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.

For the Sabal Palms, No Sanctuary From Drought

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Sabal Palm frond, turning yellow

The second stop on our Lower Rio Grande Valley trip was to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, 527 acres of relict sabal palm habitat tucked away in a bend of the Rio Grande just south of Brownsville. We had visited in October of last year (and blogged about it here), and we looked forward to seeing it again so soon. There was the prospect of seeing a regal black-striped snake, perhaps in the fallen palm fronds and other material on the forest floor, or finding a Texas indigo snake cruising among the acacias and palm trees. The sanctuary is a subtropical wonderland like no other place in Texas (except perhaps the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve, located next door).

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On the trail to the resaca

However, as we followed the trail into the old butterfly garden, it was hard to recognize the garden plots and little pond that formed a little pollinator oasis in previous years. The plots were still there, with withered pollinator plants shedding most of their leaves under the similarly dessicated trees that usually provide dappled shade. Bees landed on the duckweed-choked puddle that had been part of a man-made pool provided for the butterflies. The trail led away past triangle cactus whose green color stood out against the brown grass and dead leaves, making the cactus seem much more prominent than its usual role, tucked away among dozens of species of green plants.

The promise of water in the resaca pulled us forward; if there was any water in the little oxbow pond, we could focus on wildlife around that little oasis. The margins were still green, but the water was gone, and so was the wildlife except for a green anole lizard and one swallowtail butterfly.

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A resaca, still green but dry

Call it inadequate planning (we could have checked recent rainfall patterns better) or the luck of the draw in a place where rainfall is inconsistent and the climate arid. Outside the immediate area of the river delta is the thorn scrub of south Texas and northeastern Mexico, places that can alternate between desert aridity and pulses of tropical moisture. Clint has visited the Sabal Palms Sanctuary more often than I have, and he said he has never seen it this dry and seemingly lifeless. The one significant finding, one that burns my fingers in envy to type it, is this: While Clint, Zev, and I were making our way to the dry resaca, Amber observed a groove-billed ani on the trail. This is one of those tropical bird species that birders travel to see in south Texas, considering any day when they see a groove-billed ani a lucky day indeed. Meanwhile, the rest of us will try to be content with our sighting of a green anole!

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Green anole, in its brown color at the moment

A Morning at Boca Chica Beach

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A dune at Boca Chica

I tagged along with Clint and his family on a return to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the opening chapter of this trip was a visit to a wonderful stretch of beach at the bottom of Texas. The land is owned by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and leased to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The dunes back of the beach support a healthy population of the keeled earless lizards, and while they occasionally sit still and stare up at you to see what you’ll do next, most often they are seen zipping over the sand as a pale blur, to take shelter in a burrow or under some of the beach morning glory and railroad vine that trace their way across the sand.

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Keeled earless lizard (photo by Clint King)

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Railroad vine

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Beach morning glory

We got there about 8:30am in order to avoid the worst of the day’s heat, and the tide was high on the beach. While I took a few photos of the vegetation in the dunes, and Clint got a couple of photos of the keeled earless lizards, for the most part we walked through the edge of the surf and listened to the thunder of the breakers coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. It was, at least for this morning, Zev’s favorite place on earth, and watching him jump into the breakers or settle into the water and sand as the waves retreated, we remembered how wonderful the world can look when you are nine years old.

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Dunes at Boca Chica

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At the LBJ National Grasslands for a Hot Day and Magical Evening

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LBJ National Grasslands, near Alvord, TX

A group of us got on the bus at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge on May 26th, and I was glad to see that Michael Perez, Natural Scientist Supervisor at the Center, was packing lots of water. We were headed for the LBJ National Grasslands north of Decatur, over 20,000 acres of Western Cross Timbers habitat scattered in a patchwork across the center of Wise County. This was on a day when the temperatures were in the mid-90s around Decatur, and it felt even hotter. The plan was for Clint and me to lead this intrepid group of nature center supporters on a herping trip. The Grasslands was a great choice for such a trip; under the right circumstances we might see any of six or seven frog and toad species, an equal number of lizards, three or four varieties of turtles, and an even greater variety of snakes. Not only that, but Michael is a great birder, and Ann Mayo was with us, bringing her expertise regarding ants and other invertebrates.

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Prairie gentian, among other flowers, grasses, and forbs

We also stopped to investigate oaks, junipers, mesquite, and mid-story shrubs, looking for the Texas spiny lizards and rough greensnakes that we know are fairly common. I also talked about how coachwhip snakes will sometimes slip out of the sunshine and up into the branches of oaks and junipers to cool themselves and rest. Several members of the group looked longingly into those branches, wondering if they might be able to fit in there and cool down, too.

I lapsed into talking about what herps we probably would be seeing, if we had been seeing any, the last refuge for someone trying to make a herp-less herping trip seem like a real one. I talked about coachwhips we have seen gliding like quick shadows through bluestem and sumac, and spotted whiptail lizards that chase down insects on patches of bare, sandy ground, and skitter off with impossible speed. When we found a harvester ant colony (Pogonomyrmex barbatus, the red harvester ant – thanks, Ann!) I talked about reasons for the disappearance of the Texas horned lizard around here. It was a hot walk through beautiful habitat, discussing the ghosts of herp trips past.

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Flower longhorn beetle

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Green lynx spider

The real gems of that walk were invertebrates, such as the green lynx spiders we saw, the harvester ants, the flower longhorn beetle and Brunner’s mantis that Clint caught and showed us. Among the ways that Brunner’s mantis is unusual is that the adults are all females and reproduce by parthenogenesis (asexually). Bright, sunny days can be wonderful times to see insects who manage to go about their business despite the heat.

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A small Brunner’s mantis

We returned to the pine grove where the bus was, and more importantly where the water was waiting for us. After a snack and a rest, we headed down the road to another location. At this point the sun was getting low and the temperatures were more moderate – and strolling across the pavement was the first of several finds that would turn this into a real herping trip. At 7:30pm we found the first ornate box turtle I have seen at the Grasslands in a number of years. It was an adult female, and we all admired her shell with its streaks of yellow on a nearly black background and her ability to pull into her shell and close the two lobes of the plastron (the lower shell) for protection. Box turtle populations depend on the survival of adults over many years, because they reproduce slowly, and they are declining in many places and already gone from others. Seeing this one was the highlight of the trip for me.

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Ornate box turtle

At another location we found a juvenile western ribbonsnake that had recently been run over. I brought this specimen onto the bus, announcing that I was not too proud to pick up roadkill, and talked a little about the natural history of ribbonsnakes. We placed its body into a bag, to donate later to the scientific collection at UTA.

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Western ribbonsnake (juvenile)

The best was saved for last. As darkness fell, we walked a short distance down a trail to find a couple of little ponds. The first was really just an ephemeral pool, a shallow basin of water about ten feet across. Right away, Clint found a little ribbonsnake for us to admire (they are so much prettier and more graceful when alive!). Shortly afterward, somebody said, “Hey, a little cottonmouth!” Sure enough, there was a little brightly banded cottonmouth, barely a foot long and probably born last fall. The little snake initially would not sit still for a photo and took off swimming across the pool. I simply walked over to the other side and tried again, whereupon it turned and swam back.

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Northern cottonmouth (juvenile)

We had talked about the venomous snakes we could see at the Grasslands, and I described them as nonaggressive and posing no threat as long as you do not step on them, pick them up, or startle them at close range. While some participants might have been skeptical at first, this little cottonmouth was a living demonstration that they do not chase people or want any kind of confrontation. I could not get the snake to do the open-mouthed gaping display that cottonmouths are known for; he just wanted to be left alone.

Meanwhile we spotted at least one other little ribbonsnake at the pool, and a juvenile plain-bellied watersnake who swam out into the water and then periscoped up for a breath of air. The reason that this pool was such a hub of snake activity was the numerous frogs there, including some small leopard frogs. We walked to a nearby pond and saw a couple of bullfrogs and heard the calls of gray treefrogs that we were unfortunately not able to find.

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Leopard frog – a recent metamorph (the transition from tadpole stage)

There was one last delightful encounter for us, down the road. At 9:25pm we passed a beautiful broad-banded copperhead. By the time we were off the bus, the snake was off the pavement, but I quickly located it and guided the snake back out where we could look at it. This one was like most copperheads we find, a little stressed and ready to quickly get away if possible, but completely uninterested in striking at us as long as I used the snake hook as gently as possible to manage where it went. After a few photos and some admiring looks at its contrasting reddish-brown bands and rusty-orange belly, I escorted the copperhead off the road and into the safety of nearby vegetation.

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Broad-banded copperhead (photo by Michael Perez)

What had started as a hot, herp-less hike through the woods ended up with our seeing (or hearing) four frog species, one box turtle, and four species of snakes. Despite our running a little late, we stopped at the last intersection where we could either turn and road-cruise some more or else head for home, and it took us several minutes to decide, reluctantly, to go.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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Bluegill

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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.

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Bee assassin

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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