Herping in the Rain

As we got nearer to Paducah, on the Rolling Plains of west Texas, what had been a smudge of blue-gray on the horizon became recognizable as a big storm cell. We had hoped that our destination, the Matador Wildlife Management Area (WMA), would be south of those storms. Instead, we were headed straight into the heart of that grayish-green wall of water. Somewhere between Crowell and Paducah, the rain began to spatter the window in big, percussive drops, and the wind picked up. Next, we plunged into a wall of rain so heavy that we slowed to a crawl and hoped that anyone coming toward us on this two-lane road had not been blown off course and into our lane. Next came hail, hitting the windshield with distinctive pops, but not with enough force to shatter it. We kept pushing forward and within minutes we were on the other side, the rain slacking to a mere shower and then trailing off. As we arrived at Paducah, a minor flash flood was rolling down the street and off into a ditch.

fullsizeoutput_15e8

Heading into the storm

A little north of there, we arrived at the headquarters of the Matador WMA and met Chip Ruthven, The Project Leader who is involved in the management of WMA’s in the Rolling Plains and up into the Panhandle. Ruthven and his colleagues and graduate students have been monitoring Texas horned lizards and ornate box turtles at Matador for years, and for some time I have wanted to meet him and talk about their work with these lizards and turtles.

After a brief look around part of the WMA, Clint and I checked in where we were staying in Childress and planned a night drive down U.S. Highway 83 all the way to Aspermont, and hopefully south of the storms where a barometric pressure drop, but not a big temperature drop, might be bringing out the snakes. As it turned out, a big line of storms was pushing eastward, and the radar showed large red storm cells sliding from southwest to northeast. It wasn’t at all clear that we could get to the south and ahead of all those storms, but we were going to try.

fullsizeoutput_1614

Woodhouse’s toad

Darkness was coming early and the sky to either side of us was lit by nearly constant lightning, either distant flashes in the clouds or bolts straight from the hammer of Thor. At 9:00pm we saw our first herp, and we discovered it was the humble and familiar Woodhouse’s toad, common back home in parts of the Cross Timbers. Eight minutes later, Clint spotted what he thought might have been a little snake lying in an irregularity of the pavement. It turned out to be a baby western massasauga, born last year only to be run over in the spring storms while crossing the road. We took it for the collection of specimens maintained by UTA.

fullsizeoutput_1615

Baby massasauga, found dead on the road (DOR). The snake was thoroughly limp, and so this positioning for a photograph was safe – had there been any remaining movement, it would not because a recently killed snake sometimes can still bite.

We did not get far into Stonewall County before finding a species I really love – a baby bullsnake was making its way across the wet pavement. West Texas bullsnakes get big, but this one was 18 or 20 inches long. It was also very even-tempered for a species that can put on quite a bluff routine, including some very loud hissing.

fullsizeoutput_1616

Juvenile bullsnake

No more than five or six minutes later, at 9:57pm, Clint’s sharp eyes detected a very small snake moving across the road between the storms. It was another baby, and this one was a glossy snake. The species can be very common in west Texas, and they are handsomely blotched burrowers that eat lizards and mice.

IMG_0023

Juvenile glossy snake

Then we reached Aspermont, one of the stops along the Great Rattlesnake Highway (U.S. Highway 380, running from north of the Metroplex westward across Texas to New Mexico). It was the principal highway that figured in Clint’s tale of seven nights, the last few of which were gloriously productive, that constitutes one of the chapters of Herping Texas. We always have high expectations on the Great Rattlesnake Highway.

A few miles to the east we found a western massasauga, recently run over. A couple of minutes later we found a Texas toad who was out enjoying the rain and thunder, and possibly seeking a temporary pool to take advantage of this opportunity to breed, leaving eggs that hatch into tadpoles that develop into land-dwelling toadlets before the pool dries up.

Then, at 11:00pm, we pulled up on an adult western diamond-backed rattlesnake. While such snakes often sit still as you approach, this one nervously doubled back as we stopped the truck and disappeared into the grass at roadside. We quickly found this approximately four-foot long snake, which soon headed further away from the road in quick serpentine undulations. This snake was very active, and perhaps the surrounding storms and rain had it on edge. It was not particularly irritable. I followed it, making a video recording of it high-tailing toward the fenceline. I flanked the snake, and Clint was following on the other side, and sometimes the rattler would stop briefly but it did not rattle or assume the typical defensive posture. It merely took off again, always generally heading for the shelter beyond the fence while staying a little distance away from us. We let it glide away into the night, wishing it a peaceful evening.

fullsizeoutput_1617

Western massasauga

About five minutes later there was a live massasauga on the road. We were grateful to see one that had not been hit, and after a quick photo we got the little snake into the relative safety of the roadside grass. At 11:52pm we found a bigger massasauga, also alive. This was such a strange evening, seeing snakes like this moving in the light rain between storm cells, with almost continuous lightning around us. Ordinarily, the best snake activity is near the storms, in an area of dropping barometric pressure but before rain arrives. We could hardly remember a time when we had seen so many snakes out either in light rain or in a lull in the rainfall.

We headed back up Highway 83 and pushed on through some very heavy rain with high winds. It felt a little like an airplane flight through bad weather, with Clint keeping the truck lined up correctly while I periodically checked the radar on the cell phone to see what we might expect next, watching a very big blob of red representing a big storm cell sliding up into our path. Clint talked about how his dad had taught him to cope with hydroplaning, steadying the steering wheel with the palms of his hands so that he would not too actively pull against the slipping wheels.

fullsizeoutput_1618

Checkered gartersnake, photographed and then released back into the rain

After we got through the storm, more herps turned up in the light rain toward Paducah. At 12:43am we saw the first of several checkered gartersnakes that were probably searching for dinner, in the form of the various amphibians coming out after the storm. Those amphibians were definitely on the move, including a green toad seen just a little after 1:00am, and then a Plains spadefoot at 1:27am.

IMG_0040

Green toad

By the time we were between Paducah and Childress, the lateness of the hour and the cold air in the storms had brought the temperatures down quite a bit, so that it felt good to get out of the light rain and into the warmth of the truck. It was late, and we hoped to get out to the WMA in the morning, so we wrapped up this very strange, stormy, and delightful road cruise.

(The activities described above were carried out under a scientific collecting permit.)

In the Best Places, With the Best People

fullsizeoutput_1590

Fleabane

There is a wonderful community of naturalists in Fort Worth and surrounding areas, and some of us got together on April 28 to do two important things: add a little bit to our knowledge of natural history, and enjoy each other’s company. Nic Martinez, Clint King and I had offered to lead some activities at the Southwest Nature Preserve, a 58-acre patch of eastern Cross Timbers in Arlington. Nic knows a lot about the fish and other aquatic life of ponds, rivers, and other wetlands. He was there with several nets, ready to help participants take a look at what lives in the ponds at the preserve. Clint’s specialties are invertebrates and herps, and reptiles and amphibians are my first love. As so often happens in these events at Southwest Nature Preserve, other people who specialize in plants, birds, and other things were there as well. That’s the best thing about it. As we walk along, somebody mentions the odd presence of farkleberry, a shrub whose little flowers tend to hang downward, “like chandeliers,” someone says. The thing is that we are a little west of where farkleberry naturally occurs, supposedly, but here it is anyway. Then at the lovely whistling call of a bird, someone else says, “Listen – it’s a chuck-will’s-widow!” And later, as nightfall comes to the pond, I point out the calls of cricket frogs and bullfrogs. We all learn from each other.

DSCN0136

Farkleberry

This all happened on the weekend of the City Nature Challenge, a friendly competition held annually to see who can document the most wildlife and plants on citizen science platforms like iNaturalist. Among major U.S. cities, Dallas-Fort Worth turned in the most observations last year, and this year it is looking like we are among the top five in terms of the number of people involved, number of species seen, and the number of observations documented. People with tons of experience and people with little or no experience got out there, took photos of plants and animals, and posted them on iNaturalist, where the camera’s or phone’s metadata provided the location and time, and experts confirmed the identities of critters, flowers and trees. While technology took care of those details, we were free to re-connect with old friends and make new friends.

Nic started things off by gathering a few things that live in the ponds. Frogs have been calling and breeding, and he captured tadpoles that were probably going to be cricket frogs and leopard frogs (tadpole identification is not a simple thing, and can involve examining mouth parts and tail shapes, and so we could not confirm their identities). He also netted up the larvae of dragonflies and damselflies, tough predators with little of the grace and beauty of the adults – though I realize that “grace and beauty” are in the eye of the beholder. Later, at the pond with the boardwalk and fishing dock, he netted several sunfish. Don’t let the fact that they are common (“it’s just a sunfish”) distract you from the beauty of these fish with tall, disk-shaped bodies and spines in the dorsal and anal fins. Sunfish have scales that are green or bluish in places, yellow or orange toward the chin and breast, and all manner of blue or green squiggles or spots around the head and gill cover, that is, the operculum. The two I photographed were bluegill, one of our common sunfishes. Near the fishing dock, sunfish gathered in a large group of thirty or so, just below the water’s surface and probably hoping to steal a little bait off someone’s fishhook.

DSCN0109

Bluegill

IMG_1702

fullsizeoutput_156e

Blanchard’s cricket frog

Additional things seen around the ponds were Blanchard’s cricket frog – I netted a pretty one with patches of rust color on the snout and just behind the head – and a bee assassin, a type of assassin bug that may wait within a flower to ambush a bee, which it punctures with a straw-like mouthpart. I also took a photo of a pretty aquatic plant, some species of water primrose, that can form mats on the water with rounded, spoon-shaped leaves connected by red runners.

fullsizeoutput_157e

Bee assassin

IMG_0134

Rough greensnake (photo – Clint King)

The group of us took a late afternoon walk, with several members of the Friends of Southwest Nature Preserve as well as urban biologist Rachel Richter. Clint and his family caught up with us at the top of the ridge, and they had found a rough greensnake, which Zev held as several of us took photos and admired its graceful, lime-green body. A pale orange tongue and golden eyes round out the beautiful colors of this inoffensive predator of spiders and caterpillars. The snake was then taken back and released on the same bush on which it was found. We made our way around a small trail at the top of the hill, photographing standing cypress, the farkleberry mentioned earlier, and, lo and behold, R2D2 hiding behind some of the woodland understory. We did not post the photo of the little robot to iNaturalist, but we did have fun imagining what he was up to, out there in the woods.

DSCN0133

“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobe, you’re my only hope”

The evening walk was a highlight, in part because of the mix of experts and nonexperts. One of the folks who joined us was a young lady who offered the opinion that she would just as soon not see spiders and snakes, thank you very much. Since these were two of the things we specifically planned to see on this walk, it promised to be an interesting time. I mentioned my own history of spider phobia that began with the time, as a child of about eight, when I gently maneuvered something soft out of a hole in the ground and it turned out to be a tarantula. I’m not sure the story helped a lot, but this brave person stayed with us for the walk. Right away, down by the biggest pond, Clint and Zev came up with a juvenile plain-bellied watersnake. As daylight faded, we examined this little snake by flashlight, and talked about the habits of this harmless species. This particular little snake took the handling and examination good-naturedly and was soon returned to its wetland. As it became really dark, we spotted a few spiders here and there, including a slender little one Clint identified as a long-jawed orb-weaver. We also saw a couple of six-spotted fishing spiders sitting on floating vegetation a foot or so from the pond’s edge. The larger females may reach nearly two-and-a-half inches in length, and they can rest on the water’s surface or even dive beneath to catch some unwary prey. A year or so ago, during a similar event at the preserve, Nic discovered a six-spotted fishing spider munching on a cricket frog, so these are pretty formidable spiders (though not dangerous to us). I suspected that a certain member of our party might be re-thinking her decision to come along on this night walk, but she hung in there like a champion.

fullsizeoutput_15cf

Juvenile plain-bellied watersnake (Photo – Clint King)

We climbed up from the pond and walked around to the yucca meadow, listening to that chuck-will’s-widow as well as a screech owl. And on the way back, I found a Texas threadsnake (until recently, a Texas blindsnake) crossing the trail. Nighttime is when they are apt to be seen moving around on the ground’s surface, and the last time I led a night walk at the preserve, Zachary found a small one beside the trail. During the day, these primitive little pinkish-silvery serpents are prowling through ant or termite colonies, helping themselves to the soft-bodied larvae. We showed this one to the participants, and Clint talked about the snake’s secretion that repels ants and incidentally gives it that silvery sheen. We talked about its vestigial eyes, looking like small vague dots beneath the protective scales of the head, so that it can sense light and dark but probably not much else. Who needs good vision when you spend your days in the darkness of insect colonies? Someone also talked about the habit some screech owls have of taking live threadsnakes to their nests, where the snakes presumably eat tiny invertebrates that would otherwise bother the owls.

fullsizeoutput_15d0

Texas thread snake – the head is in the lower part of the photo, with two vestigial eyes like small dots (Photo – Clint King)

Back at the parking lot, we all said goodbye. The woman who had said she didn’t want to see spiders and snakes thanked us, and I think she meant it. I hope she had fun, and that she was left with the perception that these are harmless and useful critters that can be admired from a few feet away without much worry. And all the other folks, the naturalists and nerds, we all went home with that satisfied feeling from being in the company of others who share an intense love of wild places, even on small preserves surrounded by urban development.fullsizeoutput_1581.jpeg

Upcoming Events, And a New Texas Field Notes

One way to help protect nature is by sharing what it is like to walk through Texas’ woodlands, prairies, wetlands, deserts, and mountains and teach people a little of the natural history of these places. Sometimes we try to do this through writing, and sometimes in more direct ways. Clint and I are participating in a couple of upcoming events we would like to tell you about.

MS-pond-SWNP-26Mar17

A Pond at Southwest Nature Preserve

On April 28, Nic Martinez (an expert on fish and aquatic ecosystems) will join us for a free event at the Southwest Nature Preserve. We plan three activities, starting at 4:00pm with exploring what’s below the ponds using nets and seines (this is an approved SW Nature Preserve activity – please don’t do this on your own). A variety of turtles, frogs, fish, and invertebrates live in the ponds, and we’ll find some of them and document them in the citizen science app “iNaturalist,” as part of the City Nature Challenge 2018. Next, at 6:00pm the two of us and Nic will lead a walk through the preserve, exploring this Eastern Cross Timbers ecosystem and the critters that live there. Then, at 8:00pm as night falls we will take another walk. We will pay particular attention to the edges of the ponds, where frogs may be calling and we might see a harmless snake or two swimming under a nearly full moon! Owls may be calling and spiders will be spinning their beautiful webs.

IMG_0145

LBJ National Grasslands

On May 26, the two of us will lead some hikes at the LBJ National Grasslands in Wise County. This is a place where both of us have spent a lot of time, and it offers a great deal to those who love the prairies and woods of the Cross Timbers. The event is sponsored by the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, and is offered for members of the Friends of Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. We are particularly focusing on the reptiles and amphibians of the LBJ National Grasslands, but you know that Clint will be showing us a lot about the invertebrates that we will find. Michael Perez, from the nature center, can contribute tons of expertise regarding birds and lots more. The event is available for a limited number of people on a first-come, first-served basis, and only to members of the Friends of FWNCR. The Friends would be very happy for you to become a member!

TX-Field-Notes-Jul12Among our past efforts to share nature and encourage conservation was the publication of Texas Field Notes (TFN). The first issue of TFN appeared in 2003 and a few others followed, but it was in April, 2010 that Clint joined Michael in writing an issue of TFN, beginning a long and productive partnership. Our goal was to share our travels across the state looking for herps and get readers “hooked” on the experience of being out there in those wonderful places and seeing amazing wildlife. Perhaps through our words and photos, readers would come to feel a connection to those places that was like home – a place where they felt at peace, where they belonged, and a place they would want to protect. Perhaps readers would have an even greater understanding that everything in the woods, prairies, wetlands, and deserts had an important role to play, even if it was not obvious to us. Even the lowly and misunderstood have value and would be missed if they were gone. Our goal has been this – get out there, experience all you can, and treasure the natural world like a beloved member of your family.

Now seems like a good time to revive that publication, as a companion to this blog. There is something to be said for a publication that you can print and hold in your hands, and one that can be downloaded and saved (or read at the Issuu website). We hope that readers will share it with others, and that schools might make use of it. We also want to include other voices, so if you are a naturalist with something you would like to write, please get in touch with us. We strive to make TFN engaging and accessible for readers, while making sure that its scientific accuracy is solid. And as it was before, it will be a free publication.

On top of all that, we are working on the page proofs for the forthcoming book, Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles and Amphibians, due out this fall. We are really excited about finally seeing this book come out, and hope you will be, too.

Mary’s Creek, Across the Generations

fullsizeoutput_1195

The creek, 3/31/2018

It was a beautiful warm day, the last day of March, and perfect for introducing a couple of people to my favorite prairie creek in western Tarrant County. Flowing across the dark earth of the Fort Worth prairie, the water cuts down to the layers of limestone, clay, and shale, so that the creek bed is relatively wide and flat. I was introduced to Mary’s Creek in the 1960’s by museum buddies, and we walked and waded along its course finding plenty of the reptiles and amphibians that we loved. On this day, Clint and his nine-year-old son Zev would make its acquaintance, wading through clear water and walking over jumbled limestone rocks that the creek piles up like coarse sandbars. Zev is just a little younger than I was when I first explored this place.

Nerodia e. transversa

Plain-bellied or “blotched” watersnake – a harmless snake seen in 2009 at the creek

In the early days, it was almost a sure thing that you would find a ribbonsnake or two threading their way through the vegetation at the water’s edge, hunting for cricket frogs. Similarly, plain-bellied watersnakes (then called blotched watersnakes) were common, though the creek has gone through periods when diamond-backed watersnakes dominated. When I first wandered this creek, it was common to see Texas earless lizards darting between chunks of limestone and stopping to raise their tail and wave the exposed black-and-white bars underneath in a display meant to distract predators. These pale gray or slightly beige lizards are still found here and there in central and west Texas, but they are evidently gone from Tarrant County, at least.

A lizard that may still put in an appearance from time to time, especially in areas where sandy soil borders the creek bed, is the Texas spotted whiptail. These striped lizards burrow in sandy soil and easily live up to the speed implied by “whiptail” and “racerunner” (a closely related species). Red-eared slider turtles have always been there, and occasionally you find a Texas river cooter. Spiny soft-shelled turtles turn up here and there, as do snapping turtles.

IMGP0191

Texas river cooter seen at Mary’s Creek in 2015

When we started our walk, Clint went ahead in search of insects, while Zev and I spent quite a bit of time wading through broad, shallow pools and narrow places where the water surged along rapidly. We talked about how the exposed flat areas of limestone are quite slippery because of the algae growing there, and he quickly learned to use submerged patches of gravel for more sure footing. His curiosity is unquenchable, and he brought up a pebble of shale and marveled at the gooey surface of the rock. These “mudstones” are really just compressed silt and clay, and they easily deteriorate after being in the water. We probably both would have enjoyed wading on into the deeper areas and dunking below the water, had we been dressed for it. But we tried to stay upright in our trek across the slippery limestone and somehow we both succeeded.

IMGP0404

A section of ammonite from Mary’s Creek

It became largely a fossil-finding walk for Zev, as we looked for fragments of the late-Cretaceous ammonites that are fairly common in the limestone bed of the creek. “Lower” Cretaceous means late in that geologic period when dinosaurs were alive and a shallow sea covered a good portion of Texas. A little over 100 million years ago, the area around Fort Worth was at or near the shores of that sea, and to the southwest the dinosaur tracks around Glen Rose were evidently made in the mud around the water’s edge. The limestone of western Tarrant County contains fossils of many sea creatures, including oysters, gastropods whose shells made a spiral cone, rounded sea urchins, and ammonites. While the overall shape of an ammonite shell suggests that of a chambered nautilus, they are said to have been more closely related to today’s squids and cuttlefish. In my many walks and wades along this creek, I used to find intact ammonites up to about 18 inches across (which is not their maximum size). Whether because the creek has eroded down to layers with fewer fossils or for some other reason, a walk today will usually turn up no more than a segment of that ribbed spiral shell.

We each spotted several segments of ammonites, and I found an oyster or two while Clint picked up a couple of gastropods for Zev’s inspection. I think Zev is ready to return to the creek, and I would sure be happy if I have handed down a tradition that he can pick up and carry on. These prairie streams are magical, whether they are running with clear water after rains or drying in the summer sun into isolated pools where sunfish dart under submerged ledges and herons prowl the water’s edge for frogs and fish.

Spearing, D. 1991. Roadside geology of Texas. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Co.

Wikipedia: Ammonoidea. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonoidea (accessed 4/1/18)

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

IMG_2902

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.

IMG_2907

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.

IMG_2915

The hillside

fullsizeoutput_1188

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.

img_1725

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.

IMG_2908

Horse-crippler

IMG_2938

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.

fullsizeoutput_116f

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.

img_1727

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

IMG_2851

Earthstar

“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].

fullsizeoutput_113d

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.

fullsizeoutput_1130

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.

Version 2

Lichen

fullsizeoutput_1132

Savannah

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?

IMG_2882

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.

IMG_2877

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.

IMG_0029

The “wetland cathedral”

IMG_2891

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!).

IMG_0033

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) https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/wma/find_a_wma/list/?id=10 (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”

IMG_0519

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.

Version 2

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.

IMG_0439

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.

clearcut-BThick

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

fullsizeoutput_1122

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.

IMG_2527

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.

IMG_2819

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?

IMG_2834

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. http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/dark-eyed-junco (accessed 1/27/18)

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds – Dark-eyed Junco. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dark-eyed_Junco/id (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.

MS-Chisos1-jpg-BigBend2015

In the Big Bend