipedes, known as the giant red-headed centipede. The biggest of these was probably eight inches long, and they are all pretty fast. Later, as we walked along a dirt road looking for horned lizards, I snapped a photo of a pretty little blister beetle, Nemognatha piazata bicolor, emerging from a flower.


Blister beetle

Rattlesnakes, centipedes, blister beetles – if that doesn’t sound like heaven, I don’t know what would! And yet, when you’re out there, all the irony drops away from that statement. It was a beautiful day, and when done carefully, a walk like ours is a real delight. The snakes, and the red-headed centipedes, too, were like works of art, and we were privileged to take a stroll through a west Texas gallery.

Another Hour at the Pond

On January 22nd, I spent an hour at sunset sitting beside a pond at the Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington. I had the idea that I might return to it regularly throughout the year and see how things change, and so I spent another hour there on March 26th.


Eastern cricket frog among water primrose

One difference was immediately apparent: cricket frogs were calling. They had been active in January, but I did not hear them calling. Today their calls – a repetitive “grick-grick-grick” – were frequent but did not often overlap. There is a scale for this, developed by the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program. A Call Index of “1” shows that frogs are calling, but infrequently enough that their calls do not overlap and the frogs could be counted. Call Index “2” indicates that enough frogs are calling that their calls overlap at times. A Call Index of “3” is recorded when there is a full chorus of continuous, overlapping frog calls. And so, the Call Index at the pond today was 2. It was not hard to spot the occasional eastern cricket frog (Blanchard’s cricket frog in some sources) jumping into the water or toward the concealment of vegetation. At a couple of places along the shore, a medium-sized frog jumped from the bank into the water, and my only glimpse of them was a several-inch-long amphibian projectile, flying for a moment and entering the water. Based on their size, they were probably leopard frogs.


American bullfrog

Then, further around the pond toward the willow that was my home base in January, I spotted two eyes looking my way from just above the water, sheltered by a downed branch. Those two eyes were attached to an adult bullfrog, head above water and body resting a couple of inches below the water. I stayed as still as I could and photographed this big frog. Its green snout was mottled in black, and underwater I could see that the legs were a mottled color, too. Young bullfrogs are often a fairly plain green color, but as they get larger they often become mottled like this.

I reached the willow, now beginning to leaf out, and took in the pond and surrounding area. The clumps of little bluestem were each green around the base, as a short spray of new green leaves emerged from the dormant stalks of last year’s growth. Later, each plant will send up a handful of flowering stalks, growing to about three feet or more. Behind the bluestem was the oak woodland that had so recently been a labyrinth of bare branches, now covered with big green leaves.


The pond


Water primrose

Along the pond margin, there were short clumps of green growth, with shoots that were soft and fleshy, and when broken, were hollow tubes. In other places along the water’s edge grew a plant with rounded leaves and red stalks. This was a type of water primrose, which I’ve seen grow from under shallow water, with leaves seeming to float on the water’s surface, and I’ve also seen it growing in the mud right at the water’s edge. Here and there, whirligig beetles spun around on the water’s surface.


A pair of mallards, with the hen behind and drake in front

At one end of the pond, a pair of mallard ducks stood upon a piece of wood, the drab female looking out across the pond while the male turned his dark metallic green head and rested it in the feathers of his back. As I approached for better photographs, the female launched into the water and paddled away, followed in short order by the male.

I wondered if one of them might be the duck I saw as I walked up to the pond in January. This species winters in Texas and they pair up with a single mate each season. Do they breed in Texas? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows their summer breeding range as in a few northern states, Canada, and Alaska. A part of the U.S. is shown has having mallards year round, and that includes the Texas panhandle. John Tveten’s book, The Birds of Texas, reports that there are scattered breeding records in Texas, and perhaps this refers to the panhandle. If this pair did nest within the preserve, we would expect the male (or “drake”) to abandon the female (either “duck” or “hen”) to incubate the eggs and care for ducklings. One wonders if this would prompt the hen to use some other, less complimentary term when speaking of the drake. I suppose if single motherhood is the norm for a species, she probably takes it in stride.


Mallard drake

At one end of the pond, the hen periodically flipped tail-up in the water, her head and neck below the surface. She was “dabbling,” which is the word for tipping forward and using the flattened bill to find things to eat, such as aquatic vegetation, invertebrates, or seeds. They may eat worms, snails, and insects in greater number during breeding season, sometimes wandering the shore and feeding on items found on the ground.

In two months, the area around this pond has transformed from a semicircle of bare trees to a woodland leafing out in bright green and new growth around the bases of the bunchgrasses. The pond is coming to life with frog calls, and spring is making its presence clearly felt. How will it change as spring progresses? There will be more to this story.

Briefly, the Resolution of the Bite

One more quick update regarding Clint’s snake bite. Today, the plastic surgeon discussed with Clint and Amber the degree to which the tissue in the fingertip was dead, and they all agreed that amputating the tip was the best strategy. After a brief surgery to do this, Clint was discharged from the hospital and is now home.

Clint told me that he would like to write his own account of the past few days, and after getting a little more distance from the pain and worry of it, my guess is that it will be a witty and irreverent piece of gonzo journalism. Meanwhile, we’re all glad that this is over and Clint can recover. Hang in there, my friend!


After surgery today

Then Comes the Debridement

This is the second update to “…And Then Stuff Happens,” documenting the snake bite Clint sustained Saturday afternoon. In the four days that have followed, he has been treated with Cro-Fab antivenom, given medicine to counteract an episode of serious low blood pressure and possible allergic reaction (to venom, antivenom, or both), and the hospital has carefully monitored some coagulopathies (problems with blood factors related to clotting). And yesterday there was what Clint described as the worst part of the whole experience, the debridement of apparently dead and necrotic tissue.

His fingertip had become progressively more discolored and swollen, although the overall swelling of his hand and arm had subsided. The plan yesterday was for a plastic surgeon to have a look at Clint’s finger. Once he had a look at it, the surgeon decided to remove tissue that he determined was “dead.” This would seem to be tricky business, since the region of a pit viper bite may have quite a bit of ecchymosis, or discoloration from pooling of blood under the skin or blood leaking from vessels. I would not pretend to know whether a dark, swollen, purple-black fingertip was necrotic (“dead”) or very discolored from ecchymosis. Initially the surgeon cut into the fingertip, producing quite a bit of pain, and so the area was deadened. Clint described the doctor taking scissors and pushing down into the finger and then spreading the scissors, and I’m not sure any amount of pain medicine would make that tolerable. In any case, Clint reported that as the medicine’s effects faded, the pain was the worst he had ever experienced. The surgeon removed the skin from the fingertip and advised that the area should be amputated.


The debrided fingertip (ventral aspect)


Debrided fingertip, dorsal aspect

We talked about this, made some calls, and Clint and Amber felt they did not have enough information to make an informed decision about this. The excruciating pain Clint felt from the debridement would make the average person wonder if there is not live, viable tissue there, and that the fingertip might be spared and might granulate in new tissue and recover. It certainly might not be like the original fingertip, but a damaged finger could be better than an amputated one. Clint’s and Amber’s decision was to ask for more information (including what the risks and benefits might be of attempting to save the finger) and ask for a second opinion.

As it turns out, Clint reports that the trauma physician who has been managing his care looked at it today and suggested that the finger might be spared and allowed a chance to heal. There is a consultation tomorrow with the plastic surgeon – we’ll see what is recommended and what Clint decides.

I am sharing this information about Clint’s experience at Clint’s request, to offer a detailed and first-hand account of what a venomous snake bite might be like. Our intention is certainly not to increase anyone’s fear of snake bite. For most people, even hikers and naturalists, these bites are unlikely to occur. They tend to be “wrong place at the wrong time” accidents, stepping or putting one’s hand in a place where the snake is present but not seen. For those of us who seek out these snakes to observe or photograph, or who move them or relocate them when needed, the risks are a little higher. Even then, the risk seems acceptably low, provided that we have the right training and experience.

Ten Units of Antivenom Later

This is a brief update on the article from yesterday regarding the bite Clint took from a small western diamond-backed rattlesnake. As of today, Clint is still in the ICU but was sitting in a chair, ready to have something to eat when I saw him. The swelling in his arm and hand are slightly reduced, but the damage to his fingertip is more pronounced, and there is a dusky color at the base of his fingers.

IMG_0907IMG_0906Pit viper venom not only kills prey but also begins to break down tissues, essentially beginning the digestive process before the animal is swallowed. And so, a bite from a western diamond-back does the same thing to a human victim, breaking down tissue and destroying red blood cells. Coagulopathies, which can create problems with bleeding, are common. Clint’s platelet count dropped Saturday night and then improved after he received antivenom. This significant drop in platelets (thrombocytopenia) has been shown to respond positively when the patient gets antivenom.  Today, his platelet count dropped again, and so he received an additional two units of Cro-Fab.

Clint reports that the docs are saying he should see improvement in the bitten finger, although it’s not clear if it will return to normal functioning. My bet is that he is keeping the rest of his fingers crossed, hoping that the “digestion” of his finger was limited enough that it will heal properly.

… And Then Stuff Happens

Yesterday was a bad day. Clint was bitten on the left ring finger by a young western diamond-backed rattlesnake. He is recovering, and with luck he will not have too much damage to that finger. He wanted to share his experience on the blog, to add to the reader’s information when out in the field where snake bite is possible. Venomous snake bite is a miserable experience in which the treatment itself can have serious side-effects.


Two fang punctures, 3/18/17, 5:08pm (about 90 minutes post-bite)

Clint called just before 4:00pm to say that he had been bitten, and he was trying to decide which hospital to go to. The one in Decatur did not seem like the right choice, based on an experience over ten years ago. Not every hospital has the experience to do a great job with venomous snake bite. My suggestion was that they could get to Denton faster than Fort Worth, and so Amber drove him to Denton. On the way, they phoned the hospital and verified that they had antivenom on hand, and phoning ahead was a good thing to do. I met them there by 5:00pm.

At this point, well over an hour into the bite, Clint was in pretty good spirits, able to joke around a little, despite serious pain in the finger and up the arm. While the initial effects include burning pain, soon there is a different sort of pain, and he described the finger as feeling like someone had struck it with a hammer. He was also surprised, in a good way, that he had not experienced nausea so far.

After about 40 minutes at the hospital, the antivenom was ordered but still not started yet. At least in part, this can be attributed to the fact that it has to be mixed, and this has to be done gently or the antivenom will be ruined. We were anxious to see the treatment start, and he would be receiving Cro-Fab polyvalent antivenom, developed for use with any of the North American pit vipers (rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths). There is no specific antivenom for individual species of snakes, and that is fortunate since the average person who is bitten may not be able to accurately identify the snake that bit them. There are new antivenoms hopefully coming soon, including Anavip, from the Mexican company Bioclon. Both Cro-Fab and Anavip work by binding to venom components and neutralizing them, but Anavip seems to remain in the bloodstream longer, where it can neutralize more toxins.


At 5:21pm

At 6:06pm, about five minutes after he started receiving what would be 6 vials 0f Cro-Fab, Clint reported that the pain was somewhat worse and he was experiencing lots of itching. Patchy raised areas on his inner arm showed that he was experiencing some hives; however, he said that his ability to swallow and his breathing were fine. This is significant because the antivenom, as a foreign protein, can trigger severe allergic reactions including, at the worst, anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition. We all watched him carefully, and shortly afterward his blood pressure dropped dangerously low. The Emergency Department staff tilted the bed so that his legs were elevated, upped the IV fluids, and gave him a steroid and Benadryl. And, with all of that, came the dreaded nausea that he thought he might avoid. Vomiting is a pretty predictable part of snake bite symptoms, and Clint had several episodes of this.

Before long, his blood pressure improved, but he was experiencing a little confusion, which is also not unexpected, both from the venom and from all the medicines. Even though his finger continued not to look horrible, his overall experience was quite horrible. Add to that, the ER doc was talking about the possibility of a fasciotomy or even amputation of the fingertip. This becomes a situation in which we needed to walk a delicate line between acknowledging that we are not physicians and this guy knew tons more about medicine than we did, and advocating for caution and additional medical opinions. A fasciotomy is the cutting and opening of an area in which pressure has built to the point of “compartment syndrome,” in which tissue can be damaged from lack of circulation. Untreated compartment syndrome can lead to necrosis and loss of a limb, but a fasciotomy should only be done if truly needed.

The physician said he wanted a consultation with a hand specialist, which was reassuring in terms of the fasciotomy question. But there was no hand specialist available at the time at that hospital, so the decision was made to transfer Clint to Harris hospital in Fort Worth. And because he had had a serious drop in blood pressure, they called for a helicopter to fly him there.


Getting ready to fly from Denton to Fort Worth

As he was being placed aboard the helicopter, Amber followed me and we started the drive from Denton to Fort Worth, down the dreaded I-35 and all the road construction. We made it in pretty good time, and found Clint in exam room 220 at Harris, with staff taking various tubes of blood so that changes in things like fibrinogen, platelets, and other blood factors can be monitored. Pit viper venom attacks tissue in a number of ways, including destroying red blood cells and affecting clotting. Later in the night, his platelet count would drop severely, and then come back up to more normal levels.

He got an additional two vials of Cro-Fab, after another frustrating wait. He was transferred to the ICU, which did have some advantages in the event he had a serious reaction to the antivenom. The ER staff said that the surgeon on call who would look at his hand was very experienced, and it turned out that he said the degree of swelling was not alarming. Clint’s progress would be monitored carefully, but at the time there was no need for a fasciotomy.


Morning of 3/19/17, with more discoloration

As of today, Clint is doing fairly well, and has been able to get out of bed a little. The pain continues to be significant, and the discoloration and bruising in the finger is worse, but the overall swelling is slightly reduced. I will post more as time goes by.

For those of us who love seeing venomous snakes in the field and are fascinated with their behaviors, their appearance, and their evolution, snake bite poses at least some risk. It is important to learn from others and gradually get the experience that will let us interact with them as safely as possible. It is also essential to have the respect for the animals and also the self-respect not to do “stupid stuff” with these snakes – there is no place for daredevil thrill-seeking. But even then, despite knowledge and experience, accidents are still possible. This one will not stop Clint’s interest in finding, observing, and photographing rattlesnakes. It is an interest that, pursued safely, is low risk, but the risk is never zero.

In the Woods, With No Thought of Tomorrow

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. -Matthew 6:28-29

I grew up in a beautiful place, with oak woodlands and prairies with waist-high grasses whose pale blue-green leaves turned golden and rust-reddish in winter. Each spring turned patches of prairie blue with bluebonnets, crimson with Indian paintbrush, as well as yellow and pink from flowers like evening primrose. A big creek with clear water running over limestone traced its way through the prairie, a little shallow for swimming but perfect for wading and discovering the many animals there. I still live in that place, in the cross timbers of north central Texas, and consider it one of the miracles of creation.

Since I am now in my sixties, I have seen this region over a considerable span of time, and watched the highways and cities claim an ever-larger share of the land. I have watched as ever-fewer people know about those woodlands and prairies, and few would give a second thought to the wildlife in that creek. Some people do value nature, and I am very grateful for them. I am particularly grateful for those who want to get out and experience it, for no matter how beautiful the BBC series Planet Earth is on the screen, it is a representation on a screen, not an experience of being immersed in part of the actual planet Earth.

I am also grateful for those willing to slow down and experience the woods and fields by listening, really looking, and taking in the smells and the feel of the air, sun, and water. To borrow a term from health psychology and meditation, be “mindful” of it. What I mean by that is to let everything else go, and be there in the moment, with smart phone off and thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow dismissed. This is not just the curmudgeonly nagging of an old person who sees the world going too fast (though I am sure that applies a little). There is something to be said for mountain-biking through a place and experiencing the thrill of movement and physical mastery, and there is a place for animated conversations on a walk through the field. But stillness and peace and openness to each leaf and every bird are rewarding, too.


Smith Spring, Guadalupe Mountains

I remember hiking up to Smith Spring in the Guadalupe Mountains, and sitting on a stone bench for some time, amazed at the little crystal clear pool edged with maidenhair fern, with a bough of bigtooth maple hanging over it. Several varieties of butterfly visited the scarlet penstemon at one end of the pool, and the buzzing of bees was audible in the stillness and quiet that was unbroken by the noise of highways and machinery. The dappled sunlight, the very slight smell of the mountain woodland, and the otherworldly quiet and calm made for an experience I can never forget. There are some times and places where talking and doing have to stop, in order to “lose” yourself in the experience.

I have walked through the oaks and elms that border the creek at that brief moment in the spring when all the new growth is a fresh, pale green and the tree canopy has not closed and the sun warms the earth. The whole world seems to welcome new life, and careful looking among the tree trunks and fallen branches reveals a little prickly patch of bark that is really a Texas spiny lizard, warily looking back at you with little golden eyes. Studying a protected spot of soil by an old stump might reveal two or three mushrooms poking up through the leaf litter, showing that even the soil participates in the irresistible growth of spring. These are small experiences, but I value them very highly.

Mary's Creek corridor, Mar09

Riparian corridor along the creek

For those who want to lose themselves for a time, to step away from what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow and just be part of the exquisite beauty of life, the experience need not be far away. There are numerous little preserves near where I live, and bigger places throughout Texas and elsewhere. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website lists 19 refuges in Texas, and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department maintains over 90 state parks and 47 wildlife management areas. And there is the Big Bend National Park, Big Thicket National Preserve, Padre Island National Seashore – a total of 14 treasures managed in Texas by the National Park Service. On top of that, organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society own (or manage, in cooperation with landowners) places here and there, some of which are available to the public. For most of us, there is some place nearby where we can visit and either study nature or practice mindfulness while surrounded by it.

I cannot mention all these places without also noting that they are, to one extent or another, in considerable danger of being changed or poisoned. The land is not only a source of great inspiration and knowledge, it is where we plant food, grow cattle, and get minerals and petroleum from below the ground. It has often been our dumping ground, for the waste products of mining and drilling or even factory farms. When the human population was small and our technology not so advanced, we could use and even abuse the land and it seemed that the cost was small and acceptable. As we have grown in numbers and the reach of our technology has expanded, the cost – the damage to land and wildlife – has grown enormously. And the conflict between profiting from the land versus protecting it has become intense, with increasing calls to sell off federal land, allow extractive industries to degrade it, and roll back regulations that minimize the poisoning of the land, air, and water. The climate is becoming more unstable and hotter, and even our weak and tentative efforts to respond to that challenge may not be carried through. This is a time when all of us who care about nature should make our voices heard.

Those are part of a whole suite of worries that each of us carries. Can my elderly relative still live independently? Will I keep my job? How will we pay for this or that? Is this person really my friend? And the list goes on. If we can claim a few hours to get away, and if we can still our unquiet minds for a time, sitting at the edge of a pond listening to frog calls or watching birds may be powerful medicine. As can listening to music, or meditating, or looking at a painting. There are many ways to “take no thought for tomorrow,” in other words to let go of anxieties about the future, and nature is a particularly powerful way for some of us. To look at the birds in the sky and consider the lilies of the field; these are still powerful reminders of wonderful things happening of their own accord, just by living in the moment. In “The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry talks about seeking refuge in nature, and “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

To “come into the peace of wild things,” as Berry says, it is not necessary to be a field biologist or ecologist. I do not have to know how the Krebs cycle works to appreciate how its release of energy allows a hummingbird to hover around a flower. Many of us who spend a lot of time in the field know only a limited amount, often in only one or two areas. I am almost illiterate about the plant communities that support the network of wildlife of which my beloved reptiles and amphibians are a part, but I know just enough to recognize a few old friends among the trees and grasses and know roughly what neighborhood I am in. That is all that is needed to enrich the experience of being out in the field. Just know a few landmarks, recognize a few neighborhoods, and suddenly there seems to be more to see. For example, if you know that cedar waxwings like to eat juniper berries in winter, you might look for them around Ashe junipers or eastern red cedars. And, if you know that cottonmouths don’t really chase you, you may be much more comfortable stopping to take a photo if you see one. Male lizards may defend territory from others of their kind, and one of the displays they use to signal another lizard to stay away is a sort of “push-up,” sometimes done several times. On a walk in the woods, if you see a lizard bobbing up and down several times, it adds a little something to know what is going on. One more example: many people know that Texas horned lizards eat the big harvester ants, but they don’t often go right up to the central mound and start eating. Instead, they tend to station themselves along the little trails the ants use, and lap them up in ambush. When we are out in parts of south or west Texas in places where they can still be common, Clint and I will start from the harvester mound and walk outward, either in a spiral or along the trails, looking for horned lizards to see and photograph. This is more successful than wandering randomly and hoping to see one.


Texas horned lizard, in coastal prairie near Rockport, Texas

But whether you know a little or a lot of the natural history of a place, the important thing, in my view, is to take your time and really be present when visiting a prairie or a pond or forest. The pretty picture you see in the first few seconds deepens as you let the details soak in, and you hear things or see or smell things that a quick glance did not reveal. Perhaps one of those greenbriar vines begins to move, and you recognize it as a rough green snake, a delicate and harmless creature that is a fierce predator of caterpillars and spiders in the branches of the possumhaw and other understory plants. Or maybe as you look out across a pond’s surface, a turtle emerges to get a breath, or a frog chorus begins, one species at first, followed by two or three others joining in. The thing is that you will be there, in that moment, not in traffic, not worrying about what you will do tomorrow, not with your brain miles away while your body is in the woods. The point is not the escape to the woods, just to get away from things. The benefit I am talking about is being content to be right where you are, putting your whole heart into the experience. (accessed 2/26/17)

Berry, W. 2012. New collected poems. Berkeley: Counterpoint.

Kabat-Zinn, J. 2013. Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. NY: Bantam.

McKibben, B. 2011. Eaarth: Making a life on a tough new planet. NY: St. Martins.

National Park Service. (accessed 2/26/17)

NOAA Climate. (accessed 2/26/17)

Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. (accessed 2/26/17)

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. National Wildlife Refuge locator. (accessed 2/26/17)

Rattlesnakes on the “Great Rattlesnake Highway” II: The Western Diamond-Backed Rattlesnake


(This article was written by both Clint and Michael)

Clint: First rattlesnake of 2017

An unusually bright and warm February sky saw two winter-weary herpers atop a rocky outcrop at roadside south of the Red River.  It was late afternoon, and the beaming sun, with not so much as a solitary cloud to hinder it, had raised the temperature to over ninety degrees Fahrenheit.  It was a bit of false spring advertisement, a drastic warm-up that would be followed by a rainy bout of cold weather that reminded us all that winter isn’t over quite yet.  But the day showed no sign of the latter at this moment, as Michael and I slowly made our way up the incline to the hilltop.

A thick knee-high layer of thorn studded brush tattooed our limbs with red stinging slashes as we finished our ascent.  This was a little known personal hot spot of mine, one I had stumbled on completely by accident a decade ago.  It was a relatively innocuous looking place, not that much unlike the rest of the surrounding landscape: rocky red dirt broken by uprising heaves of sandstone and limestone, the porous, erosive nature of which had carved an elaborate network of ever widening trenches and gullies between boulders.  The top of the hill flattened out into a wide, flat mesa crowned with post oak, mesquite, and prickly pear, but all except its eastern edge lay out of our reach behind a rusty barbed wire fence held up by dried mesquite branches.  It was the kind of background one might expect to see in a cowboy painting hanging on the smoke-yellowed wall of a west Texas cafe.  But we had not come all this way just to look at scenery.  This was the site of what had once been the winter hibernaculum of a fairly large number of western diamond-backed rattlesnakes, and over the past ten years I had used it to scratch that reptilian itch that always seems to get downright unbearable in the normally herp-less void just before the arrival of spring.  By February I can hardly stand it, and so with the first sunny, fairly warm day I make the journey up to this clandestine spot to get what is usually my first glimpse of scales for the new year.

The den is not what it used to be, unfortunately.  The first year I discovered it, my presence alerted a nearby homeowner who resided in the valley less than a hundred yards from the hillside.  As he made his way up he saw my wife and I standing like apostles among a congregation of some thirty plus sunning rattlesnakes, one of which was coiled in the typical defensive posture in front of my camera, the sound of its protest cutting the otherwise still air.  After a brief introduction, the man mentioned that he killed rattlesnakes every spring and fall in his yard, and now knew why.  Although I did my best to serve as a defense attorney for the snakes, I could tell my words were falling on deaf ears.  No explanation as to their natural role or desire to be left alone was going to persuade him otherwise.  “I’d rather be overrun with rats than rattlesnakes!” he exclaimed, and I began to worry whether I had unintentionally sealed the doom of this particular population.

The next year’s visit gave me the answer I had been dreading.  As I pulled up to the site my heart sank.  Someone had burned away all of the brush that had concealed the main den entrance, which was a series of tunnels beneath a monolithic sandstone block roughly the size of a small car.  Even more disheartening were the dried, fire-mummified carcasses of several large rattlesnakes, their charred trunks forever frozen in the grim agony of having been burned alive.  But a glimmer of light remained.  As I walked among the senseless carnage a sound caught my ear.  It was very faint at first, a muffled buzzing like an underground nest of bees.  I knelt down closer to the rock and sure enough, the startled caudal alarm of several rattlesnakes could be heard somewhere below me, doubtless in response to my vibrating footsteps.  As I broadened my inspection I heard more, beneath other boulders, and at the top, in a channel of eroded red dirt I found three adult diamondbacks, looking winter thin and dark, their violet-black tongues flicking slowly as they sized me up.

Since that day I have almost never failed to see (or at least hear) a few rattlesnakes here, although I am fairly certain the den holds far fewer than it used to, as it was most likely gassed and then burned up by the nearby homeowner.


Our reluctant friend, 2/11/17

This day was no exception; Michael and I each heard a buzzing rattlesnake beneath the rocks, but in spite of ample sunshine we were unable to locate a single specimen to photograph.  This just wouldn’t do, and so after a brief spell we decided to try a second location I knew of nearby, one with no houses anywhere near it.  This spot is not unlike the other in terms of terrain, although it is slightly more elevated and lacks all the thorny brush.  It contains all the necessary ingredients for a good snake den: rocky slopes with a labyrinthine network of rodent tunnels excavated beneath the largest rocks, protected from northern exposure with an eastern open face, where flat, shelf-like slabs of stone jut from the ground, providing daytime basking opportunities under the rising late morning sun.

So we pulled the truck over and grabbed the hooks.  By this time it was getting on into the evening, and the sun was in the downslide, although the temp as of yet had showed no sign of joining it on its journey.  We hit the western side of the hill, figuring if any snakes were about they’d be thermoregulating here as opposed to the shaded side.  Sure enough, beneath a flat sandstone slab lay a surprisingly fat, dark colored western diamond-back about three feet in length.  The snake immediately bolted for a tunnel which was only inches away, but I pinned it gently with my hook until Michael could come help me wrangle it.  With little difficulty we carried the perturbed serpent to a convenient grassy area in the slanting sunlight, where we set up the camera.

By summertime our sightings of western diamond-backs become so commonplace that we usually offer them little more observance than a safe scoot to the roadside, but four months of winter absence makes our herpers’ hearts grow fonder, and it is always that first February snake that we seem to dote the most attention on.

The thick, lance-shaped head beset with those ever-staring, golden brown eyes with the slit pupils, the menacing, shiny forked tongue dancing with the wind, the telltale dark facial stripe edged in eggshell white, the coiled body composed of tightly compact, keeled scales adorned in rough diamonds, and the contrastingly patterned black and white ringed tail that ends in that most curious of evolutionary adaptation among serpents, the rattle, all combine to help relive the unforgettable outdoor experience that is Crotalus atrox in all its glory.  While Michael’s shutter clicked away I stood still for several minutes, listening to the song of the snake as it rose and fell in pitch and intensity with our movements.  I will have grown so accustomed to the sound by late April after a few trips to the rolling plains, where rattlesnakes seem to outnumber all other reptiles on the roadway.  Still, here and now it is a beautiful serenade, wooing me back into that never completely explored wilderness that serves as my home, my cathedral, my place of solace in a world that seems to grow increasingly mad every time I click the button on my remote control.  Eventually we would return our friend to the edge of the den, where he would make a speedy departure below ground with tail still shaking a future word to the wise, but for the moment I was still lost in that annual reintroduction to herping I always look forward to: the first green light on our great rattlesnake highway.


Half-tucked into the grasses and hoping we will just go away

Michael: Our biggest venomous snake

At three feet long, the snake we found on this sunny February day was pretty average for its species, but some individuals grow much longer. Most adult diamond-backs you are likely to see in Texas are no more than three or four feet in length, but the most accepted record length is just over seven feet. The internet and social media being what they are, you might see photos of someone holding up a dead rattlesnake at the end of a stick, with the snake appearing to be upwards of ten feet long. Take note that this is a trick of camera perspective, and most of the snakes pictured are nowhere near the length claimed.

The “diamonds” are a series of roughly diamond-shaped blotches, edged with a darker color and then in lighter scales, running from the neck to near the tail, where they become a little more “washed out” and may look almost like darker crossbands. Starting at the tail, the pattern abruptly changes to black and white rings, with the snake sometimes referred to as a “coon-tail” for its vague resemblance to the tail of a raccoon. At the end of the tail are a series of interlocking, dry rattle segments made from keratin, the same stuff that makes our fingernails. A newborn rattlesnake simply has a blunt “button” but will add a rattle segment each time it sheds its skin.

The head is rather chunky, and two diagonal light stripes (one in front of and one behind the eye) run down to the jaw line. The pupil of the eye is elliptical or “cat-eyed,” and between the eye and the nostril, set a little lower on the face, is a pit organ. The pit is a small depression like a hole in the face, and a short distance into the pit is a membrane stretched across it. The pit organs are sensitive to infrared radiation, working like little IR temperature gauges that help the snake “see” warm-blooded animals (like a kangaroo rat that it might eat) or even a warmer spot in a fissure or burrow that could be a refuge from the cold.

Those of us in the Dallas-Fort Worth area live near the eastern edge of this rattlesnake’s range in Texas. These snakes do well in semi-arid to arid habitat, in open grasslands, sparsely wooded savannas, rocky bluffs, thickets, and arroyos. It is a tough, adaptable, common serpent of the plains, prairies, parts of the cross timbers, the Edwards Plateau, south into the thorn scrub and along the Texas coast, and west into the Big Bend country. In parts of the Texas panhandle it is replaced by the prairie rattlesnake. The western diamond-back ranges down into northern Mexico and west through parts of New Mexico, southern Arizona, and a little of southern California. It is also found in parts of Oklahoma and a few places in Arkansas and Kansas.


A young, light-colored western diamond-backed rattlesnake

The western diamond-back figures in many folk-tales and legends of the American southwest. Writer and folklorist J. Frank Dobie talked about a newspaper report in the 1800’s of a rattlesnake eighteen feet long, but even Dobie had to admit that the “report must have been exaggerated.” His 1965 book, Rattlesnakes, is full of the wild stories told by Texans who had encountered these snakes or heard tales passed down from others. The rattlesnake has worked its way into the culture of every group of people who have lived among them.  In one Native American legend, the rattlesnake was originally the “Soft Child” who was continually pestered by other animals wanting to hear the snake’s rattle. Unable to get any rest or be left alone, the rattlesnake consulted the Elder Brother, who fashioned fangs for him, telling him that whenever someone bothers him, he should bite them. Soon after, the first one to come and scratch the snake was Ta-api, the rabbit. The snake bit the rabbit, who angrily scratched the snake and was bitten again. Ta-api grew sick and died, becoming the first creature to die in the newly-created world. The legend correctly shows the rattlesnake as not inherently aggressive, but needing a way to make other creatures leave it alone.

The truth is that the rattle came after, not before the fangs, as an effective warning: “don’t tread on me.” Animals who live near rattlesnakes do not want to hear that chilling, buzzing rattle, because it indicates that the intruder has disturbed a potentially deadly snake. Tail-rattling when stressed or threatened is common in a wide variety of snakes, and it is thought that the rattle is an adaptation that makes tail-rattling much more conspicuous to other animals (and to people). The sound might warn hoofed animals like deer or bison not to step on the snake, and warn other animals to stay away.

And although the fangs and venom can be a devastating defense, their first use is as a means of getting food. A rattlesnake waiting in ambush at night can use its heat-sensing pits to locate a rat, bite it, and track it down as the rat quickly dies and its tissues begin breaking down because of the venom, as a first step in digestion. Some venom components break down blood or tissue, others interfere with clotting, some attack heart muscle, and some interfere with nerve conduction. When injected into a larger animal, such as would occur in a defensive bite, the venom causes pain, bruising, swelling, tissue destruction, and other effects. Generally, the bigger the dose, the worse the symptoms, and although death from a western diamond-back bite is rare, it is possible, especially if the victim is a small child or someone whose health is already compromised.

Occasionally we find a western diamond-back that is bad-tempered and quick to strike, but we have never seen one that was aggressively “trying” to bite us with no provocation. The presence of the rattle gives us a hint about how dangerous it is for the snake if it has an encounter with a large animal (or human) – so dangerous that evolution selected snakes that were especially good at warning intruders away, giving them a survival advantage. Fighting or attacking a human or other animal might well be suicidal, and so the snakes usually try staying still and not being seen or else running away when possible. Even a rattlesnake that is coiled, rattling, and ready to strike is often backing away at the same time. And so, when Clint and I are in western diamond-back country, we take care to look where we are going so we do not accidentally step on one or put our hands near it. But once we have taken care of that, we see no reason for fear. Respect and caution are important, but there is no need for fear. These reptiles are amazingly adapted to their environments, fascinating to watch and learn about, and beautiful (or at least handsome) to see out in the field. We were grateful to the one that shared a little of its time with us in that late afternoon in February, putting up with being carried on snake hooks and having cameras come at it, striking at us only a couple of times during the whole ordeal. No hard feelings, amigo!


A western diamond-back from central Texas

Dobie, J.F. 1982. Rattlesnakes. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Rubio, M. 1998. Rattlesnake: Portrait of a predator. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Werler, J.E. & J.R. Dixon. 2000. Texas snakes: Identification, distribution, and natural history. Austin: University of Texas Press.