Bumbling Around the Partridge Pea

I needed to get out, regardless of the steamy pattern of rain and heat this weekend, and so I headed to the Southwest Nature Preserve for a short walk. Somewhere along the sidewalk there was a large patch of what I’m reasonably sure is partridge pea (and if I’m wrong I trust my fellow naturalists will correct me), its yellow flowers being visited by an assortment of honeybees, bumblebees, wasps, and butterflies. I decided to take a few photos and brief video of the American bumblebee doing its thing. These big furry bees don’t seem bothered when approached, though I suppose if you stumbled into one or swatted at it, things could get a little tense.


South end of a northbound bumblebee

It was a great, though brief, escape from a nightmarish weekend for our country. All this hymenopteran buzzing and busy-ness was soothing in its shifting patterns of yellow, black, and green.

One of these American bumblebees devoted quite a bit of energy to what appeared to be scraping pollen onto the large mounds already collected on its back legs. At one point she appeared to be hanging from the flower by one leg as she scraped and scraped.

It is amazing to watch these bumblebees in flight, as they hover and drop slowly into tangled branches and flowers, then take off and maneuver easily around the stems and leaves. (Well, it looks easy to me; they do bump into stuff at times!)

The bumblebees also took advantage of the Maximilian sunflower blooming all around the walkway. And not just bumblebees – I got a workable iPhone photo of a small bee that Clint thought might be a leafcutter bee.


Might this be a leafcutter bee (genus Megachile)?

It was a nice visit – I’m never disappointed when I visit this preserve!fullsizeoutput_fda


A Summer Sunset at That Pond

In January of this year, I sat for an hour at the edge of a pond at Southwest Nature Preserve and then wrote about what I saw. I sat there again in March, taking note of the changes as spring progressed. On July 21st, it was time to do it again, but I went with some misgivings. There had been heat advisories during recent days, with the humidity making the heat index very uncomfortable. I took plenty of water!

IMG_1171It was a great day for Orthopterans and Odonates. The grasshoppers scattered out of the dry grass in front of me as I walked to the pond, and then when I arrived the dragonflies hovered and flitted around the water’s surface. Pondhawks settled on twigs and stems at the pond’s edge, and skimmers floated on the air, then quickly darted to the water’s surface. Whoever gives names to these Odonates seems to have more of a descriptive or whimsical sense than do herpetologists. We give names like “plain-bellied watersnake” or “Texas brownsnake,” while they use words like “blue-eyed darner,” “red saddlebags,” or “Halloween pennant,” invoking a sort of poetic sense with names that describe these fantastic insects.

I settled in beside the black willow where I have sat in each of these visits, putting out a small thermometer that soon reached 90 degrees in the shade of the willow, a big improvement from the high of 100. Periodically, a light breeze stirred things. The pond had grown a huge crop of some submerged plant that might be sago pondweed or maybe southern naiad, thin strands with filamentous leaves forming big clumps or mats. It brushed the surface of the water all around, from the edge toward the center, leaving a circular area in the center of the pond where none of it was evident. In that central area, two or perhaps three pond turtles’ heads surfaced, they paddled along briefly, and then submerged. One day I will learn to keep binoculars in the pack; if I had brought them, I might have been able to identify the turtles, which were almost surely red-eared sliders.

What would a hot summer evening be without the calls of cricket frogs? One of them soon began to call from somewhere to my right along the pond’s edge, with that gradually accelerating “grick-grick-grick” cutting through the hazy summer air. On my walk around part of the water’s edge, there were many of them hopping into the water or back into the surrounding vegetation. I did not see bullfrogs or leopard frogs, just dozens of little cricket frogs.

As the light began to fade, swallows began to appear, gracefully flying over the pond and engaging in all sorts of acrobatic maneuvers as they chased insects. I would imagine that they were barn swallows, but again, where were those binoculars? In any case, it was a quiet and peaceful few minutes there at the close of the day, with the sun sinking below the horizon and the dark silhouettes of the swallows cutting across a dimming pastel sky.


Just before dark. The central part of the pond that was free of vegetation is visible here.

A Giant Serpent of the Prairies? A Bull That’s No Bull!

A few years ago, driving along a back road in Parker County, a long, uneven dark line came into view on the pale caliche road. I pulled up closer on a four-foot snake stretched out in its sunset wanderings, nervously eyeing the human that was walking up to it. The bullsnake flattened its neck and tongue-flicked to check whatever scent it could pick up in the air, but tolerated my approach. There was a big scar along the right side of its face, probably the result of a near-fatal encounter with a predator or maybe a human. For a few moments it warily put up with my crouching beside it and I admired its allowing me to be there despite the glowering, don’t-tread-on-me expression on its face. And then, it was time for it to move on into the grasses and wildflowers, making its way along to wherever it was going. This was a treasured encounter in which the snake made no panicked attempt at escape or big defensive display, and I sought only to share a moment with the snake, without trying to collect it or harm it. I could almost make the case for it being marked by mutual respect, though the bullsnake probably just regarded it as a near-miss with something that could hurt it.

The bullsnake is one of our largest nonvenomous snakes, routinely growing to four or five feet in length. The record length is nearly nine feet long (Werler & Dixon, 2000). It is not so slender as a coachwhip, but smaller in girth than the western diamond-backed rattlesnake. The bullsnake has a pattern of dark blotches on a lighter sandy or tan background, with the darker blotches becoming more ring-like toward the tail. Its head is not as flat as is the case with other larger snakes such as the ratsnakes, and the snout is vertically flattened a little. At the tip of the snout, the rostral scale is taller than it is wide, and is somewhat raised from the surrounding scales. The structure of the underlying skull is more rigid than that of most snakes. Taken together, the head shape and skull rigidity enable the bullsnake to be very skilled at digging and excavating.


Bullsnake head, showing the vertically flattened snout and slightly raised rostral scale


A young bullsnake, from Parker County

The bullsnake’s skills as an excavator were described by Carpenter (1982), who tested eight bullsnakes in an enclosure with sand substrate. The snakes generally began prodding the sand next to a stable object, and began digging sand with sideways movements of the head. Then, the snake bent its head to the side to scoop loosened sand and move it away. A loop of the neck continued to push the sand backward. In further testing, bullsnakes were seen to excavate tunnels up to a meter long. Additionally, Carpenter examined whether bullsnakes would recognize pocket gopher mounds, and showed that these snakes actively explore and excavate pocket gopher burrows in attempt to eat the gophers.

The diet of the bullsnake includes various rodent species, birds and their eggs, and the occasional lizard. Werler & Dixon (2000) reviewed literature suggesting that they may eat burrowing rodents such as gophers in greater numbers than species such as the hispid cotton rat that spend more time above ground.  Rodriguez-Robles (1998) examined published reports of stomach contents of Pituophis catenifer (including gophersnakes and bullsnakes), finding that mammals constituted 77% of prey items.

Their range in Texas includes central and west Texas with an eastern boundary that includes Lamar, Henderson, McClennan, Bastrop, and Victoria Counties (Dixon, 2013). That is, the eastern boundary of their range runs a little east of a line from Dallas down through Waco, Austin, and Corpus Christi. This means that the blackland prairie and parts of the adjacent post oak savannah serve as the eastern boundary of the bullsnake’s Texas range.  In west Texas, the bullsnake shades into the Sonoran gophersnake subspecies around the Pecos River. Bullsnakes occupy niches within the south Texas plains, the hill country, the cross timbers, rolling plains, and high plains. They make use of open habitats such as prairies and plains, but can also be found in rocky hillsides and bluffs in the hill country. A study of bullsnakes in Wisconsin found that the snakes preferred south-facing open canopy bluffs but mostly avoided agricultural lands (Kapfer, et al., 2008). They examined the relationship between amount of preferred habitat and home range size, and concluded that where there are large patches of good habitat, bullsnakes can live within smaller home ranges. Where preferred habitat (such as grassland and savannah) is broken up by farmland and other less-usable land, they travel over larger areas and do not survive as well. Werler & Dixon (2000) noted that researchers in Nebraska reported bullsnake home range sizes of 10 to 42.5 acres.

Predators of bullsnakes undoubtedly include birds of prey such as the red-tailed hawk, as well as coyotes and other medium-sized carnivores. It seems very likely that people are a significant source of bullsnake mortality. Because they are large snakes that are sometimes active during the day and frequently cross roads, they are more easily seen and targeted by humans who may kill them or run over them in cars. Additionally, the slight resemblance of bullsnakes to rattlesnakes undoubtedly increases the number of deaths at the hands of humans. Bullsnakes have a very intimidating threat display when cornered or caught, raising the head and first part of the body in preparation for striking, hissing loudly, and vibrating the tail. The hissing has been described as like the sound of escaping steam, and it shares a little similarity to the high-pitched buzz of an enraged rattlesnake. The particular sound quality is the result of a small band of tissue (the epiglottis) positioned vertically just at the opening of the airway (the glottis). When air is forced around it, a loud hissing sound is created. A large bullsnake that is aroused in such a way gives the impression that it could be quite dangerous, although it is not. Instead of frightening the person away, it’s likely that this behavior often leads to the snake being killed.


The glottis is the opening just behind the tongue, and the epiglottis is the vertical strip of tissue just in front of it

Many of us, at least in north central Texas, would report seeing fewer bullsnakes than we used to. Decades ago, I remember finding them much more often, but the cities were smaller then and there was more prairie and ranchland around the edges of Fort Worth. However, bullsnakes are not considered to be imperiled overall. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes that the bullsnake has not yet been assessed for the Red List of Threatened Species. It is not listed in the Species of Greatest Conservation Need compiled by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Overall, the status of the bullsnake in Texas has not been identified as a concern, but like many other species of herpetofauna, we may not know just how secure it is. I hope that bullsnakes continue to live in healthy populations wherever there is enough good prairie and savannah habitat. When I think of the prairie out west of Fort Worth, the image of the bullsnake comes to mind along with images of grasses and forbs, pale yellow yucca blooms, little massasauga rattlesnakes, and the beautiful calls of doves and chuck-will’s-widows in the evenings. It is a wonderful, shrinking ecosystem, and I hope we save it in places here and there. And it would not be the same without the bullsnake.

Carpenter, C.C. 1982. The bullsnake as an excavator. Journal of Herpetology, 16(4), Pp. 394-401.

Dixon, J.R. 2013. Amphibians and Reptiles of Texas (3rd Ed.) College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Internet). http://www.iucnredlist.org/search (accessed 2/12/17)

Kapfer, J.M., J.R. Coggins and R. Hay. 2008. Spatial ecology and habitat selection of bullsnakes (Pituophis catenifer sayi) at the northern periphery of their geographic range. Copeia 2008(4), Pp. 815-826.

Rodriguez-Robles, J.A. 1998. Alternative perspectives on the diet of gopher snakes (Pituophis catenifer, Colubridae): Literature records versus stomach contents of wild and museum specimens. Copeia, 1998(2), Pp. 463-466.

Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Texas Conservation Action Plan: Species of Greatest Conservation Need.  http://tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/tcap/sgcn.phtml  (accessed 2/12/17)

Werler, J.E., and J.R. Dixon. 2000. Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution, and Natural History. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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.