Ghosts of Alligator Snapping Turtles

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Skull of an Alligator Snapping Turtle

When Carl Franklin calls, you know there’s going to be something cool happening as a result. This time, today, it was the skeletons of two Alligator Snapping Turtles that could be salvaged for the university – did I want to come along? Well … sure! The two unlucky turtles were beside Catfish Creek in Anderson County, and we were soon making the hundred mile-or-so drive southeast of Fort Worth and Dallas. (It was a plus that the skeletons were supposed to be pretty clean; if he had invited me along to salvage a couple of rotting corpses, the decision might have been different.)

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Carapace (upper shell) of one of the turtles

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is a behemoth; it has a carapace as long as 29 inches and weighs (in the wild) as much as 175 pounds, according to Carl’s Texas Turtles website. In addition to that large upper shell, it has a long tail and very large head, making it the largest freshwater turtle in the western hemisphere. This turtle is found in bayous, rivers, sloughs, and lakes in east Texas (and follows the Trinity River drainage up to the metroplex), and it spends so much of its time underwater that people may not see it, even if it is living in their midst. People also may not see it because it is generally not common and in many places it is declining due to things like poaching. It is legally protected in Texas, but taken by poachers in unsustainable numbers.

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The carapace includes fused spine, ribs, and other bones (a view underneath the carapace)

It also may be killed, as these two turtles probably were, by fishermen who consider them a nuisance or believe that they could deplete the fish they are trying to catch. The Alligator Snapping Turtle does eat fish, though not in numbers that should worry any angler. They also eat lots of other things including acorns that drop into the water, plant material, mollusks, frogs, smaller turtles, and perhaps an unwary nutria. They are fairly well-known for the little fleshy part of the tongue that is wiggled in the floor of the turtle’s open mouth like a worm – a lure to attract a fish or maybe a crayfish or mud turtle. Whatever comes to the lure may cause those enormous hooked jaws to slam shut, and then the predator becomes the prey.

Although, as probably the most passionate turtle researcher in Texas, Carl might have been able to bring us straight to these specimens by sniffing them out or detecting their auras or something, we had GPS coordinates to go by. And so, we found them easily, discarded beside a place where people go fishing. One had a bullet hole in its carapace, and each had an apparent bullet hole in the skull. After we took a few photos, we carefully placed each carapace into a plastic bag and added skulls and other bones that were still present, along with a number of scutes. These specimens will add to the documentation of this species in Anderson County.

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The mushrooms in lowland habitats were pretty

Before heading back, we took a drive through Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area, which is not too far away. Clint and I visited there in early March, and it’s always a good place to visit. As we drive through it, we saw what looked like a chunky brown line stretched out along the edge of the road. It was a Northern Cottonmouth, an unsurprising and a welcome find. We hopped out of the car to get some photos, and the snake responded to our approach with some good old-fashioned mouth-gaping. The snake got its “cottonmouth” name from this bluff display, which it often uses instead of attempting to bite. It simply gapes its mouth, exposing the pale tissues lining the mouth. This one’s fangs were clearly visible, along with its several rows of teeth (including two rows down the center of the roof of the mouth, the “palatine” teeth). This little cottonmouth never actually tried to bite. It simply sat there, sometimes closing its mouth but responding when we moved by gaping again, or widening the gape.

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Northern Cottonmouth, gaping. The fangs are folded and sheathed, extending back to about the eye; the rows of palatine teeth on the roof of the mouth should not be mistaken for fangs

After several photos, we wanted to get the snake off the road so that it would not be run over. This was a little problematic, as neither of us brought a snake hook. Carl handed me a windshield shade with which I gently poked the snake. It neither turned to leave nor struck at this object. We did eventually pester the snake until it left, and it never attempted to bite. This sort of encounter always makes me think of a well-known study in which Whit Gibbons and Michael Dorcas found lots of cottonmouths out in the wild and tested their defensive behavior – some might say “gently pestered” them – and found that for the most part, cottonmouths either try to get away or bluff and often do not attempt to bite. Of course, fair warning, you should always treat a cottonmouth with the respect it is due and assume that it would bite if pestered.

Gibbons, J.W., & M.E. Dorcas. 2002. Defensive Behavior of Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) Toward Humans. Copeia, Pp. 195-198.

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A pond near where the cottonmouth was seen

An Excerpt From “The Big Thicket”

100_0498One chapter of Clint’s and my book, “Herping Texas,” covers the Big Thicket region. In the chapter, I talked about finding tan racers, including one that had been run over on FM 943, as follows (p. 33):

“I would take this specimen for the museum collection at the University of Texas at Arlington, but I hated putting this slender and graceful serpent into a plastic bag. I would much rather have seen her for a moment alive, slipping from pavement through roadside grasses like a bolt of lightning and into the safety of the forest. Like other racers and coachwhips, these snakes are alert and visual, with large, bright eyes set beneath a small ridge that gives them a stern expression – like that of a hawk. They scan their surroundings and detect movement of lizards or other small creatures, and they are swift and agile predators. Such an animal deserves better than to be run down on the road.”

Turns out that there was a second racer nearby, slipping out of sight and then boldly returning, so that I was able to catch him for photographs later. What could explain it? I hope you’ll read the book and find out!


Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles & Amphibians, Michael Smith & Clint King. Texas A&M University Press (release date November 5).

Texas Field Notes – October Issue

The October 2018 issue of Texas Field Notes can now be downloaded and read from the Texas Field Notes page. Not only does this issue explore the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but it includes contributions from Marianna Trevino Wright and Andrew Brinker. Marianna writes about the biological as well as cultural and social impact of the border wall whose construction seems imminent. Andrew writes about the turtle survey he and his Paschal High School students have been conducting on the Trinity River in Fort Worth.

Texas Field Notes Oct-2018Over the course of several visits, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is becoming one of my favorite places, along with the Big Thicket of southeast Texas and the Big Bend region. The Valley has such an amazing diversity of habitats and wildlife species, many of them found nowhere else in Texas or the U.S. Between the chain of fast-growing cities like Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen, and Mission, and the conversion of land for agriculture, we are lucky that there is any native habitat left in the Valley. But the places that do remain are real treasures, worth working hard to save.

In the struggle to keep wild places and wildlife as meaningful parts of the lives of Texans,  we all acknowledge that young people and kids are crucial. Unless more young people grow to love the land and its communities of plants and animals, nature will be left with no one to advocate for it as old-timers and their memories fade away. Andrew Brinker is doing the kind of work that is priceless and necessary, getting high school students out in the river trapping, measuring, and studying the turtles in the Trinity River. These are no superficial outings where the kids see something cool and then forget about it. They are doing real biological work, and generating data truly worth sharing. Thanks for all you’re doing, Andrew!

So please download and read the October issue, and let me know what you think. I can pass along any comments to Marianna and Andrew, too.

Hanging Out with Master Naturalists – II

This past week, I taught the herpetology section of the training for an incoming group of Master Naturalists. I’ve done this several times before, and it is an honor – and it’s fun. For twenty years, the Texas Master Naturalist program has trained and supported a great many volunteers who do all kinds of good things for the wild places and wildlife of Texas. Some of them are experts about one or more subjects, and their training is designed to make sure that they become literate across a broad range of natural history topics. What a great thing that is, to be among people who understand the natural world like they do.

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The classroom training happened at the Hardwicke Center, Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge

On the evening of the eleventh, they sat through three hours of photos and discussion of everything from turtle skeletal structure to the various strategies herps use to find food and defend themselves from predators. They listened to some of my stories from the field and how urgent the conservation needs of herps are (along with most other species of plants and animals). They stuck with me and asked some great questions. Talking with them was a blast!

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Bottomland forest near the marsh

Then came the “field trip” portion of the training, yesterday at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. The class was divided in two groups, with half of them canoeing with Michael Perez while the other half spent about 90 short minutes with me at the marsh boardwalk and the bottomlands near the marsh (and then they switched places and the other half spent time with me). They were ready to see herps and not shy about picking their way through the deadfall and leaf litter of the forest floor. We had talked about cottonmouths, emphasizing their nonaggressive nature as well as the respect and caution that their venom should inspire. I try to get people to be careful and alert without being afraid, and I didn’t see anyone who looked afraid. And unfortunately, we did not see any cottonmouths on that particular day.

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Toad with some characteristics of both Woodhouse’s and Central Plains toads

They were certainly alert, spotting lots of things in the leaf litter that most people would miss. We found just-metamorphed toadlets and cricket frogs. Someone came up with a rough earth snake, and another spotted a baby Dekay’s brownsnake. One of the toads we saw had spots suggesting that it was a hybrid between the Central Plains toad (previously the Gulf Coast toad) and Woodhouse’s toad. Even though it requires a pairing between not just two species but two different genera, such hybrids do happen, and it was cool to see one.

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Green treefrog

The boardwalk was wonderfully productive. Each group got to see and photograph green treefrogs resting on leaves and stalks of the big Phragmites grasses, and one observant person spotted a young ribbonsnake basking on some vegetation. Looking at the photograph later, I saw that it was digesting a meal, possibly an unlucky green treefrog.

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Western ribbonsnake, digesting a meal

In a world preoccupied with … well, with things that seem less than wonderful, it is a privilege to spend time in forests and marshes with people who get excited about finding a small skink in the leaf litter or finding a particularly diverse group of lichens growing on a fallen branch.

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Lichens

The Clouds Tease, and the Lizards Have a Party

The afternoon sunshine was cooking some clouds, and to the south and then to the east the cumulus grew to cumulonimbus with blue-gray around the base and some curtains of rain here and there. It was sunny at Southwest Nature Preserve but it seemed likely that the surrounding clouds would keep the temperatures down. If I didn’t mind getting wet, the outflow winds from an approaching storm would really feel good – and then when it started to rain, well, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad either. So I parked the car and walked down to the fishing pond to see if recent rains had brought the water level up.

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Maximilian Sunflower

One of the pleasures of walking to that pond is all the Maximilian Sunflower along the way. I was first introduced to this native prairie flower when Jim Eidson showed me around Clymer Meadow (a Nature Conservancy property in the Blackland Prairie). The plant sends up tall, unbranching stems with long, narrow leaves folded lengthwise into a sort of “V” and produces beautiful yellow flowers.

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A young Green Heron

The water level had come up a little, and as I walked the boardwalk, I spooked a medium-sized bird that flew to the opposite bank and stood there (perhaps grumbling, “See, you made me miss a perfectly good little sunfish; I almost had it”). Luckily, I got a workable photo so that I could go through the books – and Cornell’s “All About Birds” website – to identify it. My conclusion was that it was a young Green Heron, and my ID, posted on iNaturalist, was confirmed. It is said to be one of the smallest North American herons, and it prowls the banks of wetlands looking for fish, frogs, crayfish, insects, or just about anything. Adults are much less streaked than the bird I saw; they have what is described as a deep green (almost charcoal) back and crown with a reddish chestnut chest.

 

My next visit was to the smallest pond, where an egret was walking around the far bank. I recorded a small video clip of it entering the water under a willow, rather elegantly walking through the water. (I’m afraid I didn’t have a tripod or even a stick to balance the camera, so it is not as steady as I would like.)

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Clouds to the east, hinting of rain

I walked the trails through the woodland and up to the ridge while watching the clouds and picking up a few little muffled drumbeats of thunder. It was sunny, humid, and therefore hot, and the preserve’s lizards were having a party. I saw several dart off the trail and into the leaves or behind brush. They were almost surely Texas spiny lizards who had been chasing insects but headed for the nearest tree as I approached. As I was coming down from the ridge, I was suddenly confronted by a Texas spiny lizard sitting on a small cut stump, facing me. I looked at him; he looked at me. These lizards are wary and fast, and he didn’t lose any time getting off the stump and running into nearby brush. Another one, further down the trail, stopped on a fallen branch and did a great imitation of a patch of bark stuck on the wood.

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Texas Spiny Lizard, camouflaged like a little patch of rough bark

When not seeing birds, reptiles, or other animal life, the preserve never fails to offer up something beautiful. One such offering was a collection of rounded, red-orange shelf fungi growing on a downed branch. Moments like this make a hot, muggy walk really worthwhile.

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Shelf fungus

Late Summer, Reaching Ahead to Fall

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Marsh, FWNCR

I visited the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge today, seeing how it was doing with the rain and more moderate temperatures. Since higher humidity meant a higher heat index even with temperatures in the 80’s, it was a little sultry, but nice. It has been dry, and the cracked and drying mud in parts of the marsh shows it. The marsh is almost always an inviting place, the only exception being the time over fifteen years ago when it completely dried except for some small pools, and Carl Franklin and I hopped down to the dry mud and walked across it. In one upstream pool we found a swirling pit where a number of trapped gar were swimming, gulping air, and wondering why their world was shrinking so dangerously small. Compared to that year, the marsh always looks good.

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Another view of the marsh

I walked a little through the nearby woodland at the crest of a hill that drops down into bottomland forest. It was warm and damp and green, close and thick, guarding its secrets: invertebrates that work endlessly within the leaf litter, creating new soil, and skinks that slither within the layers of leaves and thin the ranks of spiders and insects.

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Woods just above the bottomland

In a nearby pocket prairie, the little bluestem stood in brush-strokes of blue-green with a line of trees behind it. Little bluestem is perhaps my favorite prairie grass. The seasonal change from blue-green to rusty orange is a big part of the beauty of the prairies.

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Little bluestem (with some forbs in the foreground)

I’ve seen several references to fall lately, as if the beginning of another school year and the changing of the calendar to September means that the season has changed. Today was a late summer day; fall does not arrive until September 22, at the equinox when the length of day and night are roughly equal. I am looking forward to fall. It seems like every year, it becomes more of a favorite season, as temperatures drop and sunny days come with that low slanting light. I want the memory of 114-degree (F) days to fade, and I’m ready for the leaves to turn (hopefully some color other than brown). But while I’m waiting, the nature center today was a beautiful place to be.

Two Short Walks in a Midsummer Heat Wave

A high pressure ridge sits over this part of the country, sealing in the heat. That, plus a jacked-up climate, has resulted in weather that is like God’s own convection oven set for “broil.” Despite the record heat, the nearby Southwest Nature Preserve pulls at me like an arcade game for a little kid, and the weekend could not pass without my wanting to play it just a couple of times.

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The moon, over a shrinking pond

Yesterday, July 21st, I decided that surely a walk at sunset would be OK, so I walked the perimeter of the preserve from about 8:30 to 9:30pm. According to my car, the starting temperature was about 101F. I made my way down the trail to the pond at the northwest corner, where the diameter is shrinking toward hot tub size and the water temperature is just right for that. Walking down onto the spongy exposed mud, there was no sign of the leopard frogs I recently saw, but I did surprise a bullfrog that jumped into the hot tub with a splash. Above the pond, several swifts flew their typical aerobatic, twisting dance, and I hope they caught plenty of insects.

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Sunset through the leaves of a giant oak

The insects were the living things most in evidence. Grasshoppers jumped and flew ahead of my steps, and cicadas droned in the background. I walked around to the yucca meadow, and searched the sand by flashlight. I’m guessing that the Comanche harvester ants had been sheltering deep in their colonies, but I did find one solitary ant, carrying a fragment of something and presumably searching for the opening down to join her sisters.

Back in the woods, I checked Weather Underground, which reported the Arlington temperature as 98F, at 9:00pm. The walk back was quiet; the woods were still and the sumacs were wilted, and no Chuck Will’s Widow graced the evening with its beautiful calls. It seemed that everything except the cicadas had retreated into shelters to wait out the heat.

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The little pond, ringed by water primrose

This evening, in a fit of lunacy, I decided I wanted to see what the place was like in the full flowering of the broiling sun. When I arrived, about 6:40pm, Weather Underground said that Arlington was enjoying 112 degrees of late afternoon sun. I walked down to the smallest pond to see if any water remained. As it turned out, the drying of the pond has been a bonanza for the water primrose, which had an ever-widening band of muddy bank which it has covered in luxuriant growth. The center of the pond still has some water, for now.

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A common whitetail dragonfly perches for a moment on a cattail stalk

I walked over to the biggest pond and saw a little blue heron flying off over the water. Dragonflies were active all throughout the preserve, but the big pond was Odonate Central. I stood on the bank, with no turtles to see and no cricket frogs hopping to safety, trying to zoom my iPhone in for a satisfactory photo of one of these acrobatic little predators. I suppose I felt I had to photograph something.

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The late afternoon sun shining through grass seed

Walking back, I spotted a group of several northern cardinals in a group of oaks and understory plants. I got a good look at a male, and caught glimpses of others through the leaves. I did not linger to see when they would move on; it had been a tough couple of walks, and I was only good for about a half hour today, with the temperature still at 104F when I left. Life goes on at Southwest Nature Preserve, sheltering from the worst of the heat or (in the case of the dragonflies) flying in complete defiance of it. Good for them. I’m headed for shelter.

 

Poolside and Under a Tree, on the Fourth of July

fullsizeoutput_169cIt has been a hot and dry spring, and the beginning of summer looks no different. Rainfall totals for Dallas-Fort Worth ranged from 0.77 inches in April to 1.87 and 1.27 in May and June, respectively. We got only a little over three-quarters of an inch of rain in April. The previous three Aprils had rainfall from 3.4 to 5.6 inches (all these numbers from the National Weather Service). I headed for the Southwest Nature Preserve knowing it would be hot and dry – what else should I expect on the fourth of July?

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Texas spiny lizard

Right away there was a rustle in the leaves, and a brightly-marked Texas spiny lizard stopped at the base of a tree, looking over his shoulder to see if I was going to cause trouble. As my hands moved to the camera, he climbed up the tree a couple of feet. When I moved a little closer he scrambled to the other side, in the typical spiny lizard fashion, always staying two steps ahead. Further down the trail I found another of these lizards, hanging head-down and clinging to the bark, tail curving away from the trunk in a slight arc. Here was one way to get through the heat of the day, hunting insects in the shade of an oak tree.

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The second Texas spiny lizard

The pond on the northwest side of the preserve is one of my favorite spots to visit, and today it had not dried up, but was certainly shrinking. Along the water’s edge, a new generation of leopard frogs hopped to safety in large numbers. There were little ones not much bigger than the tadpoles that they were last month, and some that must have made the transition from tadpole stage much earlier in the spring. Here at poolside, a frog doesn’t let the heat bother him or her much. There’s always a quick dip in the water to cool off, and plenty of shade under plants such as the water primrose.

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Southern leopard frog

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Water primrose

Dragonflies patrol the skies over the preserve, and a well-focused image of those delicate, veined wings and wrap-around compound eyes is always worth trying for. I got a couple of passable images today, one that appears to be a widow skimmer and another that was identified on iNaturalist as a common whitetail.

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Widow skimmer dragonfly

I also stopped to admire the lichen on a fallen branch. This working partnership between algae (or cyanobacteria) and fungi always seems to produce a sort of abstract art, and it’s always worth a look.

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Lichen – or abstract art – or both

That was my celebration of the 4thof July, a short walk focused on a love of the land and the wisdom of those who set aside places like this to remain in a fairly natural state. In Woody Guthrie’s words: “From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters / This land was made for you and me.”

Thankfulness on the Lost Mine Trail

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Chisos Mountains, a view from the Lost Mine Trail

In one of Beethoven’s final string quartets (Op. 132), he wrote a slow, hymn-like movement titled, “Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity,” expressing his gratitude as he recovered from a serious illness. (An absolutely mind-blowing deconstruction and analysis of what Beethoven does in this incredible movement can be seen and heard here.) It is a profound, beautiful hymn, not sweet or sentimental, but exactly as I imagine how his soul would examine what it means to be alive in the full realization of how easily life could be gone.

I am hearing the opening notes of that quartet movement now, sitting on a bench in the Chisos Mountains. I have not had a close brush with death such as Beethoven had, but I do have deep gratitude for experiences like today’s walk up the Lost Mine Trail. Here, there is a sense of connection and healing of things that are broken, in a sanctuary where troubles cannot reach. No gift could be more appreciated than this.

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Within the mountain woodland

It is completely quiet except for occasional distant thunder, birdsong here and there, and the beginning sounds of insects here at the end of the day. I keep returning to this theme, how genuine quiet brings such tranquility. That is especially true here in the calm mountain woodland just before sunset. The hikers have gone. Even the knowledge that black bears live on these slopes does not cause concern, perhaps because it is one more indication of how raw and unspoiled this place is.

Here I am, after sixty-seven years still able to climb this trail – not that it is an especially difficult feat – and sit in the silence, watching the shadows lengthen and listening to the song of this earth, uninterrupted by noise. It is a rare privilege in a world that spins and spins, this opportunity to sit still.

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Blue-green spikes of Havard agaves on the mountain slopes

A thunderhead builds, and I watch it expand and drift this way. The thunder is still distant, one of those sounds that can be so relaxing from afar. The long, slanting rays of the sun highlight the tops of piñon pine and Emory oak. A nearby solitary bird trills and occasionally chirps, as the clouds turn rose-colored and the last light glows on the mountaintops. Soon it will be dark, and I will have to go, but I will remember these moments of solitude in the Chisos Mountains.IMG_3030

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At Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

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A trail at Santa Ana NWR

Santa Ana was certainly greener than the Sabal Palms Sanctuary had been, and it had recently rained here, based on the clumps of wet leaves and chaff on the initial paved trail and the slightly muddy dirt trails. That was encouraging. The downside was that the refuge was a hot, wet sauna, and my camera lens needed wiping several times before it would quit fogging.

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Dekay’s brown snakes, courting

I needed that camera lens to be clear, right at the outset of our walk. Amber, whose observation skills are first-rate, immediately found a pair of Dekay’s brownsnakes preparing for mating, right outside the visitor center. These are handsome but unassuming little relatives of the gartersnakes, and they generally live around leaf litter and places where they can find slugs and earthworms to eat. The little pool in the shade of the entrance to the refuge must have seemed the perfect place for a nice pair of brownsnakes to raise a family. I was determined to get a photo, despite the fog on the lens that seemed to say, “Come on, would you give these guys some privacy?”

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A snail on the mesquite bark

Along the trail we walked, mesquites grew alongside a few other trees, and the trunks of the mesquites were dotted with numerous snails with banded or pale conical shells, presumably breakfasting on whatever algae grow on the damp, rough mesquite bark.

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Rose-bellied lizard

Last fall we found that the rose-bellied lizard was very common here, and on this day we saw at least a half-dozen. In overall form they are like a small version of the familiar Texas spiny lizard, and in their skill at tree climbing they are as accomplished as their bigger cousins. I have memories of catching rose-bellied lizards as a teenager in Corpus Christi, and I always associate them with mesquite branches several feet off the ground. The patterns of females are paler, while males sport light-edged dark spots on either side of the back, bordered by a light stripe.

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Texas spotted whiptail lizard

The other common lizard at Santa Ana NWR stays on the ground, often sunning on the trail and running off among the fallen branches and undergrowth off the trail. It is the Texas spotted whiptail lizard, and several of them were busily hunting insects or sunning in the open, eight or ten feet ahead of us. The one I photographed on this day was a big male, the pinkish color under his chin and the blue-black patches of color on the belly scales just visible at the edges. Seven or eight light stripes run down the backs of these lizards, with rows of light spots between the stripes.

We did not hike extensively at Santa Ana. Despite whatever rains had visited the place, most of the ponds were dry and wildlife activity was limited, and with the heat and the relative humidity in the 90’s, our motivation was flagging. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to visit again, as the 2,088-acre refuge still faces the possibility of being cut off from the rest of the country by the proposed border wall. The levee on which the wall would be built runs right behind the refuge entrance, and a fence would consign the place into a sort of “no-man’s-land” between fence and the Rio Grande. You can read more about the threat to the refuge in “Slicing a Corridor in Two: A Report from Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge” from the Wildlands Network blog.

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Black witch moth

Back at the visitor center, we saw a black witch moth, like the two we saw in our visit last year. These big, dark moths have wonderfully subtle patterns on their wings, but as they flutter around, they simply look big and dark. In parts of Mexico this moth is known as la mariposa de la muerte, or “the butterfly of death,” and the myth is that if it enters a house where someone is sick, that person will die. In that context, the frequency with which this insect arrives at the visitor center is a little ominous. But, here is a thought: It is not the refuge that is sick, and there are a lot of people who won’t let it die.