Stress – and a Sense of Peace on a West Texas Ranch


Western diamond-backed rattlesnake

Here he was, our first snake of the year! Our first problem was going to be getting this rattlesnake into a different position, hopefully one in which he wasn’t hiding his head under a coil of his body. Not the best pose for a photograph, I figured. Whether he was doing this out of self-protection was hard to tell, but some snakes – even dangerous ones like this western diamondback – will hide their heads and hope for the best when threatened. Often this occurs after attempts to get away and to defend themselves have failed. Fight-flight-freeze: this is the trio of responses to stress that most animals, including humans, are equipped with. Your brain recognizes the threat and triggers the release of adrenaline, preparing you to fight the attacker or to run away. Or, if you are overwhelmed and nothing works, you freeze in place. We know that in humans the “freeze” response in traumatic situations can be accompanied by dissociation, a kind of numbing of reality in which you are really “not there.” It is one way our bodies and minds protect themselves from inescapable stress. The rattlesnake in front of us was not able to be interviewed or to have the activity of his nervous system measured, so it was hard to say whether he was experiencing traumatic stress.

What were we doing to this poor creature? We are two of the people least likely to intentionally harm a snake, but we love finding them. In the process of watching and photographing them, we may interfere with their movement or even briefly capture and reposition them, and for an animal that has no idea what our intentions are, this is stressful. A reasonable rule for a snake to follow is: when an animal much bigger than you starts to mess with you, it’s going to kill you and probably eat you. There is no reason to exempt naturalists from that rule, as far as the snake knows.

Here is what was going on from the perspective of the two humans. We climbed up a hillside on this ranch northeast of Abilene where Clint knew of a den used by western diamond-backed rattlesnakes. On this warm day at the end of winter, the snakes would be out sunning. And sure enough, near the edge of a ravine near the top of the hill, Clint spotted this four-foot rattlesnake enjoying the sunshine. When the snake spotted him, he tried to get away, but Clint is pretty good with a snake hook and so the serpent sat and rattled and waited, testing the air with his ebony-black tongue. I had climbed up the little ravine, carefully gauging each step up the crumbly soil and loose rocks and stood just below the snake, getting the camera ready. I used my own hook to pull a coil away from his head, trying to add to his stress only a little, not only for the snake’s well-being but also for mine. If he blindly attempted another escape and came down into the ravine with me, I was going to have my own sort of stress response. Having a four-foot long stressed-out rattlesnake at your feet while balanced precariously on loose rocks is not an ideal situation. But everything worked out nicely – our friend rattled and stayed in place for a little video clip and a couple of photos, and then we left him in peace. The snake had tried “flight” and maybe “freeze,” but never “fight,” showing just how reluctant they can be to use their venomous bite.


Western coachwhip, with some indication of the alternating lighter and darker bands

Moments later, Clint flipped a rock and surprised a western coachwhip. Here was a second snake, and we could still hear the first one buzzing his displeasure only a few yards behind us. Our strategy when we find a coachwhip is entirely different than the one for rattlesnakes. While rattlesnakes certainly cannot be grabbed with bare hands and sometimes sit where they are, coachwhips respond by instantly trying to flee and they are very fast and agile. While we can just watch them slip away, another option is to catch them for a closer look or a photograph. They are quick to bite, but the result is no more than a scratch. Seeing one of these magnificent snakes close up can be worth a scratch or two, and we did hang onto this one for a couple of photographs. As we released it, the alternating darker and lighter bands were easier to see, each band extending down several inches of the snake’s body. This is a fairly common pattern in many western coachwhips. While sitting still, the coachwhip’s scales are brown or tan with light edges, and those light cream-colored edges are bigger in the lighter sections of the snake’s body. The lighter edges also “break up” the light and dark colors of the bands. In motion, the colors blur a little, so that you don’t see light-edged scales, you just see lighter and darker bands. In just a moment this snake’s lithe and slender body had propelled it through cactus, thorn bush, and around rocks, and it was gone. These snakes are built strongly for the “flight” option when encountering a threat, although strangely enough, when captured they have sometimes been known to become still with the head turned to the side in a sort of death-feigning.


The hillside


Young rattlesnake, partly concealed under a rock

There were several more rattlesnakes nearby, on or partly under the big flat rocks on the hillside. A snake could warm up by shifting a loop of its body out into the sunlight while the rest of its body sheltered under the rock. None of these snakes had much reaction to our presence, except at times to move back beneath the sheltering rock.


Agarita in bloom

Most of the plants had not leafed out, with the exception of the agarita, a beautiful plant with thin leaves looking a little like holly because of the spines at their tips. Clumps of these low shrubs were scattered over the hillside and down in the wash below, and their budding little yellow flowers gave the area a slightly sweet aroma in places. Later in the spring, agarita will produce red berries that people sometimes make into jelly. There are also historical reports of Native Americans using the root bark and other parts of the plant medicinally.




Lace cactus

Several cactus species are common on this ranch. One that produces a low green dome with clusters of curved spines goes by a name sure to make you flinch – horse crippler. Another that often grows in clusters of two or three short cylinders is lace cactus. From ribs along these cacti grow thick rows of small, sometimes reddish spines. Prickly pear is a common cactus on the ranch, growing in the familiar flat pads which are generally green, though some of the plants are purplish or red. The other cactus that we saw was tasajillo, or pencil cholla. It struck me while I was looking for one to photograph that many of them were growing within a space occupied by one of the other woody, thorny plants. I later discovered that tasajillo, or Christmas cactus, often does just that, sending up its slender jointed stems in the midst of some other plant. Bumping up against tasajillo is not a pleasant experience since the spines are quite sharp and not easily dislodged. After brushing against it and getting stuck with spines, segments of the cactus easily break off so that the person or animal moves on carrying a little piece of the plant with them. Further down the road when the segment is brushed off or dislodged, it can sprout into a new plant if it lands in suitable soil. The little red fruits are edible, but watch out for those little glochids, the tufts of tiny spines that are very irritating (and seemingly invisible) when they lodge in your skin.


Tasajillo, pencil cholla, or Christmas cactus

On another part of the ranch, we walked along a fence line through some brushy country that led up to another part of the hillside we had just visited. Clint moved ahead while I ambled along at a slower pace. One of the things I stopped for was the skull of a feral pig. These are wild descendants of pigs that got away from farmers and carved out a niche for themselves pretty much everywhere. They reproduce rapidly and populations have grown to become significant problems in many places in Texas. In a study that looked at sows trapped in a pig control program in north central Texas, Denkhaus reported an average litter size ranging from 5 to 11 piglets. The time required from breeding to farrowing suggested that pigs in north Texas may have one litter and start another during the same year.[i] With this fecundity and few natural predators, Denkhaus commented that feral pig populations have the potential to grow rapidly. Groups of feral pigs can dig up large patches of habitat and they devour virtually anything that they find.


Skull of a feral pig

I paused to post a comment that this skull was “the only feral hog so far, out on ranchland near Moran.” I kept walking, with the fence line on my left and a small gully surrounded by a thicket of shrubs on my right. Suddenly I heard sounds like something big and heavy, moving in a hurry – to my ears it sounded like a horse galloping. Then, about thirty feet ahead of me, a large feral pig broke out of the thicket and charged across my path and through the barbed wire fence. It was so fast and I was taken enough by surprise that I cannot tell exactly how it got through the fence. Did it go under? It was barely slowed by the fence and did not appear to duck down. Did it squeeze between the first and second strands? All I can say is that it squeezed through without slowing down and with no regard for the barbed wire.

Later in the day we did see a group of three or four pigs run across the road just ahead of where we had stopped the truck. I was glad that they seemed determined to get away from us quickly, because they were big, solid animals that I would not want to have charging me. I understand that a sow is quick to defend her piglets, and a cornered boar would be a dangerous adversary. Feral pigs are one of the good reasons to be alert to what’s going on around you when out in the field – and when that fails (as it did for me earlier in the day), just be glad that their first options seem to be freezing or fleeing, not fighting.

As the evening approached and light began to fade, we sat on the tailgate of Clint’s truck and talked about our day. We revisited the problem of feral pigs and how much impact they may be having on the land here. We talked about the array of crinoid stems, snails, and other fossils scattered in with gravel and broken rock, and the occasional arrowheads Clint and his wife find here. In the approaching darkness the mourning doves began calling from several places around us. That familiar low whistle – the first a low note rising briefly, followed by three low notes – it might seem mournful or maybe just calm and reflective. These are our own reactions to their calls, evocations of what might be stirring within the heart of a human who would sing such a tune. The doves themselves may have other ideas.

But in any case, the mourning doves’ calls accentuated the quiet in that place as we looked out across this little piece of the Rolling Plains. There were no highway sounds or any of the other mechanized noises that pervade our lives. It was a blessed stillness and peace, the kind that invites us to breathe a little slower and let go of all the things that keep us wound up. I am a fan of quiet places, as I have written before, and quiet is getting harder to find. A study published last year in Science described increasing levels of noise pollution even in protected areas within the U.S.[ii] Critical habitat for endangered species saw increases in noise levels, as did other places.

img_1743It became darker, and the silence continued. When it is quiet like that, you talk softly, if you talk at all. The doves became less vocal. And off in the distance, there were a few yips from a group of coyotes. We were staying a little longer for the quiet, and for those coyotes. The yips and then howls from scattered groups of these “song dogs” will capture your attention and your imagination out here in the darkness. We heard a few more coyotes, but then they were done. Sunset was over and so were the calls of doves and coyotes, and soon we reluctantly had to spoil the peaceful quiet at the base of the hillside by starting the truck and making our way home.


[i] Denkhaus, R. 2015. Notes on the reproductive potential of a north Texas urban wild pig (Sus scrofa) population. Post Oak & Prairie Journal, V.1#2, Pp.14-20.

[ii] Buxton, R.T., McKenna, M.F., Mennitt, D., Fristrup, K., Crooks, K., Angeloni, L., & G. Wittemyer. 2017. Noise pollution is pervasive in U.S. protected areas. Science, V.356, Issue6337, Pp.531-533.


Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands



“Hey, look at this,” Zev called out. Clint and I came over to see a pale beige sphere resting on eight rather stubby, darker “legs,” as if some weird tarantula had been transformed into a fungus. Of course, that was only our strange imaginations at work. The pale, flattened ball at the top was torn in just the way you would expect from a puffball, a fungus that produces a spheroidal fruiting body that releases a puff of spores when broken. It was the eight “legs” that had us gazing in fascination, and with closer inspection we could see that originally there had been about ten, but a couple had been broken off. We – Clint, his son Zev, and I – were visiting Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area[i] on a warm February 18th. Zev was there for salamanders, Clint was looking for beetles overwintering under loose tree bark, and I wanted to get re-acquainted with the upland savannah there. But really, the thing we were mostly there for was discovering something new or seeing some new variation on a familiar theme. The sort of thing that happens when you stumble upon an earthstar, for example. That vaguely spider-looking puffball? That was an earthstar (thanks for the identification, Burr Williams). What starts out as an outer layer around the spore sac splits into a number of wedge-shaped segments that curl back over the sac, forming star-like rays or, in the one we saw, curling so far under it that they resemble legs. The earthstar develops under the soil surface but pushes up to become exposed when mature[ii].


Site of a prescribed burn two years before

We had already walked for some distance after parking the car at Catfish Creek and poking around in the bottomland woods for a while. We then followed a primitive road up to higher ground and wandered across a big field that had been burned a while back. The larger trees still stood, their lower trunks charred a little but not killed by the fire. Others were standing skeletons of trees that probably died before the fire, and the patches of loose bark on their trunks were the best places for Clint’s “bug hunt.” The ground was a patchwork of tall grasses that had come back after the fire and the burned lower stems of yaupon that formed a thicket before the fire. Those woody shrubs would cover the ground, block the sunlight, and crowd out the grasses and forbs, just as they currently did in nearby areas that had not been burned. I later called and spoke with a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department biologist who said that the burn had occurred in 2016, but that the yaupon and other woody plants had grown so thick that they had to first cut it, then mulch it, and then burn it. We talked further about the effort to restore and maintain the Post Oak Savannah ecosystem, and he said they are trying to do prescribed burns every two to three years. That is music to our ears, because fire plays a crucial role in maintaining prairies and savannahs.


Little brown skink

In this sandy area where the 2016 burn had occurred, Clint was finding invertebrates under bark and beneath fallen branches or logs. Under one of the logs we disturbed a prairie lizard that was just trying to get through the end of winter in peace. Like a junior cousin to the Texas spiny lizard, this species has spiny scales and a suggestion of wavy bands on its back. The prairie lizard’s scales are smaller and less “spiky” than those of the Texas spiny lizard and its sides often seem to be a plain, darker color (while something similar to the wavy crossbands continues on the sides of the Texas spiny lizard). As we continued our walk, we uncovered a number of lizards. In each case we took a photo or two while trying to disturb the lizard as little as possible, making sure to put its shelter back in place at the end. A couple of our finds were little brown skinks. By that we mean not only that they were little and brown, but that they were “little brown skinks,” as someone aptly but unimaginatively named them. Equipped with four small, short legs and a long tail, these small reptiles might be mistaken for stubby snakes as they seem to swim through leaf litter and loose soil as much through undulation of the body as by use of their legs.IMG_2839IMG_2842We saw numerous mushrooms and fungi along the way. One of them that Clint found under a log had the overall flattened, round shape of a mushroom with gills under the cap – but they were hung from the bottom of the log instead of growing up from the ground on a stalk. Some had irregular-shaped caps with thin lines that looked like some delicate, finely striated material had been draped over the stems. And of course, there were shelf fungi on tree stumps and branches, some in a delicate shade of green and others in shades of brown and orange, in concentric bands shading outward to yellow. In a place with generous rainfall and lots of trees, these fungi can proliferate, working to return dead wood to soil.IMG_2850Version 2

Probably because of the greater rainfall and so much wood to attach to, lichens grew in a profusion of the leafy and brushy forms that I’m not used to seeing back home in the Cross Timbers. Closing out the forest around me, I focused in on the fairy forest of lichen, the bowls and cups, the little bushes and trees, all growing in a five-inch section of oak branch. Worlds within worlds.

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We drove to the northern part of the property, to an upland area where Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has worked particularly hard to restore the savannah. In places there were extensive grasslands dotted with a few trees, while in others, the prairie grasses grew within a woodland with a somewhat open canopy. It was all beautiful, with the dark trees contrasting with the burnt orange of the dormant grasses and fallen leaves. Thinking about it later, I wanted to talk with a deer hunter to find out if they see this, too. While searching for the right buck, surely some of them get lost in the experience of the twisted oak limbs against the sky, the carpet of reddish-brown leaves, the clumps of grasses like vertical up-strokes on a painter’s canvas, the dense gray blending together of trees when you look as far into the woods as the eye can penetrate. Such beauty cannot just be the background noise of a deer hunt, can it?


Woodland with open canopy

Further back, a little way from the beaver pond, we had seen a group of turkeys foraging in an open area between the road and the woods. They numbered about fifteen, and probably they had been scratching around for acorns and other nuts and seeds. I took a couple of photos from as close as they would tolerate, which was not very close. Each time I took a few steps closer, the group trotted a little further away. Clint and I had been spoiled in a trip to Palo Duro Canyon, where we saw a group of females being courted by a male. All of them seemed unconcerned about the presence of humans, at least from twenty or thirty feet away, and perhaps the courtship had them a little distracted. But here, in a place managed not just for habitat management but for hunting, the birds rightly sensed that people represent mortal danger.


Wild turkeys

We had one more shot at finding salamanders before we needed to leave, so we headed down into the creek bottomlands again. In a mowed clearing, we came across the little armored beast that is a Texas icon: the nine-banded armadillo (it is the official state small mammal[iii], in case you’re keeping track of such things). As the compact little mammal snuffled and poked into the base of plants and any little crevice where an insect or grub might hide, I shot some video from the car rather than getting out and spooking him. They are charming in that nearsighted way they have, ambling through the understory or wandering in clearings, digging and rooting around and nearly oblivious of whatever may be nearby. Occasionally they pause and sniff the air, using their one sense that is really keen to check for something – danger? Or the smell of damp leaf litter or soil with better chances of finding something to eat? It is generally understood that to get close to a wandering armadillo, the thing to do is to stay downwind. If you are reasonably cautious you may not be seen or heard, but when they get a whiff of danger, they shamble off toward a thicket. If startled or pursued, an armadillo can run fairly fast, and plunge through tight places and thorny thickets where you cannot go.

We walked down the last distance to a slough, with tall trees standing in dark water. A man-made levee impounded a broad pond where the rich mud and accumulated tannin from fallen leaves made the water black. The branches overhead reached across to the neighboring trees like arches in some wetland cathedral, and this splendid architecture was mirrored in the black water below. An alligator rising to the surface would have completed the swampy picture, but the only reptile we saw was a big red-eared slider, basking on a snag just above the water. She dropped in as we walked nearby, but on our way back she was pulling back onto her spot on the log.


The “wetland cathedral”


Red-eared slider

On the other side of the levee was an area with a meandering stream, shallow ephemeral pools, and downed logs. Try as they might, Clint and Zev did not turn up a salamander. What they did discover under a log was a big slug just a few inches from a cluster of translucent ovals, like tiny, bright grapes. A quick check of the Internet verified that these were indeed slug eggs (yes, a smart phone can serve several useful purposes in the field, especially documenting observations on iNaturalist!).


Slug eggs

And that was our last real discovery on our day at Gus Engeling WMA. We saw another flock of turkeys on our walk back, Clint continued the search for beetles under the bark, Zev was very good-natured about not finding salamanders on our walk, and we continued to soak in the view of every bottomland pool, every downed log, and every woodland clearing on our way back to the highway. Spring is only a month or so away, and we’ll be back!fullsizeoutput_1145

[i] Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area. (Internet) (accessed 3/5/18)

[ii] Phillips, R. 2005. Mushrooms & Other Fungi of North America. Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books

[iii] Schmidly, D.J. 1994. The Mammals of Texas (Revised Ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

My “Herping Family”


Trans-Pecos Copperhead (now Broad-banded Copperhead)

On the border between Texas and Mexico, along the Rio Grande, in the middle of the night, Clint and I wrangled a trio of copperheads by the roadside. It was an amazing find, life-listers for both of us if you consider that until recently they were considered Trans-Pecos copperheads (they recently were lumped in with the broad-banded copperheads, their bright patterns notwithstanding – but DNA trumps outward appearance). After all this time, three at once! We had a moment of discovery, wonder, and celebration, miles from nowhere, in a place supposedly so dangerous that we need a wall to protect us. After years traveling in the Big Bend country, often at night, as far from other people as we can get, we both feel as safe there as we do closer to home. Even in a familiar and beloved place like the Big Bend, we were glad for the companionship. We choose people to go with us on these long trips, and even for shorter ones, for a reason – or several reasons – and the relationships that can develop are enduring and strong.

I have been doing this for many years, and my earliest trips were with museum people, older and wiser, able to teach about the land and its wildlife and at the same time share the delighted reactions we had to the discoveries we made. There were the map turtles of Rough Creek, the hike down into Palo Duro Canyon, and finding Texas tortoises in the south Texas thorn scrub. These guys were biologists, but at the same time they were like scout leaders, keeping sometimes unruly but promising teenagers in line, nurturing our interests, and at the same time getting good work out of us to advance the museum collections.

In later years there were people like Bob Smith and my wife Jo. I still remember when Bob and I stared at a big diamond-backed watersnake in some pond somewhere in Van Zandt County, trying to reassure ourselves that our identification was so absolutely correct that we could grab that big beast, take our medicine (bites and musking were sure to ensue), and take a photo. A few more years’ experience and we wouldn’t give it a second thought, but on that day we shared a little uncertainty, and as a result the snake got away.

The first serious member of my herping family was Steve Campbell. (By “herping family” I mean something like our work “families,” the people we grow close to and come to depend on at work.) By “serious,” I mean going long distances for several days in the field with a person. After Steve moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, we co-founded the DFW Herpetological Society and organized several field trips to places in central Texas, down on the Pecos River, and the Big Thicket. Steve was a likeable, funny guy and an excellent naturalist. He knew a lot about the natural history of reptiles and amphibians as well as fish and understood how they were interrelated with the plant and animal communities around them. He and I took a series of field trips together that we would come back and write about for the herp society newsletter. We picked at each other mercilessly for comic effect (he was better at it than I was). Steve had exaggerated and funny monologues criticizing everything from my musical preferences to my packing multiple cameras and pulling them all out when we found something really cool.

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Steve Campbell, at the LBJ Grasslands

The thing was, we shared a similar perspective on things like whether we could be happy seeing common species in the field (even if we didn’t see the more rare and glamorous ones), how much collecting was ethical (we thought we should take only a few if any, even if the species was common), and whether a good walk through great habitat was enough by itself (it was, but we still wanted to find herps). We got to know each other’s abilities, quirks, and preferences, and settled into herping trips like brothers. Steve’s untimely death in 2012 was a loss that is still felt among his friends in the Texas herping community and at Texas Parks & Wildlife Department where he worked.

The other truly serious member of my herping family is, of course, Clint King. Steve and I met Clint in the early days of the herp society and found him to be the most single-minded and passionate field herper we had ever met, even though he was just out of high school at the time. Clint writes about an early field trip to the region around the Pecos River in a chapter of the forthcoming Herping Texas book that should be available later this year. He captures the essence of Steve’s slightly teasing, class clown persona quite well. Clint gave that affection-disguised-as-humor back at him by the truckload, writing about Steve’s quirkiness in “Campbell Ideology is Nothing to Mess Around With,” that first appeared in the herp society newsletter and was reprinted in this blog.

Over the years, Clint and I have visited every major ecoregion in Texas, sometimes on a day trip and whenever possible over several days. You cannot do that with someone and survive unless you truly trust, respect, and enjoy each other’s company. While our travels have not exactly been nail-bitingly dangerous adventures, we have been in isolated places, far from help, messing with venomous snakes and other wildlife. A venomous bite or a fall down a mountainside become all the more serious when you’re miles from nowhere, and it helps to thoroughly trust the good sense and commitment of your field partner.


Clint King, at Caddo Lake

It also is a plus when your field partner has an interest in the natural world that is similar to your own. When we’re on the road, the focus is on the landscape and the wildlife, with partying or sightseeing side-trips never crossing our minds. On the other hand, reasonable indulgences are allowed. While Clint has been known to hang out with merciless herping machines who need no sleep and who find something to do even when the desert is broiling at over 110 degrees, on our trips he seems to fall easily in line with getting some sleep and visiting a few memorable eateries such as El Patio in Presidio and Shrimp Boat Manny’s in Livingston.

We also seem to have a comparable mix of reverence and wonder for the natural world. When you make your way down the rocks that form a staircase into the presence of Gorman Falls on the Colorado River, it helps when your companions (in this case, Clint and his wife and son) experience a similar awe and fascination. When standing in the desert above Terlingua staring at the clear night sky and the infinite star field overhead, you want to share the experience. We’re wired that way, as social creatures, and the transcendent wonderfulness of it all seems deeper when someone at your side gets it and is staring in similar slack-jawed amazement.


Clear cut, near a unit of the Big Thicket National Preserve


Refinery complex on the road to Sea Rim State Park

It similarly relieves a little of the sense of loss when looking at a clear-cut patch of forest next to the Big Thicket, driving through a refinery belching poison into the Gulf Coast, or visiting a place like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The latter may soon be walled off from us by a border wall envisioned by people who have never been there and don’t care what will be needlessly lost. Traveling to wild places in Texas, refuges, natural areas, and parks sometimes feels like attending a series of funerals for someone who isn’t gone yet, but whose death or debilitating illness is imminent. Sure, there is the joy of being there, the fascination with all the working parts of the ecosystem, the beauty of wildlife captured by the camera or just in a memorable glimpse. Sometimes there is also that sense of impending loss – will this place still be here next time? Will it be walled off? Scarred and poisoned by extractive industry? Toasted and flooded by a climate that is increasingly out of whack? Only those who see these places as essential, irreplaceable gifts will understand the joy of being there and the underlying dread of loss that goes with it. Like any other grief, it is easier when shared.


A trail at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

I don’t let the sense of loss lurking in the background spoil my time in the field. Moments like when we found the three Trans-Pecos copperheads should be lived in the present, and those experiences are all the more exciting and fun when shared as well. I’ve been fortunate with herping companions and family just as I have with my “regular” family, and I’m thankful for all of them.

In Search of the Savannah

IMG_2820I headed northeast for an afternoon’s visit to Caddo National Grasslands, a place just below the Red River in a region of post oaks and other kinds of oak, juniper, and some scattered savannah grasslands. The Post Oak Savannah ecoregion starts at the Red River and extends down in a band through east-central Texas, and I have only been able to visit a couple of places within it, such as the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area. My road trip to Caddo hopefully would help me learn more about the Post Oak Savannah.

Driving north from Greenville, I tried to imagine the origins of the landscapes I was driving through. I knew from the map that it was historically Blackland Prairie. But what did it look like now? There were fields of close-cropped grass on either side of me, stretching back to a nearby tree line, marking a fence row or a creek somewhere. There were little houses every few hundred yards, collapsing barns, and horses nibbling rolled bales of hay. I passed a few fields with black soil, flecked white from last year’s cotton crop. The black soil, that rich, dark, alkaline clay soil, confirmed this as part of the Blackland Prairie, although there was hardly a relic of the tallgrass that made it a “prairie.” But once in a while, among the cotton fields and mowed hay fields, along a fence line I would see a tuft of prairie grass, standing up straight as a yardstick, an echo of an ecosystem that has mostly disappeared.

Even on the outskirts of Honey Grove, getting close to the Bois D’Arc Creek Unit of the Caddo National Grasslands, the soil was still black. I pictured the maps available from EPA and TPWD, showing that the Post Oak Savannah stretches up to the northeastern corner of Texas and then tracks back along the Red River, just above the Blackland, ending in western Fannin County. Even though I trusted the maps, the first thing I looked for when I got to Caddo was the lighter sandy soil that is associated with Post Oak Savannah. And on that first trail I could see for myself, the soil was reddish and sandy.

The trail passed a small clearing with some little bluestem and other grasses, and then descended through woodlands toward a tributary of the creek that runs north-south through the preserve. I was in search of uplands and, hopefully, open grasslands, so I moved on to another trail. The second trail started in a grove of pines and continued over a rolling landscape with oaks and other trees. It dropped down through another creek tributary and back up a hillside. Here and there, surfaces along the ground were covered with patches of moss. So far, this part of Fannin County just seemed like woodlands of oak and juniper.


A small semi-open area within the woodlands, Caddo National Grasslands, Bois D’Arc Unit

Everywhere that I walked, recollections of another visit to Fannin County were never far from my thoughts. That visit was at a church camp, over fifty years ago, and the memory of finding eastern coachwhips is still very clear. These long, slender snakes are typically satiny black on the head and first part of the body, gradually fading to sandy brown. The scales toward the tail are edged in darker brown, making it look a little like a braided whip. As a teenager at camp so many years ago, I caught a couple of these snakes, typically by turning a log or a section of downed oak branch and grabbing the snake before it could escape. Coachwhips are so fast and agile that few people are able to chase them down when they are awake and on the prowl. I don’t remember what else we did at camp, but I’ll never forget those snakes. One of them in particular gave me quite a workout. In a group of kids walking back toward the camp buildings, I had spotted an entirely black coachwhip in the dirt road ahead of us. As it spotted us and took off toward a line of trees on the right, I broke into a run to intercept it. As our paths converged, I dived toward the snake and caught it. When attacked, coachwhips are known to target the face of a predator, and that is exactly what this one did, tagging me on the cheek. One of the kids ran ahead, no doubt telling a camp counselor that one of the boys had been bitten on the face by a snake. So as I headed up the road, proudly holding my prize, we were met by a group of panicky camp staff, ready for god-knew-what emergency. It was hard for me to see what all the fuss was about; all I cared about was that they would let me keep the snake. I doubt I’ll ever be able to think of Fannin County without picturing a satiny black serpent cruising through sandy soil and open woodlands.

I certainly wasn’t going to find any coachwhips on this January 28th trip, more or less in mid-winter. It’s true that the temperatures would reach into the mid-60’s that day, and I walked the trails in a t-shirt, very comfortable in the warm afternoon sunlight. However, most reptiles would be sheltering in burrows and under logs, with the layers of leaves and soil insulating them from the brief warm-up just as they protect them from hard freezes. The only activity in the forest was the occasional bird flying from tree to tree. It was quiet and peaceful as I walked through the leaf litter under the bare branches. But I still wanted to see some open savannah. I thought about how periodic fires are needed in order to maintain prairies and grasslands. Land managers in such places will use “prescribed burns,” carefully planned so that they do not get out of control, to burn off the woody plants that will turn prairies into woodlands if left unchecked. The grasses burn too, of course, but quickly regenerate from their roots and can compete with the slower growing sumac and tree seedlings. How long since there had been a burn here?


A patch of open grassland within Caddo National Grasslands

I went in search of another trail, turning south down a county road a short distance, until I found gates for walking trails on either side of the road. One led further into woodland, but the other looked like it led up through a scrubby area, and that’s the way I went. The trail soon opened into a big open patch of grassland! Finally, here was a place that looked like savannah! The afternoon sun was getting low; it was nearly five o’clock and the light was golden and still warm. Sparrows flitted from low tree branches into a nearby thicket at the edge of the open grassland. Here was some north Texas perfection, and I stood there and soaked it in for a while. One of the things that I love about such moments, away from cities and towns, is the calm quiet of the place. The sparrows might call with their high-pitched “stip,” and dormant grasses might crunch as I walked, but such sounds did not have to compete with highway noise or other mechanized sounds. It was quiet, in a way that perfectly framed the occasional bird call. Here was a refuge, a sanctuary in that original sense of a sacred place. Like so many other natural places that have barely been touched by human activity, it was a place where the “noise” of everyday life could be stripped away, down to the experience of the garden in which we originally lived. That garden feels like home, even if most of us would not know how to live there now. It can be a brutal world of predator and prey, unforgiving of accidents or sickness, but in our sprint through the modern world, we might be forgiven if we romanticize that world just a little, and want to step away and stand in the late afternoon sunlight and listen to the birds.

SavannahSparrow-CaddoNG-28Jan18 – Version 2

Savannah sparrow, in a thicket at the edge of the patch of grassland


The Dark-eyed Junco

fullsizeoutput_14ccThere is a humble little sparrow that is part of every north Texas winter. When cold winds are blowing and the straw-yellow grasses, dry and dormant, rattle against each other, little groups of dark-eyed juncos flit through the branches and gather on the ground to scratch through loose material, looking for seeds. They are graceful and beautiful in their somber, two-toned gray and white plumage, the kind of little birds I could imagine gathering around the feet of St. Francis of Assisi. For me, their appeal is in their familiarity and in being small, graceful, and understated.

I got a couple of photos of dark-eyed juncos today, and when the photos turned out reasonably well, despite my limited equipment and limited skill, I wanted to share them. And since our goal here is to offer natural history along with stories and images from the field, I needed to check my bookshelf and a couple of websites, because I still know little about birds. I have good intentions, but not enough follow-through. Every winter, birds become a more noticeable presence for me, and at that point I swear I want to become a better birder. I make it a point to keep the binoculars nearby, and I make tiny inroads into the field of ornithology. And then in the spring, the re-emergence of reptiles and amphibians distracts me, my attention is drawn to the leafing out of a million plants that I have yet to learn about, and so on. But now it is winter again, and I have re-discovered birds, including the humble dark-eyed junco.fullsizeoutput_14d2

The eastern populations of this bird in the U.S. are said to be more clearly patterned in gray and white, supposedly leading some to call them “snow birds” because their color is the leaden gray of a winter sky above, and the white of the snowfall below. Further west, they may have some brown or rufous color on the back or sides, and some western populations are described as “pink-sided.” These different races used to be considered different species, and John Tveten writes about the heavy blow to birders’ life-lists when they were all consolidated into just one species in 1973.

Both the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon describe juncos as ground-nesting birds, with nests located under overhanging grass or nestled by a log. But don’t expect to find such a nest in north Texas; they spend winters here but breed further north, often in pine and spruce forests (Tveten mentions that one population of juncos may nest occasionally in the Guadalupe Mountains). During their winters here, they make use of open woodland, fields, and back yards, foraging mostly for seeds.

One nice feature of the Cornell site is recordings of songs and calls. The dark-eyed junco song is a high, musical trill, and they also have a very high pitched, fast “chip” call that they may use during flight and when foraging.

Audubon. Guide to North American Birds – Dark-eyed Junco. (accessed 1/27/18)

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds – Dark-eyed Junco. (accessed 1/27/18)

Tveten, J.L. 1993. The Birds of Texas. Fredericksburg: Shearer Publishing.

In Memory of Mark Brown

On December 21, a friend of mine died unexpectedly, and at age 63 (a few years younger than me) it was far too soon for Mark’s span of years to be up. I had just sent him what I apologetically called an “e-card” with a Christmas-y juniper tree and holiday caption, and he sent me one of the funny cards he always sent, showing a nose-less snowman sifting through the carrot bin in the grocery store with the caption, “Right in the middle of the produce aisle, Frosty gets caught picking his nose.” Inside, he wished us a great holiday, a better 2018, and he wrote, “Maybe we can coordinate our herping schedules!” That’s how our friendship worked, long distance messages and a perennial hope to get together again out in the Big Bend or maybe the Big Thicket. We spent too little time in the field together, but we enjoyed each other’s company and our membership in a particular “tribe” of naturalists.

Mark Brown by uprooted tree

Mark, by an uprooted tree in the Big Thicket in 2006, the year after Hurricane Rita

We both shared the view that finding snakes was great, but being out in the Big Bend, or in a thousand other places where natural communities of plants and animals survived relatively undisturbed by humans, was enough. Neither of us were biologists by trade, but we trained ourselves as best we could with dozens of field guides, volumes of natural history essays and manuscripts, and by experiencing wildlife and wild places firsthand. For us, the classics of literature were written by Conant, Klauber, Greene, Kauffeld, and others like Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey.

I can name any number of others who are brothers and sisters of that tribe. They are friends who share days and nights in the field together, breathing in the magic, wading through its waters, parting its grasses, and seeing a little of how it all works together. That is a bond as powerful in its own way as a family. It is our tribe; we have been to the Holy Land together. (I borrow that figure of speech from a quote attributed to John Muir. He was talking about how a good walk in nature should be unhurried, saying “Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently.”) It’s not that being in the field is a religion, but that wild places capture something that goes beyond the science of ecology or herpetology or other “-ologies,” and speaks to us in some spiritual way.

Mark Brown was a designer in the engineering field, and you can thank him for the safety of some of the bridges that you cross. Like many of us in our tribe, he spent much of a lifetime educating himself in natural history, herpetology, and ecology, and like many of us, being in the field was his vacation, his refuge, his pilgrimage. (He had other refuges, and they involved such things as muscle cars, racing, and music. The latter was another strong source of connection for us.) He also kept a variety of herps successfully, and learned a great deal about the husbandry and behavior of several favorite rattlesnake species. Losing Mark means losing a significant repository of information about herpetoculture, as well as field herpetology in Ohio where he spent some of his early years, and certainly in his beloved Big Bend.

Mark was a smart guy, a generous and kind man, and a good friend, even if you didn’t see him all the time. He provided a light in this world, one of many sources of light and goodness. We will miss him.

His obituary notes that, in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Big Bend Conservancy.


In the Big Bend

A New Bird and the New Year

It was an attempt to make 2017 go out with a natural “bang,” one more walk on a bright winter day among trees and grasslands. Not long ago I was complaining about the abnormally warm, record-setting days and how I was ready for cold days and, hopefully, snow. Yesterday there was neither snow nor sunshine, but a walk through parts of Eagle Mountain Park under a deck of clouds, with temperatures in the mid-40’s, was brightened by a new avian friend. And that led to other positive things.

The park consists of 400 acres on the eastern side of Eagle Mountain Lake, and it includes woodlands and some patches of grasslands. Its sign declares that it is “where the prairies meet the timbers,” and on a map of our ecoregions, the eastern edge of the lake is indeed at the transition from the Grand Prairie to the Western Cross Timbers. A limestone ridge around the park entrance supports many live oak trees, but dropping down from there, it’s post oak (and some blackjack) all the way. It’s probably fair to say that the park is situated at the gateway to the Western Cross Timbers.


Eagle Mountain Park

This was not my first visit; Clint, Amber and I first visited there seven years ago, almost to the day. On that particular winter day, we met a buck white-tailed deer that was completely uninterested in running away, and while we kept a little distance (no matter how unafraid, deer are not props for us to pose with), we did enjoy the close encounter. IMG_0148Further down toward the lake, we walked through open areas where beautiful waves of yellow dormant grasses stretched to the tree line some distance away. Arriving at a small inlet of the lake, we saw a basking turtle on a snag out in the water, very likely a red-eared slider. It was a reminder of how our cooters and sliders are cold-tolerant and active just about year-round.


A patch of grassland within the park, 12/30/2010


Turtle, basking at Eagle Mountain Lake, 12/30/2010

Yesterday’s walk was on trails that wound through the woods in a different direction, dropping down through post oaks and junipers, across a small foot bridge, and on through gently rolling woods with open glades where the reddish stems of dormant little bluestem grass add their distinctive texture and color.fullsizeoutput_14b1

I had seen a hawk soar by, and watched a turkey vulture riding whatever cold uplift could carry a big bird on a day like this. Here and there, I heard a crow calling to his buddies or scolding some annoying animal (or human). And then, flitting around the lower branches of a juniper, I spotted a small bird. It landed, then took off again, and sometimes hovered at the ends of branches almost like a hummingbird. It was a sort of dull yellow below, and the wings were dark with some wing bars or white pattern. I thought I got a momentary glimpse of a little spot of red on its crown, but was very uncertain, given this little bird’s constant motion.

The first thing was to switch lenses, and I hoped I could do it before losing the opportunity to get a photo. This is the only thing that has occasionally made me wonder if a good point-and-shoot camera would be a better choice – standing there changing lenses while the moment moves on. But I got the zoom lens on and my little friend was still nearby. Every time the bird landed and I got the autofocus going, it flitted away just as the image sharpened and I was about to take the photo. The best image I managed to get before the bird moved on to some other tree shows its back and tail in low flight over a juniper branch. Not a satisfying photo, but might it help identify the species?


A bad photo of the kinglet as it flew away

Back home, I got out the Sibley guide and was promptly overwhelmed with the variety of warblers and other small birds with some degree of yellow with darker wing covers. The alternative was to post this crummy photo to some Internet community of birders and naturalists who might be able to help. I posted it to the Facebook page for DFW Urban Wildlife (and yes, I did later add it to iNaturalist, a fantastic resource for citizen science and sharing what we see in nature). Soon, I got an identification from a friend – the little bird was a ruby-crowned kinglet. I thought of that little red spot I thought I had seen on the crown of this bird’s head, and was more confident that I had actually seen it. Other comments within the group, as well as information from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and John Tveten’s book The Birds of Texas also matched this little kinglet. They nest far to the north but come to Texas in the winter, they flit nervously through the woods, may hover around tree foliage in search of the small insects that are their prey, and the male’s little red patch on the crown is often not visible but may be seen when agitated or courting.

I thought about how glad I am that there are communities of people who care about these things and are so willing to speak up and share information. Just in our little corner of Texas there are groups like DFW Urban Wildlife and Mark Pyle’s page, “What Kind of Snake Is This? North Texas,” with people willing to jump in and lend a hand. The California Academy of Sciences’ iNaturalist is a grand collection of local and regional projects, where any of us can easily post sightings from a smartphone or computer, providing a photo, location, and other notes, and each sighting contributes to our scientific understanding of the natural world.

In 2018, with all of its worry and difficulty, we need communities of naturalists and just plain nature-friendly folks who will support each other and support wild places. We need people who understand science and people who will contribute to science. And we urgently need every person who can look at a patch of cross timbers or prairie and see something with inherent value, beyond its monetary value as property to be developed or resources to be extracted. Such people give me some measure of courage with which to face the new year.IMG_2745

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. Ruby-crowned kinglet. (accessed 12/30/17)

DFW Urban Wildlife (Facebook page) (accessed 12/29/17)

iNaturalist. (accessed 12/30/17)

Tveten, J.L. 1993. The Birds of Texas. Fredericksburg: Shearer Publishing, p. 283.

What Kind of Snake is This? North Texas (Facebook page) (accessed 12/30/17)

Sunset and the Winter Solstice, 2017

I wanted to visit the Southwest Nature Preserve for a few minutes today, on the shortest day of the year. For months now, the sun’s daily climb has traced a lower path, its zenith a little lower in the sky every day. In Arlington, Texas, the sun set at 5:26pm, ending the shortest day of the year.


Sunset at the pond, December 21st

At the preserve, I was (for a time) alone, watching the sunset on a particularly warm day.  According to Weather Underground, the high in Arlington was 73, and that is 21 degrees above the average high. In the woods, there was the scent of damp soil and leaves following yesterday’s rain. At the pond, a solitary turtle remained on a branch above the water, long after the last slanting rays of the sun were blocked by the trees. She (a slider the size of this one would be a female) turned and slipped beneath the water, but tomorrow she will be able to bask for a few seconds longer.

The solstice marks the beginning of winter. If we get more rain, I look forward to quiet bottomland forests with pools where salamanders are breeding. I hope to spend some hours looking for and maybe photographing birds among the bare branches of oaks, cottonwoods, and bois d’arcs, coffee in one hand and a field guide in the other. If I’m lucky, at some point I will be able to crunch through new snow among trees almost magically highlighted in white, in a woodland hushed and quiet as only snowfall can make it. img_1607

The days will start getting longer, and maybe colder, but there is a lot to look forward to!

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

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


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

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

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


One of the common species, a broad-banded watersnake

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

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

A Walk at the Grasslands on a December Afternoon


LBJ Grasslands, Wise County

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


Cross Timbers woodland

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

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


Erosion cuts through the grassland

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

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


Blister beetle

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


“Fire” in the forest

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


Zev, halfway up a juniper

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

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


Nine-banded armadillo

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

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