The Ribbonsnake that Got Away

The calls of cricket frogs greeted us as we walked down the banks to the creek below. The little frogs were common along the edge of the water up and down the creek, and their choruses of “grick-grick-grick” started up several times during our walk, from several dozen tiny frog throats. Cricket frogs are among the commonest critters at my favorite creek.

Mary’s Creek

Casey, Shelsea and I walked downstream, soaking in the experience and the creek water, listening to cricket frogs and looking for a turtle or watersnake to show up in the pools and riffles of this shallow creek. I also thought I would catch a few fish in my net, taking a good look at the mosquitofish and maybe see a black-striped topminnow. If we were lucky, we could see ghost shrimp. At least, I’d seen ghost shrimp in the Clear Fork of the Trinity River near Benbrook Lake, where Nic Martinez had netted several of the nearly transparent little crustaceans. He had also netted water scorpions, a slender aquatic bug (literally bugs, in the order Hemiptera, probably in the genus Ranatra) with a breathing tube at the back and strong grabbing front legs reminiscent of the praying mantis.

We didn’t see water scorpions or ghost shrimp, but we did see a couple of spiders worth noting. One was what I’m presuming was a long-jawed orb weaver, legs gathered together under a sycamore leaf.

Long-jawed orb weaver

The other was a little terrestrial spider I’ve seen scampering among the limestone rocks at Mary’s Creek since I was a teenager. They hug the rocks closely and scamper under cover if disturbed. I’ve never identified them, but I bet one of my spider-loving friends can put a name to this critter, despite the fairly fuzzy photograph I took.

Can you identify this one?

Meanwhile, I wasn’t seeing mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) like I ordinarily do, and I really don’t see the beautiful little black-striped topminnow (Fundulus notatus) much any more. We did see lots of sunfish (Lepomis sp.) and small bass (Micropterus sp.) in deeper pools. Here and there, a scooped out “bowl” of clean gravel showed us where sunfish were nesting.

A sunfish nest

The fish that were most common appeared to have been shiners, in the genus Notropis. Some appeared to be spot-tailed shiners, but the one I photographed had no black spot at the base of the caudal fin so it will, for now, be a mystery (Nic?). What I do know is that these fish swim in small schools of six or eight or a dozen, and they stay near the bottom (as opposed to the mosquitofish and topminnows which are, well, “topminnows,” feeding on things at the surface of the water).

A minnow, presumably a shiner

For a herpetologically-inclined person such as me, the reptiles and amphibians command the most attention. And among the limestone rocks near the water, Shelsea spied a beautiful little western ribbonsnake (Thamnophis proximus) and said “snake!” – instantly getting my attention. It was small enough to be this year’s baby, about ten inches of slender little stripes. The ribbonsnake darted under rocks, emerged somewhere else, and stayed just ahead of us. When the snake plunged into a mass of sticks and flood debris, we gave up the chase. Quite often while you are taking apart the pile of debris, the snake makes an unseen exit where you are not looking. We settled for the glimpses we had of this tiny reptile.

I don’t see these snakes as much as I did in the 1960s, when they outnumbered the watersnakes. I don’t know why this is, because those cricket frogs we saw everywhere are a principal prey item for the snakes. Something apparently isn’t working as well as it used to for ribbonsnakes at the creek, but I don’t know what it is.

The creek, near sunset, just after Casey skipped a rock on the water

(I’m writing about some of these outings at www.livesinnature.wordpress.com. I want to write about how time spent in nature affects us, including its effects on stress and attention. If you’d like to “listen in” or, for that matter, participate in the discussion, please look at “Lives In Nature.”)

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Shooting “Lucky”

The first day of June seems like the first day of summer, and today it definitely felt like summer. The temperatures topped 90ºF today with humidity above 40%, and the lens of my camera fogged as soon as I took the lens cap off. But it turned out to be a great day to take some photos of a young person photographing a snake. I had that in mind as a possible cover photo for my book that’s working its way through the publication process at Texas A&M University Press.

Readers who want to learn about the natural history of reptiles and amphibians will find, in that book, plenty of vignettes of snakes, turtles, frogs, and other herps living their daily lives. In the process, they will read about how they eat, how snakes move, the adaptations of American Alligators for aquatic life, how Marbled Salamanders lay eggs in just the right places, anticipating spring rains, and so on. Later chapters talk about how readers can go into the field and find these animals, along with some cautions about getting guided practice and experience in order to stay safe. Although I think the book is practical and well-researched, there are places where I try to describe how a day spent in the field can make you feel. The book is full of objective facts, but I hope the subjective experience, the beauty and sense of peace, shine through.

Embry shoots Lucky, the Great Plains Ratsnake

At any rate, my goal this morning was to get a photograph of a young lady doing what field herpers do: photographing some stunning creature. My luck is not the kind where you just go and hope you find something; I brought along a trusty Great Plains Ratsnake, “Lucky” by name, as a photographic subject. If you watched the TV interview with me about the book, Herping Texas, on the College Station PBS affiliate, you have seen Lucky. I brought her along to give the camera something to focus on much more telegenic than the co-author! And today, she posed nicely and stayed put while I took several photos of Embry photographing her. Embry remained cool and poised while the temperatures rose and I wiped the condensation off the camera lens. It was truly like a sauna out there.

The rest of our walk included lots of butterflies. Embry’s mom and I identified Tiger Swallowtails and a Common Buckeye, along with the smaller sulphurs and a Pearl Crescent. Not all the invertebrates were as welcome as these butterflies; the black-and-red paper wasps (a species in the genus Polistes, I believe) were very active today. I did my best to advocate for them, saying that they really didn’t want any trouble, and we walked past several without any problems. Embry and I traded stories of childhood trauma involving invertebrates – she with wasp stings and me with a tarantula.

American Alligator

At the marsh, we saw a young American Alligator sunning itself on some broken remnants of a boardwalk, and we looked for Green Treefrogs. These frogs make the night quite magical when a chorus of male frogs is calling with their honking and quacking voices across the marsh. During the day, they hang out quietly on vegetation and are usually well-camouflaged and often not seen. However, Embry’s mom took the treefrog prize today, spotting one of them snoozing away on the stem of a big reed. And while I took a so-so picture of it, Embry’s was a much better photo. The treefrog was a highlight of a muggy, hot, but wonderful morning walk. A big “thank you” to Marsha and Embry!

Embry’s photo of a Green Treefrog

Texans: Please Tell Me Your Stories

Increasingly, I wonder about how fellow Texans see the natural world, including the reptiles and amphibians of our state. Texas has 284 “taxa,” or – roughly speaking – “kinds” of these animals, according to the 3rd Edition of Amphibians & Reptiles of Texas (Dixon, 2013). They play important roles in ecological communities, as predators and prey, and their skin secretions and venoms have provided various medicines and are being explored for additional uses to treat cancer and other maladies. They also figure importantly in different cultures, from the myths and beliefs of indigenous people to the tall tales in J. Frank Dobie’s book, Rattlesnakes (1965). In other words, they have been significant in our world and, for some of us, in our lives. The relationships we have with these creatures, including fascination, fear, use and abuse, make an interesting story that ought to be told.

And, at least broadly speaking, they are declining. The global declines of various frog species are being matched by disappearances of turtle species. Various lizard and snake species are not faring much better. This makes our relationships with them even more important, because as the dominant species on the planet, what we do will make all the difference in the futures of many living things, including herps. How we value them and what (and whether) we think about them will make a huge difference in their future prospects.

To those Texans who have experiences, recollections, and opinions about the turtles, alligators, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads, and salamanders of our state: I am interested in talking with you to document your thoughts about these animals. I would like to talk with enough people to put together a picture of the reptiles and amphibians of Texas as seen through the eyes of Texans. I am not sure how this project might see the light of day, but in articles or other media, you could either remain anonymous or could be identified to the extent that you choose. 

You do not have to be an expert, nor is it important whether you like reptiles and amphibians or dislike them. I want to talk to regular folks who have experiences and thoughts to share. I am not interested in talking about pet reptiles – my interest is in how people see the ones that live in the wild in our state. Unfortunately, I would not be able to pay you for your time, except in gratitude for what you can share. 

I would come to you, or to a place that is workable for both of us, and we might talk for an hour or so. For those who don’t mind, I would record our conversation so that I can focus more on our discussion than on taking notes. Any such recording and any information about you personally would either remain private or be shared only to the extent that you give your permission. 

In our meeting, I would ask some questions. I might ask about what kinds of turtles, snakes, frogs, and so on that you have seen and how your observations have changed over the years. I would probably ask what you think about these creatures, and whether you think people would notice if they were no longer here.  

If this sounds interesting to you, please feel free to contact me and we can discuss whether you might want to contribute to this project.

Field Herping While Defending Our Home

I spend as much time as I can in woods and prairies, or wading creeks and watching turtles slip into the water or cricket frogs jump away as I approach. From my first gartersnake in the early 1960s to now, I’ve spent a lot of time in the field, looking for reptiles and amphibians. But that first gartersnake led to a sort of addiction. Ribbonsnakes, watersnakes, box turtles, massasaugas – a list of species that seemed ever-widening as I discovered more of the herpetological world.

Juvenile Plains gartersnake

That world expanded to more of the natural world when, as a young teenager, I spent some of the most valuable time of my life in a couple of Texas museums. I learned how my favorite animals were connected with other species, predator and prey. I learned about plant succession, symbiosis, food webs and the like, as we spent time in the field, patient teacher and eager learners like me, eyes opening to layer upon layer of the lives of forests and prairies, worlds within worlds.

It was as if my mentors and my experience in the field revealed a real and beautiful world to me. I waded in clear streams running along rocky bluffs, where map turtles basked on limestone boulders and little aquatic predatory larvae would transform into beautiful dragonflies soaring on cellophane wings. I learned about tallgrass prairies teeming with diverse plants and animals, adapted so that they required periodic fires and occasional grazing by bison in order to keep on being prairies and not be overrun by shrubs and trees. This seems to me to be the “real” world, while urban landscapes of steel and concrete are an alternate reality in which I may have to spend time, but never quite feel at home.

The “real” world

Field herpers are more likely than most people to understand this “real” world and find beauty in some things that others would overlook, or maybe be repulsed by. Flipping tin to find snakes in the cool of the morning, we might think about how ingeniously an ectothermic animal can make use of its surroundings to get to the right temperature. The sun heats those sheets of corrugated tin and might help get that racer up to speed and ready for a day of chasing down prey. We could find a red-spotted gartersnake in Oregon and imagine the long-running arms race these snakes have had with rough-skinned newts. The newts’ skin produces a neurotoxin that is fatal to many animals and there is even a human fatality, someone who is said to have swallowed the newt on a dare. That toxin that the newt secretes from skin glands, tetrodotoxin, protects the newt from most predators, but not from the red-spotted gartersnake. Perhaps early on the tetrodotoxin killed some of the gartersnakes, but some with greater tolerance for the poison survived. This new generation of snakes was more able to eat most of the newts, but populations with stronger toxins were still protected, and passed along their genes for more powerful secretions. And so it progressed, with newts developing stronger toxin, followed by gartersnakes developing greater resistance. Stories like this teach us so much about predation, evolution, and survival. They continue to hook some of us into a greater fascination and love for the natural world.

And so we go on hikes to look for reptiles and amphibians, and in the process may learn more about the living world around us. Successful searches depend on our understanding a few things about habitat, and we learn more about how an upland oak forest is different from a bottomland forest with its periodic flooding and rich soil. Finding herps depends on understanding a bit of their natural history, and so we learn to look in places favorable for shelter and prey, and we discover how a species’ activity can shift from daytime in the cooler spring and fall months to nighttime in the hot summer. Somewhere along the way, the natural world (which can seem foreign and exotic to some people) comes to feel like home.

That home is shrinking. What used to be a continuous mural of forests, plains, mountains, and deserts across the continent has been clipped into fragments and marked over until it is now a series of portraits and thumbnail images of what once was. A report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) says:

“Compared to pre- European settlement status, over 95 per cent of the tall grass prairie grasslands in North America … have been transformed into human-dominated landscapes. … over 50 percent of all wetlands in the United States have been lost since European settlement, with up to 90 per cent lost in agricultural regions.” (IPBES, p. 27)

Focusing in on herps in particular, the situation is very concerning. Amphibians are in decline globally, and similar declines in reptiles have been discussed for going on two decades (Gibbons, et al., 2000). Habitat loss and fragmentation, toxic pollution, invasive species, climate change, diseases, unsustainable use by humans, all these things are threatening herps and other species.

To borrow a movie (or book) metaphor, it’s like The Neverending Story, in which a young boy reads a book telling about a fantastic world that is being consumed by the “Nothing,” gradually disappearing, bit by bit. Like in our world, where forests are cut, grasslands ploughed, and the animals disappear along with the land. As Bastian reads, he gradually discovers that by reading the book, he has entered the story, and has become a character in it. And by going into the field, we have entered the story, and we are a part of whatever happens to wild places and wildlife. What can we do to fight the Nothing?

Loose bark provides refuges for herps and invertebrates

Among the things we can do is to keep the remaining wild places as healthy as possible. This is important not only in tracts of wilderness, but also in small local preserves. For example, in a woodland we know that some herp species might be sheltering under big loose sections of bark on dead trees. The easiest way to search would be to pull those sections of bark off, but that would destroy a bit of microhabitat that was used by lizards, snakes, and other animals. Once the bark is pulled off, it cannot be put back.  So maybe it’s a big woods with a number of other dead trees, and it might seem like we’re just doing something that is going to happen anyway, eventually as the wood decays. But we probably don’t find what we’re looking for under the bark of that first dead tree, so maybe we go on to the next one and peel the bark off of it. Soon, we have done a lot of damage.  I would rather carry a small flashlight in the field and shine it into such places, so I can see what is there without destroying the places where these animals live.

“Rock-flipping” is a time-honored, though back-breaking field herping practice. Big, flat rocks with just the right amount of gap under them can be great places for herps to shelter. The environment under them can be just right – they may gather the radiant heat of the sun when needed but insulate against severe heat, and the humidity will be a little higher than in exposed places. The easy way to flip a rock is to simply turn it over and leave it there, but that destroys the “just right” conditions under the rock. I am so thankful for those herpers to go out of their way to re-position the rocks just like they were. Researchers in Australia looked at whether herps used rocks that were left out of place and found that they did not. A rock that had been carefully put back in its original position was much more likely to be used by lizards and snakes. They also found that the temperature and humidity were different under rocks that had been moved by humans. A field of rocks that have been turned over and left is the herp equivalent of a place that has been invaded by the Nothing.

Plenty of rocks to flip – but put them back!

Diseases are significant threats to wildlife. Many of the well-known threats are fungal, like white-nose syndrome that has killed millions of bats. More recently, snake fungal disease has emerged as a significant disease in wild snakes, causing fungal lesions of the skin and mouth. One of the biggest culprits in world-wide amphibian die-offs are a couple of species of chytrid fungus. They attack the delicate skin of frogs and salamanders, thickening the skin and harming its ability to exchange gases and water. Field researchers working with amphibians have adopted protocols to make sure they do not spread any such fungus, and we should consider some of the same measures. We might, for example disinfect nets and other equipment as well as the parts of boots that have gathered mud, before visiting a different location. Bleach solutions work well for this.

You explore a hillside all afternoon, being careful to pull rocks up just enough to look underneath, and then put them back just like you found them. Under one of those rocks, you find the most magnificent kingsnake! Its scales are a beautiful, glossy black, each one with a little dab of canary yellow, speckled from head to tail. Do you pick it up? Just take a photograph, or stare in quiet admiration? Or do you take it home? Unlike birders, herpers get to pick up and hold many of their finds. In many cases, perhaps with a hunting license or other permit, we can take reptiles and amphibians home to keep in cages or terraria. Whether that is a good thing is a long and complicated argument.

A beautiful desert kingsnake from Brewster Co., Texas

First, let me tell you about my experience over the years. When I got started, I collected most of the reptiles that I found. My parents accepted my hobby and helped me build cages, and I brought home coachwhips, ratsnakes, box turtles, the occasional snapping turtle, and others. Chances are, I did little harm to most of the populations – I was just another predator, a two-legged boy taking a ribbonsnake rather than a two-legged heron stabbing the snake with its long bill. Predation is a fact of life for wild animals, and unless the predation is too high, the population withstands it. (By the way, it is worth noting that collection by herpers is just like being captured and eaten by a raccoon or hawk or other animal – the herp is dead as far as the population is concerned.)

When increasing numbers of collectors work over a small area, the losses can drive populations down in that place. This is especially true for turtles, which mature slowly and live long lives. A female turtle has to lay lots of clutches of eggs over her long lifetime, because many eggs and young are killed and eaten, and only a few make it to adulthood. This makes every adult box turtle or snapping turtle very valuable. They have to stick around for a long time in order to contribute to the population. Removing a box turtle takes away many years of reproductive potential from the population. Being run over on the highways is a big threat to turtle populations, but collection can harm them, too. In Connecticut, wood turtles were studied both before and after an area was opened to hiking by permit. The population of turtles was gone in ten years, likely because of people who meant no real harm collecting them and taking them home (Internet: Vermont Fish & Wildlife Dept.).

Over the years, I collected fewer herps. This was partly because a large collection of reptiles demands a lot of time and work if you care for them properly. It was also because I noticed that a velvety-black coachwhip cruising gracefully through grassland and scrub loses a lot of its magic once it is at home, in a box. As I came to appreciate them more, I didn’t want to see them confined in a tiny area from which they would gladly escape if they could (and on occasion they did). I learned more by just watching, about how they moved and hunted when undisturbed. I remember watching a watersnake periscope up and look around, and then take a leisurely swim across the creek. I watched a racerunner lizard nervously make its way across sand and grass with quick, jerky movements as if barely restraining its energy. It grabbed an invertebrate to munch it down, and turned this way and that to look for prey and watch for predators. More and more, these moments seemed more valuable to me than chasing the herp down (maybe breaking the lizard’s tail in the process) to collect it.

I don’t want you to think that I am a purist who never captures anything. If it can be done without harming the animal, I may capture it briefly and pose it for a photograph. I also think that some collection of herps for scientific collections is justified – those collections have increased our understanding of these animals greatly, and we need scientific collections. But I found that I did not need much of a personal collection.

What would I do with extra animals kept at home, ones that I didn’t want to keep? I couldn’t (or shouldn’t have) let them go, for several reasons. First, of course, I would never release anything that was exotic. Quite often, something that isn’t adapted to the area will simply die, but if it doesn’t, it can become quite a problem. I’d learned about invasive exotic species, starting with the story of the cane toad, introduced into Australia to control the cane beetle. Apparently the toad did not help with that beetle, but it did eat lots of other things, adding extra pressure on native wildlife. The toad’s toxic secretions were also a problem for wildlife species that attempted to eat it, further harming local wildlife. There are plenty of other stories of exotic wildlife that have gotten loose or been released, such as in Florida.

Thinking about the problems with spreading diseased like chytrid or snake fungal disease, I would not want to release a native animal, either. Being collected is a source of stress, and even if my local ratsnake was feeding and acting healthy, I cannot be sure if that snake might be harboring some pathogen that got established because stress can compromise the immune system. With weakened immune functioning, microorganisms that had been present at low levels might now flourish, and my ratsnake might pick up new pathogens while in my collection, because I did not practice hospital-level infection control when taking care of that collection.

And even if the animal is native and could be proven to have no disease that it could spread, there’s one more problem. Out in the wild, as they grow and move around in their habitat, herps generally stay within an area referred to as the “home range.” They get to know the landmarks and resources of an area and generally stay within that home range. The size of the home range varies a great deal across different species and to some extent for different individuals. A home range might be bigger for larger, active animals and when the resources are limited, forcing the animal to move over a larger area to find what they need. When we capture a reptile and later release it somewhere else, trouble often follows. The animal may not settle down, continuing to search for “home” and having a greater chance of being killed. This problem has been studied, and the results are often similar. Plummer and Mills (2000) radio-tracked eight resident eastern hog-nosed snakes and eight that were translocated. The resident snakes moved about within their home ranges but the ones that had been moved traveled more, often in straight line movements, and were three times more likely to die during the study. Nowak & van Riper (1999) translocated western diamond-backed rattlesnakes in Arizona and found that the translocated snakes moved greater distances, and some found their way back to their original home range while others experienced greater mortality. Overall similar results have been seen with box turtles (for example, Cook, 2004; Sosa & Perry, 2015): when moved out of their home range, adults often move greater distances, may not stay in the area to which they have been moved, and may have greater mortality.

Eastern hog-nosed snake

There have been a few successes when translocating herps, but overall the news has not been very good. Sometimes moving an animal is justified. When a herp is found in some high-traffic, developed location where it will be killed or be unable to find food and shelter, then moving it to the closest available place with suitable habitat may be the best we can do. Otherwise, moving the animal just because we think we know where it would live a better life, or in an attempt to re-establish it in some place where that species has disappeared, is really not a good idea.

So I guess that over the years I have learned a lot of “don’t do this” stuff. But you know what? It’s really stuff that lets me do what I love in a way that helps me protect the places and animals I love. Think of them as ways to fight “the Nothing” while still having a great time exploring forests, wetlands, and deserts, and seeing amazing animals.

AmphibiaWeb. https://amphibiaweb.org/declines/declines.html (accessed 2/9/19)

Cook, R.P. 2004. Dispersal, home range establishment, survival, and reproduction of translocated eastern box turtles, Terrapene c. carolina. Applied Herpetology, Vol. 1, Pp. 197-228.

Gibbons, J.W., Scott, D.E., Ryan, T.J., Buhlmann, K.A., Tuberville, T.D., Metts, B.S., Greene, J.L., Mills, T., Leiden, Y., Poppy, S., & C.T. Winne. 2000. The Global Decline of Reptiles, Déjà Vu Amphibians. BioScience, Vol. 50, No. 8, Pp. 653-666.

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. https://www.ipbes.net/system/tdf/2018_americas_full_report_book_v4_pages_0.pdf?file=1&type=node&id=29404 (accessed 2/9/19)

Nowak, E.M., & C. van Riper. 1999. Effects and Effectiveness of Rattlesnake Relocation at Montezuma Castle National Monument. Flagstaff, AZ: USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center Technical Report.

Pike, D.A., Croak, B.M., Webb, J.K., and R. Shine. 2010. Subtle – but easily reversible – anthropogenic disturbance seriously degrades habitat quality for rock-dwelling reptiles. Animal Conservation, Vol. 13, Pp. 411-418.

Plummer, M.V., & N.E. Mills. 2000. Spatial Ecology and Survivorship of Resident and Translocated Hognose Snakes (Heterodon platirhinos). Journal of Herpetology, Vol. 34, No. 4, Pp. 565-575.

Sosa, J.A., & G. Perry. 2015. Site Fidelity, Movement, and Visibility Following Translocation of Ornate Box Turtles (Terrapene ornata ornata) From a Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in the High Plains of Texas. Herpetological Conservation & Biology, Vol. 10 No. 1, Pp. 255-262.

Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. Wood Turtle. https://vtfishandwildlife.com/learn-more/vermont-critters/reptiles/wood-turtle (accessed 2/10/19)

War and Redemption in an East Texas Forest

Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost, That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world. — Walt Whitman

Caddo Lake, 2016

Caddo Lake is a big, relatively shallow body of water on the Texas-Louisiana border. Its backwaters are a maze of waterways tracing through big stands of cypress and water tupelo, trees whose trunks broaden at the base and are draped in the bromeliad that is referred to as “Spanish moss.” Just south of the lake, on the Texas side, is a mixed pine and hardwood forest that is set aside as the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. But its history involves much more than a quiet pine forest with the calls of birds in the tree tops. It is a place where the forest is gradually recovering from a time when a workshop of war was built among the trees.

Caddo Lake in the drought year of 2011
Backwaters of the lake, in 2016, with an egret hunting among the trees

In the war years of the last century, the Army acquired 8,493 acres south of the lake, and in 1942, the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant began making the explosive TNT. During the 1950’s the plant made rocket motors and incendiary bombs, and this continued during the Viet Nam war. In 1988 it was the site where some U.S. missiles were destroyed as part of the INS treaty, beginning to de-escalate the arms race with Russia. Finally, in 1997 the Army indicated that the plant was no longer needed, and the land was transferred to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the next year. Some places where the worst pollution had occurred were designated Superfund sites by EPA, and efforts were made to remove toxic chemicals. And so, we are really only about twenty years out from the time when concrete buildings scattered through the woods gave birth to bombs and rocket propellant.

Concrete pillars march through the woods, 2016

Clint and I first visited the refuge in 2011, during a terrible drought. It was very surreal to walk along the partially overgrown paved lanes through the forest, running across a big open expanse of concrete where some building appeared to have been razed, and then find a small concrete shell of a building, or maybe a series of upright walls. Walking through beautiful pines and sweetgum trees, we would emerge on yet another tombstone from the war effort – sometimes they were concrete pillars that would have held some tank full of who knows what, or a hollow bunker where a couple of bats roosted. And some areas had a vague pesticide smell, places behind a fence with a sign that said, “restricted area.”

March 2, 2019

Yesterday, Kelby Dupriest and I visited the place again, a road trip for a restorative walk in the woods. Caddo was the best of our regional options, with less chance of rain and more moderate temperatures, and the wildlife refuge is certainly an interesting place. I have seen it as a place struggling to hold on to its integrity as a beautiful upland forest and stately cypress wetland. It seemed to me to be a place out of the Twilight Zone: “Picture, if you will, a quiet southern forest, but a forest that hides secrets.” The wind sighing through pine trees, the soft carpet of pine needles, and the ferns and mosses, all make the sudden appearance of concrete skeletons from a bomb factory all the more jarring. These structures do not look like they housed the precise and efficient mechanisms of 20th century technology; they look crude and rough, like something shamefully hidden away in the woods.

The forest that surrounds the ruins

Walking through the winter woods with Kelby, I also remembered that the scars from the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant should not blind me to the beauty of the place. There were signs that spring will soon return to this forest. Trees are starting to bud, and in places there were clusters of white blossoms. On the thick branches of a big oak, mosses and ferns grew in a little garden where rain and fog and humidity make it possible for them to survive, their roots digging into the tree bark. Life goes on, and because of it, things begin to heal. Despite the things that we may do, this earth is determined to create and sustain life, and to return things to the way they work best, as soil and water, lichens, plants, and animals. Maybe this time the walk was a little more hopeful. The damage was done, and the place isn’t yet healed, but the forest is gradually reclaiming the concrete and the fallen apparatus of war production. Mosses and plants take hold and begin to break it down, and even the poisons might one day be converted and filtered away. A garden is growing where the work of war was once done. Think of it as a place where, year by year and inch by inch, life has the last word. I don’t know how long the forest’s full redemption will require, but someday it will come.

Cedar waxwings, eating the berries of (non-native) privet

Beware of Windigo

Our Relationships With the Earth, and the Wisdom in “Braiding Sweetgrass”

We live by certain rules. They may or may not be written down somewhere, but by observing what we do, we can see the priorities and patterns in our actions. These are the rules or principles that govern our lives. It seems to me that, across most major countries of the world today, the governing principles are to make as much money as you can, and fight against anything that could limit how much you can make. In order to do that, the harvesting, mining, and extraction of “stuff” in order to make money must continue and even accelerate, if possible. Everything else is secondary to those rules.

People may say that they follow different principles. Many of the world’s faith traditions, and many of the ways we like to talk about ourselves, emphasize caring for others, caring for creation (or at least enjoying nature), and sharing what we have. But I am not talking about what we say, but rather observing what we do. With some important exceptions, what most of us do seems to conform pretty well to the rules mentioned above.

What’s wrong with that? We are taught that economies must grow, and if they do not grow they will stagnate and fail, and so we must feed the machine at a faster and faster rate in order to be productive. It is as if we have to break up all the furniture in the house to keep the fireplace roaring, as if the furniture would never run out and there would be more and more tables and chairs to break apart and feed the fire. We have been living in a very big house, but sooner or later we will run out of fuel for the fire. 

From the first century, when the world population may have been between 150 million and 330 million (World Population Estimates, Wikipedia), the human population has grown to a mind-boggling 7.7 billion people (Worldometers), practically covering the continents in an endless hive. All of those people deserve a good life, but only a minority will have one that is materially secure. Too many will be hungry, homeless, sick, or preyed upon by others. However, all of them – anyone with so much as a pocketful of change – is a consumer. And with the majority of the planet trying to make the most money by selling the maximum amount of stuff to those 7.7 billion people, we are stripping and poisoning the earth, the garden that many believe we were put here to steward. 

That’s an old-fashioned term, “steward,” meaning to manage and look after something that is not ours. What if we thought of the earth as something that we don’t own, but that we had the responsibility to care for? The alternative view is that we own it. Ownership is a completely one-way relationship – the thing we own is there to please us, we don’t have any obligation to it. We can use it, sell it, destroy it, and that is perfectly fine in an “I own it” relationship. If we are stewards, the relationship is very different. We are put in charge of something that is not ours, so we must take care to use it wisely, so that it is not harmed. But that places some constraints on our own behavior; we cannot sell it and we cannot strip all the value out of it for ourselves. Stewardship is not a relationship that works for those who are driven to create wealth regardless of the cost. It is not a business plan for the mega-rich.

New York City (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NYC-Skyline-4.jpg)

When the population of the earth was counted in the millions, humans could ignore the idea of stewardship and the earth only suffered in a few places. Over the centuries, more people meant more impact as we went about the business of each obtaining as much power and wealth as possible. There are billions more of us, and we need that much more of everything. Our roads penetrate most of the land area of the planet, and our mines, factories, and agricultural fields cover vastly more of the planet than in the past. 

The consequences of our continually growing population and our drive for endless economic growth are all around us. A recent paper in the journal Sciencepredicts the collapse of all fisheries by 2050 because of the loss of marine biodiversity. In various places across the globe, loss of insect populations is causing alarm, as reported recently in Scientific American. Perhaps it is easy for some people to dismiss the loss of pollinators as some sort of inconvenience to gardeners, but insects are incredibly important. Not only do they pollinate our crops, allowing us to be fed, they help break down dead things so that we do not live in a rotting graveyard. Insects are a fundamentally important part of most food chains, so that the loss of insects would bring about the collapse of a wide variety of insect-eaters, leading to the collapse of other wildlife that depend on those insectivores. The oncoming effects of human-induced climate change are in the news everywhere: heat waves killing people, sea levels rising and threatening coastal communities, loss of species that cannot adapt to a rapidly changing climate, and on and on. We are losing all kinds of wildlife species, leading some to speak of our causing a sixth global catastrophic loss of species.

Because large ecosystems can absorb little disturbances pretty well, we have believed that the earth is too big for us to harm. Years ago I had a climate-denying friend who argued that we were too small to change the atmosphere, that it was arrogance to think we could change the climate. That point of view comes from the time when we were a younger species, far below the 7.7 billion that we now number. But we are beginning to overwhelm the only livable place we know in the universe. There’s no place else to go.

I do not have practical answers. Like so many others, I contribute to the problem; I drive a car, use air conditioning, and so on. As the clock nears midnight, I don’t know how, or if, these problems will be solved, but I know it is wrong to give up, to surrender to the trap we have caught ourselves in. And since we got into this mess through a particular kind of relationship to nature, we should explore other possibilities.

There are other ways of being in a relationship with nature, other than by owning it, selling it, stripping it of valuable materials. It is possible to see it as a garden to tend with care, as in parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we truly lived in that relationship, we might not turn the garden into a wasteland, but we would still be separate from the garden, benevolent but not really a part of it. There is also the possibility of placing ourselves within nature, as part of it, one of many lives that work together in partnership. Among the traditions and belief systems that see our lives and the lives of plants and animals as part of the same cloth are those of some Native American cultures. I am no expert on these cultures, but I can recommend a brilliant, lyrical, and wise book written by someone with one foot in the scientific tradition and one foot in the Potawatomi Nation of indigenous Americans. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. Among her books is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

Throughout the book, Kimmerer tells us the indigenous stories that create a relationship with nature consisting of reciprocity and gratitude, starting with the creation myth in which Sky Woman falls to the earth and is rescued by the animals. Together, each bringing their own gifts, Sky Woman, birds, an otter, and a great turtle create the world – Turtle Island. It is a shared effort, and the world would be incomplete without the contributions of every species. There is also the Windigo myth that warns about how unbridled appetite can separate us from all that we love and consign us to an existence of eternally consuming and never being satisfied. Sound familiar?

Importantly, stories of the natural history of trees and other plants are interwoven throughout the book, clear and lucid portraits of sweetgrass, maple, as well as animals such as mink or salmon. These are not simply scientific profiles (though her training as a scientist means that we learn many things about the biology of these species). She places us there in the field beside her, helping us appreciate small observations like raindrops in moss for their incredible beauty, and also the big, grand pictures of forests and coastlines. And along with that, she weaves Native American ways of being in relationship with nature into her narrative. Like braiding sweetgrass, she braids field observation, culture, and philosophy into a beautiful narrative.

It is important to understand that the book is not selling some indigenous religion in which we are to believe certain propositions in order to receive something (not that I think that any Native American religions work that way). Instead, what is described are ways of seeing the world and being in the world, marked by respect, gratitude, and reciprocity. How different those are from the ways our societies treat the earth now! Everything embodied in this book feels like a satisfying way to live life, a way to escape the insatiable greed of Windigo. The book is not a “fix” for the ecological problems we face, but it sure seems like a good, healthy foundation from which we might search for solutions. 

A final note: get it in audiobook form – Kimmerer’s voice is perfect, like sitting comfortably by the fire, listening to a story told with compassion, friendly good humor, and wisdom.

The End of the Year, 2018

I was lucky to visit Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge on the last day of the year. The weather was wonderful and the refuge is like home. We go back a long time, at least fifty-three years.

Lone Point Shelter

I started off by climbing up part of the Canyon Ridge Trail, up to the top of the ridge. The last 20 feet or so are a climb on stone steps, and suddenly the trail opens up in an area of live oak and yucca. And right there, to your left, is the Lone Point Shelter, a Civilian Conservation Corps structure built in the 1930s. The roof is gone, but there is a nice rock bench on each side to sit and look out over the lake. I took some notes and set my thermometer out – it registered 61 degrees F.

Live oak, yucca, and juniper grasslands (with a generous helping of prickly pear cactus)

Walking down the trail from there, I could have imagined being transported to somewhere on the Edwards Plateau; at least the live oak, juniper and yucca in a grassy savannah reminded me of central Texas. As I returned on this trail, I took a photo of another CCC structure. It’s really just a fancy stone outhouse, but it’s interesting and historical nonetheless.

More of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work

At the base of one of the oak trees I found a big patch of moss, vibrant green from the rain last night. Spending a few moments, very close, losing oneself in the tiny forest of moss leaves, will wipe away some of your troubles – try it!

A moss forest

I followed the trail back down the ridge, noting that my sense of balance on narrow trails with steep drop-offs is not what it once was. However, I distracted myself by noticing some little sprigs of oak leaves that still have their fall color. They are tattered but still pretty.

Fall color in a couple of leaves hanging on

My next stop was Greer Island. It was the first piece of land designated as a nature center, the little seed from which all 3500+ acres sprang. I walked the causeway to the island, remembering that when I was a kid, people drove down that causeway and parked on the island. I guess we’ve grown a little in our willingness to walk, thank goodness!

Coots in a reed marsh beside the causeway
An American coot on the other side of the causeway
Greer Island, seen from the causeway

A number of trails crisscross the island, and I walked the Audubon Trail around part of it. Sitting on a bench beside the water, the temperature on my thermometer was 63 degrees F. I had spooked some mallards, and near the bench were more ducks or perhaps coots making their throaty whistles and muttering. They were completely hidden by a wall of reeds. A little later, I cut back across a little pocket prairie (so small that it might be called a “thimble” prairie!) and through the woods back to the causeway.

A sea of reeds hides a section of Lake Worth
The “thimble”-size prairie
The trail back

I’m grateful that this place is still there, still taken care of by Nature Center staff like the treasure that it is. It was a great way to spend part of the last day of 2018.

She Speaks for Turtles!

You remember last month, I posted an account of a trip taken by Viviana Ricardez and me to Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area (“Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek”). I’m happy to say that Viviana will join us as a contributor, and she will have lots to contribute! She speaks for turtles, sort of like the Lorax speaks for trees (for those of you who have read The Lorax – and if you haven’t, why not?).

Viviana-MacrochelysViviana speaks for turtles, and more than that. She is a dedicated supporter of the wonderful group of kids in the Spring Lake Adventure Club – which she’ll tell you about – and of other herp nerds and turtle folk who belong to that branch of the naturalist clan. Stay tuned!

First Day of Winter, Southwest Nature Preserve, 12/22/2018

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The north pond

It was sunny all day, with barely a wisp of clouds and little breeze. Weather Underground reports that it reached 68F in Arlington today; I did not have a thermometer at the preserve but it’s safe to say that it reached the mid-60’s.


I haven’t written a lot about Southwest Nature Preserve lately, but it is one of my two “homes away from home.” It is a surprising and fortunate thing that these 58 acres of Eastern Cross Timbers habitat have been saved, right here in the metroplex. The rocky hillsides with Woodbine Formation sandstone and blackjack and post oak woods mixed with juniper are prime examples of the Eastern Cross Timbers. The little “pocket prairies” of little bluestem and other native grasses fit right in. There are lots of other little treasures and surprises among the plants: Glen Rose yucca, false indigo, and farkleberry can be found there. And a meadow dominated by yucca, Texas bull nettle, and other plants has the deep sand needed for the Comanche harvester ant to have multiple colonies. Four ponds provide a home for what seems to me like a great diversity of dragonflies and damselflies. The ponds also support cricket frogs, leopard frogs, some watersnakes, and an assortment of sliders and cooters, which are a source of delight for herpers like me.

fullsizeoutput_1786There is something to delight the soul of a naturalist all the year round, and I never regret a single walk there, even after what I’m sure are hundreds of times I’ve walked up to the ridge on “Kennedale Mountain,” visited the ponds, and passed through the little prairies. I was there yesterday at sunset to mark the winter solstice and returned today to enjoy the first afternoon of winter there.

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Red-eared slider

The red-eared sliders were sunning at the ponds, one with the characteristic yellow and green pattern and red patches on the head, and at least one that was an old melanistic male.

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Two turtles at the north pond

Some insects are hiding and dormant, others may have died with the brief spells of freezing we had a while back. Others were out and about, winter or not. A dragonfly skipped around and landed in front of me, bringing a particular bit of scarlet magic to the hillside.

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Dragonfly

Among the leftovers from the fall were a few clusters of oak leaves holding on to red color, and in places the sunlight shining through them was like flame on the woodland floor. The little bluestem still have seeds clinging to the stems, catching the sunlight as if the tiniest white birds had brushed against them and left little white feathers there.

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A cluster of red post oak leaves

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Bluestem seeds

The north end of the preserve has its share of honey locust trees with clusters of long thorns, each with a cross piece of two additional thorns. Their seed pods are long and flat and are often twisted. One tree still held several of these pods.

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Honey locust seed pods

One additional treat waited at the pond at the southwest corner of the preserve, where a boardwalk skirts one edge of it and extends out over the water for fishing. A great egret was looking for something to eat, but straightened and watched me carefully. Despite my slow approach, the bird would not stay, and I was able to take a couple of photos as it flew away.

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Great egret

It was a good start to a winter that I hope provides lots of opportunities for visiting all the preserves and natural places in north Texas.

Hibernating Herps and the Wintertime Search for Salamanders

I talked about hibernation today with a small group at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I love doing anything that may connect people to the natural world to a greater extent, either through knowledge, discovery, or “losing” oneself in a place of peace and beauty. Maybe we did a little of all that today, at least I hope so.

It’s fun to consider “where do they go when winter comes?” It’s fascinating to talk about what it really means to be “cold-blooded” and think about the different strategies herps use to protect themselves from excessive cold. And then it was time to go for a walk, in bright sunshine and temperatures that climbed into the low 60’s.

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West Fork Trinity River

We walked the Crosstimbers trail, starting along the banks of the West Fork Trinity River and then bending to the west and into Cross Timbers woodland, dropping into a bottomland forest along a slough. The river usually provides some wintertime sightings of sliders or cooters, and sure enough, pulled out on a tree branch that had fallen into the water were a red-eared slider and a river cooter. Both turtles have somewhat similar overall forms. Among the differences, one of the easiest to spot is the red patch toward the back of the head of the red-eared slider, which river cooters do not have. However, some red-ears, like the one we saw today, are old dark melanistic males.

IMG_3136In the woods, we talked about possible wintertime shelters for the western ratsnakes, five-lined skinks, and other herps that live in the Cross Timbers. The downed trees or standing dead trees may have cavities that stay above freezing, and burrows beneath the leaves and soil can protect from freezing.

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Flooded bottomland

We also discussed salamanders, and the small-mouthed salamander that used to be seen more often in our area. Why wouldn’t we find them now, when late fall and winter in flooded bottomlands is when and where you would expect them? The refuge has some wonderful bottomland habitat, as well as patches of prairie with small ponds. And yet, there don’t seem to be any records in recent years of small-mouthed (or other) salamanders at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.

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Leaves beneath the water, overlaid by reflections of trees

The entry about the small-mouthed salamander in James Petranka’s Salamanders of the United States and Canadaindicates that breeding takes place after rains between January and February at about our latitude, and that they favor completely fish-less pools and ditches for breeding (since fish readily eat the larvae). More than some other mole salamanders, these can make use of very shallow pools, sometimes with depths no more than a few centimeters. In the section about conservation, he mentions loss of bottomland habitat as a threat.

So maybe this is the winter to pay more attention to possible salamanders in this part of north Texas. We had a very wet fall and we continue to have some rainfall, and so perhaps we will find one, or discover developing larvae in some ephemeral pool, sometime between February and May. It would sure be fun to go looking!

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Small-mouthed salamander, seen in another place, at another time