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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
As 2018 comes to a close I have spent a lot of time looking back on this previous year of herping and what my friends and I have begun to refer to as “turtling.”
My lifelong fascination, passion, obsession with reptiles and amphibians and more specifically chelonians has driven me to see some incredible things in some pretty neat places. I have an even more ambitious list for 2019.
My highlights of 2018
These consisted of kicking off a spring break turtle survey with an amazing group of kiddos called the “Spring Lake Adventure Club” or SLAC / SLAC-ers. They got to learn the ins and outs of “turtle surveying 101.” They even have their own blog! I’ll talk more about them in future blog posts. https://chroniclesofslackers.wordpress.com/
This year also marked the first full year of the Trinity River Turtle Survey led by our pal Andrew Brinker. The Trinity River Turtle Survey (TRTS) is a mark and recapture long term population monitoring study. https://www.facebook.com/trinityturtlesurvey/
Also, we continued into the second year of a study on alligator snapping turtles in Harris County.
In April I traveled to Pennsylvania to take part in a wood turtle study/survey led by some of my fellow turtle nerds or as I like to refer to them, my Turtle Family. Pennsylvania was not only a stop to check out wood turtles but a chance to get in some herping of some other amazing species. My buddy Andy Weber not only blew the trip out of the water by catching spotted turtles and painted turtles, but the cherry on top was when he was able to find me a hellbender salamander! This large and elusive salamander is also known as the “snot otter” or “old lasagna sides.” It lives up to its nickname of “snot otter” thanks to the amount of slime it produces when being handled or grabbed. The term lasagna sides refers to the wrinkly folds of skin that run down the side of its body. This helps the hellbender capture oxygen in the quick moving water in which it lives. The hellbender is on the top of many herp nerds’ list of “herps to see in the wild.” It is also a species facing environmental threats and is being studied by herpetologists. Talk about an incredible moment!
In May I spent five days with my turtle family turtling and herping across parts of central Texas. We found everything from narrow-mouthed toads, cliff chirping frogs, broad-banded water snakes to Cagle’s map turtles.
During the start of the hot summer, I traveled to east Texas with buddy Brett Bartek and found southern painted and Sabine map turtles that are only found on that side of the state.
After all that, perhaps the biggest find of the year was discovering juvenile and very old alligator snapping turtles in Tarrant County with Carl Franklin and Andrew Brinker (more on this later also!).
The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) Conference took place in August in Fort Worth. TSA is a nonprofit organization that is, as its website states, “dedicated to zero turtle extinctions” across the globe. This conference is likely the largest assembly of the world’s biggest turtle nerds. I not only presented at the conference but once the conference concluded I took my friend Dr. Shailendra Singh, who is the Director of TSA-India, across as much of Texas as possible. In two days I helped him find 12 species of Texas turtles including all of the Texas endemics and traveled about 710 miles.
Together with Carl Franklin, I presented about Texas turtles for the Cross Timbers Master Naturalists. After that Carl, Andrew Brinker and I traveled to Austin to speak to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. We were there with others to advocate ending the commercial collection of Texas turtles. To our delight, it passed unanimously!
The fall months continued with more herping and turtling. It was a very rainy year so our trapping had to slow down at times due to such high water levels.
Now with these winter days shorter and colder, I spend this time not only reflecting but thinking about many other things relating to ecology and natural history of Texas turtles and herps in general.
“So WHY turtles?”
One question that many of us get asked is, “So WHY turtles?” and “What is your favorite turtle?”
My favorite turtle is any turtle! However, there are a few species that have a special place in my heart. They are not the most flashy, extravagant, or even elusive. One of them is probably the most “common” of our turtles. That common (and neat, to me) turtle is the melanistic male red-eared slider. These melanistic males are so handsome, from the shape of their shell, the color change that happens to the shell, to the darkening and even blackening of their face. I have seen them from chocolate brown, olive green, grayish to completely black. Perhaps my fondness is because this was one of the first turtles I found as a kid. Perhaps I am just curious about when the dark pigments begin to take over and the whole package that comes with them being melanistic. What is the overall function or advantage in them being melanistic? We still have so much more to learn! We see them so frequently it is easy to write them off, saying “Eh more sliders” as we scan the water looking for whichever may be the target species for that day. They are certainly the most requested ID on Texas Turtles Facebook page that is run by Carl Franklin and me. The Facebook page is associated with the Texas Turtles website, a source for lots of information about our native chelonians.
After a day of turtling when I am processing and looking through the turtle pictures from that day, I stop on the images of these “old man” sliders which are fascinating to me. I have made a few observations with these guys here at the end of this year, perhaps I will be able to document and look into them in 2019…..
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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!
Small-mouthed salamander, seen in another place, at another time
You may recall that Clint and I visited the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area last spring (Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands) and had all good intentions of returning to this Anderson County location during the summer. After all, it is a place with velvety-black eastern coachwhips, the occasional box turtle, plenty of five-lined skinks, and it has its share of copperheads and cottonmouths. What could be better? However, I missed traveling to this spot except for a brief visit with Carl Franklin on September 29 where we were able to photograph a very nice cottonmouth.
Now that winter is approaching, we have had some cold weather, and the leaves are dropping from the trees in the bottomlands at Gus Engeling, my thoughts turn to salamanders. And so yesterday, Viviana Ricardez and I rolled the dice (and a few logs) to see if we might spot a salamander or two.
A flooded patch of bottomland at Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area
According to the Texas Amphibians field guide (Tipton, et al., 2012), The western part of Anderson County should be within the range of the small-mouthed salamander, the eastern tiger salamander, and the dwarf salamander, and we’d be within rock-throwing range of at least one more, the marbled salamander. Because of the extraordinarily wet autumn this season (you may recall the record rainfall and flooding in north and central Texas within the past two months), it seemed possible that some salamander breeding might already have taken place and there could be larvae in some of the pools. Low places that temporarily fill with water are great for amphibian breeding because they don’t have fish that would eat the eggs and larvae. In any case, a visit to this patch of the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion on a fine late autumn day seemed like a great idea.
Viviana is a veteran of lots of turtle field work, though she is ready to see any herp species that come her way. She told me of a trip to Pennsylvania during which she saw several salamander species, including our biggest, baddest, most wonderful salamander, the hellbender. We could not possibly top that on this walk, but we would have fun seeing what we could find.
A tiny crayfish from our net
We sampled several pools, pulling a dip net across the bottom and investigating the leaves, twigs, and whatever critters it might catch. Larval salamanders would look a little like tadpoles, but longer and with a feathery frill of external gills behind the head. Late in their development they would have the four small legs typical of the salamanders of the genera Ambystoma (small-mouthed and tiger salamanders as well as others) or Eurycea (including the dwarf salamander). Instead, what we found in the dip net included a few freshwater shrimp a some tiny juvenile crayfish.
We also visited some upland areas, and one beautiful pond that, as Viviana pointed out, had few snags for turtles to pull out on and bask. Otherwise, it was a delightful spot that should harbor all kinds of herps. I won’t say that Viviana is single-minded in her devotion to turtles, but if she was a character in Game of Thrones, she would be known as the Mother of Turtles. In fact, some do call her that!
We walked through a patch of cut and burned land that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is attempting to restore to the savannah that was once typical in this part of Texas. Some native grasses are attempting to come back, although the shrubby growth that swallows up parts of the WMA are trying their best to reclaim this spot. Before this part of Texas was tamed, periodic fires helped keep the woody plants down and helped grasses dominate the spaces between the trees. Small, prescribed fires are the best friend this patch of habitat could have.
Returning grassland, with the forest edge in the background
We returned to the bottomlands, and as we walked the sand and clay road toward a tributary of Catfish Creek, there was Old Man Turtle, to greet Viviana. The old man was a red-eared slider, with the typical pattern of greens and yellows now gone and replaced by dark pigment. Old male sliders often become melanistic in this way, with the carapace (upper shell) a sort of charcoal or vaguely olive-gray color with black borders of the scutes of the carapace. The head, neck, and limbs similarly darken, with the thin green lines breaking up into dots and dashes of darker and lighter gray or olive.
The Old Man – a melanistic male red-eared slider
Viviana, of course, spotted him first, and she picked him up to examine the details of his shell and pattern. There was a notch, an old injury, on his marginals just a little to the right of center near his neck. There were subtle but lovely shades of yellow darkening to gray on his forelimbs and parts of the shell.
His response might have been, “Good day, Khaleesi – to what do I owe the honor of your examining me?” Truly, you would think that this would be the only fitting response to Viviana’s joy and respect when she handles any of these turtles. However, he was not thrilled with being interrupted in his walk to the nearby creek tributary, and his opened mouth was not exactly a grin.
An exchange of gestures
After a series of photos of this delightful old turtle, we let him finish his trek across the road, plunging into the creek and immediately vanishing into the dark water. We were grateful to make his acquaintance, and happy to see him return to his watery domain as a free turtle.
We did not find salamanders, but we got to walk through some wonderful autumn woodlands and savannah, and meet Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
It 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?
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.
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.
Southern leopard frog
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Flower longhorn beetle
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)