Deep in the Heart of texana……

On December 30th of 2018, I hit the road to San Antonio Texas for New Year’s Eve, a tradition that I have had for about the past twelve years. We have gone mostly to get our fix of some really good Mexican food. Typically, I don’t eat Mexican food north of San Antonio.

I try to take advantage of any opportunity to find herps when I am in a different region of Texas. One of the endemic species of turtles that occurs in this region is the Texas Cooter (Pseudemys texana). With a fairly wide range across the central part of Texas, it can be a fairly easy species to locate.

The Texas cooter was the very first species within the genus Pseudemys that I found as a kid. One summer in the mid 90’s my family took a little trip to San Antonio and Austin. My dad took my sister and me to swim at the famous Barton Springs pool. It was there I found a big beautiful female texana hanging out on the limestone in the shallow part of the swimming area. I picked her up and checked her out. I called my parents over and we all admired her. You can see the look of delight on my face in these pictures. After we took pictures I followed alongside her for as long as I could until she finally disappeared into the deep end under the diving board.

Lucky for me in these past few years I have been able to work with and admire many Texas cooters. As a part of the Turtle Survival Alliance – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, we have two long term population monitoring sites. Both locations, Comal Springs and Bull Creek in Austin, are places where Texas cooters call home. Since I see these turtles on a regular basis, I and others have noticed an interesting difference in the look of P. texana from Comal Springs and the ones from areas surrounding Travis county. Since this has been something of interest to us turtle nerds, I make sure to document the differences and similarities in photographs. Carl Franklin even makes a point to do this on the Texas Cooter page of the Texas Turtles website.

“Did you say cooter?  *Aheh-heh-heh hehh*

Yes, we turtle nerds get this question quite a bit from non-herp people. Cooter? Why do we call it cooter? Cooter is derived from an African word for turtle: “Kuta.” When slaves were brought to America the word “kuta” got vernacularized into “cooter.” There ya go!

During the day on New Year’s Eve while my non-turtle friends went to do non-turtley things, I set off to find some cooters in Bexar county. It did not take me long! I ventured to an area off the San Antonio River walk in a very developed location. One of those parts of the city that has recently been renovated with hipster breweries, coffee shops and apartments. To my surprise, I spotted some cooters right away. In Texas we can have all types of weather at any moment in time, and even all at one time. (Seriously!) The weather was rather chilly, overcast and cloudy and 57°F at about 2:30pm. Not what one would normally think of as turtle or herp weather. I have noticed that if days are warmer before leading up to a cooler/ overcast day I still have a decent chance of seeing turtles.  

I photographed these turtles as they sat alongside red-eared sliders and of course the always handsome melanistic male sliders. I made note of the stripes that ran down the side of the cooters’ heads and necks. Many have thicker yellow stripes toward the back of their heads near the ear. Their head shapes always stick out to me. I don’t exactly know how to describe it, but there is an almost blunt shape to their faces. They have a bicusbid upper beak, meaning that the upper jaw drops down in two little points, leaving a notch at the center, just below the nostrils. Along the carapace, at the edges, the underside of each marginal scute has a pinkish-orange circular or ring-shaped blotch. The back legs and feet often carry the same coloration. The carapace can be olive to brown with yellow lines creating a reticulating or even swirl pattern. They also possess amazing bluish/green eyes.

I walked a good distance down the river. As I neared the section where I needed to turn around, I noticed a great blue heron with feathers fluffed up. It looked as if it felt cold, and temperature was cold, that is for sure! Seeing birds is a great side-benefit to exploring waterways for turtles. In these winter months I do become more of a bird nerd since turtle/herp activity slows down. On my walk back, I noticed a little blue heron hunting for whatever creatures it could find under the bank. I watched this little blue heron for quite a while to see what it caught to eat.  As I pressed on, I came across a snowy egret that was also hunting. This little snowy egret was shuffling its feet below the water, at what looked to be the top of the mud or sediment. I watched it flush out whatever it could from the muddy water and then eat it. I am sure this is a behavior well known among birders and ornithologists. It was cool for me to watch!

On the rest of my walk, I spotted a few more turtles and many of the same turtles I saw earlier. I finally called it a day and headed back to my friend’s house to partake in “normal” New Year’s Eve festivities.

New Year’s Day, 2019.

All I really had on my mind with it being a new year was getting out to see what turtles, and particularly what texana, might be out. My friends decided to join me on this stop at a very popular and well-known San Antonio city park. It was 51°F – much colder, more cloudy and overcast than the day before. I was starting to think that I was not going to see any turtle activity.

However, it did not take me long to spot a small Texas cooter and red-eared slider “basking” on a small log. I was pretty happy with that, thinking that those were all I would see.  We all decided to call it quits since it was so chilly. On the drive out of the park I spotted more cooters out on logs and tree limbs in the water. I quickly pulled over and photographed five more cooters. Again, I thought it was still pretty awesome that they were out in such chilly weather!

First turtle of 2019

Texas Endemic

Texas has three endemic species of turtles that is, they are found only in Texas. These are the Texas cooter, Texas map turtle, and Cagle’s map turtle.  The Texas cooter distribution is throughout central Texas in the Colorado, Llano, San Saba, Brazos, Guadalupe, Nueces and San Antonio river systems. We even have speculated that they may be as far up as Tarrant county. We have caught a few during our Trinity River Turtle Survey that have quite a “texana” look to them. (This is a discussion for another time maybe!)  Here are some pictures that may show a bit of the difference between cooters in Comal County, Travis County, Bexar County and even Gonzales County.

Female Comal County
Female -Gonzales County TX

female -Gonzales County TX

For a while P. texana was grouped under Pseudemys concinna (eastern river cooter). It was described as P. texana in 1893.

As I mentioned before, these turtles are bicusbid. The insides of their mouths are pretty interesting. Along the surfaces of the jaws are “tomiodonts,” which look almost like stalagmite and stalactite formations. These structures probably come in handy since Texas cooters are known to be primarily herbivorous. ( these images courtesy of Carl Franklin showing tomiodonts for three different cooter species throughout Texas)

Perhaps the newest bit of information that we have found is that females grow to 13.5 inches (34.3 cm) and adult males reach 11 inches (28 cm) in straight carapace length. This data was collected from our Comal springs study site.

There’s still lots more to be learned about this Texas endemic. Hopefully, 2019 will continue to grace us with more knowledge on this species.

Thanks for reading……..Happy New Year!

-Viviana AKA Mother of Turtles

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

fullsizeoutput_1791

The north pond

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


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

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

fullsizeoutput_1788

Red-eared slider

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

fullsizeoutput_1789

Two turtles at the north pond

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

fullsizeoutput_178a

Dragonfly

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

IMG_3151

A cluster of red post oak leaves

img_1714

Bluestem seeds

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

fullsizeoutput_178b

Honey locust seed pods

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

fullsizeoutput_178f

Great egret

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

The Clouds Tease, and the Lizards Have a Party

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

DSCN0300

Maximilian Sunflower

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

fullsizeoutput_16ca

A young Green Heron

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

 

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

DSCN0307

Clouds to the east, hinting of rain

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

fullsizeoutput_16cf

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

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

fullsizeoutput_16ce

Shelf fungus

For the Sabal Palms, No Sanctuary From Drought

img_1340

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).

img_1334

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.

fullsizeoutput_1640

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!

img_1335

Green anole, in its brown color at the moment

Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands

IMG_2851

Earthstar

“Hey, look at this,” Zev called out. Clint and I came over to see a pale beige sphere resting on eight rather stubby, darker “legs,” as if some weird tarantula had been transformed into a fungus. Of course, that was only our strange imaginations at work. The pale, flattened ball at the top was torn in just the way you would expect from a puffball, a fungus that produces a spheroidal fruiting body that releases a puff of spores when broken. It was the eight “legs” that had us gazing in fascination, and with closer inspection we could see that originally there had been about ten, but a couple had been broken off. We – Clint, his son Zev, and I – were visiting Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area[i] on a warm February 18th. Zev was there for salamanders, Clint was looking for beetles overwintering under loose tree bark, and I wanted to get re-acquainted with the upland savannah there. But really, the thing we were mostly there for was discovering something new or seeing some new variation on a familiar theme. The sort of thing that happens when you stumble upon an earthstar, for example. That vaguely spider-looking puffball? That was an earthstar (thanks for the identification, Burr Williams). What starts out as an outer layer around the spore sac splits into a number of wedge-shaped segments that curl back over the sac, forming star-like rays or, in the one we saw, curling so far under it that they resemble legs. The earthstar develops under the soil surface but pushes up to become exposed when mature[ii].

fullsizeoutput_113d

Site of a prescribed burn two years before

We had already walked for some distance after parking the car at Catfish Creek and poking around in the bottomland woods for a while. We then followed a primitive road up to higher ground and wandered across a big field that had been burned a while back. The larger trees still stood, their lower trunks charred a little but not killed by the fire. Others were standing skeletons of trees that probably died before the fire, and the patches of loose bark on their trunks were the best places for Clint’s “bug hunt.” The ground was a patchwork of tall grasses that had come back after the fire and the burned lower stems of yaupon that formed a thicket before the fire. Those woody shrubs would cover the ground, block the sunlight, and crowd out the grasses and forbs, just as they currently did in nearby areas that had not been burned. I later called and spoke with a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department biologist who said that the burn had occurred in 2016, but that the yaupon and other woody plants had grown so thick that they had to first cut it, then mulch it, and then burn it. We talked further about the effort to restore and maintain the Post Oak Savannah ecosystem, and he said they are trying to do prescribed burns every two to three years. That is music to our ears, because fire plays a crucial role in maintaining prairies and savannahs.

fullsizeoutput_1130

Little brown skink

In this sandy area where the 2016 burn had occurred, Clint was finding invertebrates under bark and beneath fallen branches or logs. Under one of the logs we disturbed a prairie lizard that was just trying to get through the end of winter in peace. Like a junior cousin to the Texas spiny lizard, this species has spiny scales and a suggestion of wavy bands on its back. The prairie lizard’s scales are smaller and less “spiky” than those of the Texas spiny lizard and its sides often seem to be a plain, darker color (while something similar to the wavy crossbands continues on the sides of the Texas spiny lizard). As we continued our walk, we uncovered a number of lizards. In each case we took a photo or two while trying to disturb the lizard as little as possible, making sure to put its shelter back in place at the end. A couple of our finds were little brown skinks. By that we mean not only that they were little and brown, but that they were “little brown skinks,” as someone aptly but unimaginatively named them. Equipped with four small, short legs and a long tail, these small reptiles might be mistaken for stubby snakes as they seem to swim through leaf litter and loose soil as much through undulation of the body as by use of their legs.IMG_2839IMG_2842We saw numerous mushrooms and fungi along the way. One of them that Clint found under a log had the overall flattened, round shape of a mushroom with gills under the cap – but they were hung from the bottom of the log instead of growing up from the ground on a stalk. Some had irregular-shaped caps with thin lines that looked like some delicate, finely striated material had been draped over the stems. And of course, there were shelf fungi on tree stumps and branches, some in a delicate shade of green and others in shades of brown and orange, in concentric bands shading outward to yellow. In a place with generous rainfall and lots of trees, these fungi can proliferate, working to return dead wood to soil.IMG_2850Version 2

Probably because of the greater rainfall and so much wood to attach to, lichens grew in a profusion of the leafy and brushy forms that I’m not used to seeing back home in the Cross Timbers. Closing out the forest around me, I focused in on the fairy forest of lichen, the bowls and cups, the little bushes and trees, all growing in a five-inch section of oak branch. Worlds within worlds.

Version 2

Lichen

fullsizeoutput_1132

Savannah

We drove to the northern part of the property, to an upland area where Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has worked particularly hard to restore the savannah. In places there were extensive grasslands dotted with a few trees, while in others, the prairie grasses grew within a woodland with a somewhat open canopy. It was all beautiful, with the dark trees contrasting with the burnt orange of the dormant grasses and fallen leaves. Thinking about it later, I wanted to talk with a deer hunter to find out if they see this, too. While searching for the right buck, surely some of them get lost in the experience of the twisted oak limbs against the sky, the carpet of reddish-brown leaves, the clumps of grasses like vertical up-strokes on a painter’s canvas, the dense gray blending together of trees when you look as far into the woods as the eye can penetrate. Such beauty cannot just be the background noise of a deer hunt, can it?

IMG_2882

Woodland with open canopy

Further back, a little way from the beaver pond, we had seen a group of turkeys foraging in an open area between the road and the woods. They numbered about fifteen, and probably they had been scratching around for acorns and other nuts and seeds. I took a couple of photos from as close as they would tolerate, which was not very close. Each time I took a few steps closer, the group trotted a little further away. Clint and I had been spoiled in a trip to Palo Duro Canyon, where we saw a group of females being courted by a male. All of them seemed unconcerned about the presence of humans, at least from twenty or thirty feet away, and perhaps the courtship had them a little distracted. But here, in a place managed not just for habitat management but for hunting, the birds rightly sensed that people represent mortal danger.

IMG_2877

Wild turkeys

We had one more shot at finding salamanders before we needed to leave, so we headed down into the creek bottomlands again. In a mowed clearing, we came across the little armored beast that is a Texas icon: the nine-banded armadillo (it is the official state small mammal[iii], in case you’re keeping track of such things). As the compact little mammal snuffled and poked into the base of plants and any little crevice where an insect or grub might hide, I shot some video from the car rather than getting out and spooking him. They are charming in that nearsighted way they have, ambling through the understory or wandering in clearings, digging and rooting around and nearly oblivious of whatever may be nearby. Occasionally they pause and sniff the air, using their one sense that is really keen to check for something – danger? Or the smell of damp leaf litter or soil with better chances of finding something to eat? It is generally understood that to get close to a wandering armadillo, the thing to do is to stay downwind. If you are reasonably cautious you may not be seen or heard, but when they get a whiff of danger, they shamble off toward a thicket. If startled or pursued, an armadillo can run fairly fast, and plunge through tight places and thorny thickets where you cannot go.

We walked down the last distance to a slough, with tall trees standing in dark water. A man-made levee impounded a broad pond where the rich mud and accumulated tannin from fallen leaves made the water black. The branches overhead reached across to the neighboring trees like arches in some wetland cathedral, and this splendid architecture was mirrored in the black water below. An alligator rising to the surface would have completed the swampy picture, but the only reptile we saw was a big red-eared slider, basking on a snag just above the water. She dropped in as we walked nearby, but on our way back she was pulling back onto her spot on the log.

IMG_0029

The “wetland cathedral”

IMG_2891

Red-eared slider

On the other side of the levee was an area with a meandering stream, shallow ephemeral pools, and downed logs. Try as they might, Clint and Zev did not turn up a salamander. What they did discover under a log was a big slug just a few inches from a cluster of translucent ovals, like tiny, bright grapes. A quick check of the Internet verified that these were indeed slug eggs (yes, a smart phone can serve several useful purposes in the field, especially documenting observations on iNaturalist!).

IMG_0033

Slug eggs

And that was our last real discovery on our day at Gus Engeling WMA. We saw another flock of turkeys on our walk back, Clint continued the search for beetles under the bark, Zev was very good-natured about not finding salamanders on our walk, and we continued to soak in the view of every bottomland pool, every downed log, and every woodland clearing on our way back to the highway. Spring is only a month or so away, and we’ll be back!fullsizeoutput_1145

[i] Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area. (Internet) https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/wma/find_a_wma/list/?id=10 (accessed 3/5/18)

[ii] Phillips, R. 2005. Mushrooms & Other Fungi of North America. Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books

[iii] Schmidly, D.J. 1994. The Mammals of Texas (Revised Ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

In Search of the Savannah

IMG_2820I headed northeast for an afternoon’s visit to Caddo National Grasslands, a place just below the Red River in a region of post oaks and other kinds of oak, juniper, and some scattered savannah grasslands. The Post Oak Savannah ecoregion starts at the Red River and extends down in a band through east-central Texas, and I have only been able to visit a couple of places within it, such as the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area. My road trip to Caddo hopefully would help me learn more about the Post Oak Savannah.

Driving north from Greenville, I tried to imagine the origins of the landscapes I was driving through. I knew from the map that it was historically Blackland Prairie. But what did it look like now? There were fields of close-cropped grass on either side of me, stretching back to a nearby tree line, marking a fence row or a creek somewhere. There were little houses every few hundred yards, collapsing barns, and horses nibbling rolled bales of hay. I passed a few fields with black soil, flecked white from last year’s cotton crop. The black soil, that rich, dark, alkaline clay soil, confirmed this as part of the Blackland Prairie, although there was hardly a relic of the tallgrass that made it a “prairie.” But once in a while, among the cotton fields and mowed hay fields, along a fence line I would see a tuft of prairie grass, standing up straight as a yardstick, an echo of an ecosystem that has mostly disappeared.

Even on the outskirts of Honey Grove, getting close to the Bois D’Arc Creek Unit of the Caddo National Grasslands, the soil was still black. I pictured the maps available from EPA and TPWD, showing that the Post Oak Savannah stretches up to the northeastern corner of Texas and then tracks back along the Red River, just above the Blackland, ending in western Fannin County. Even though I trusted the maps, the first thing I looked for when I got to Caddo was the lighter sandy soil that is associated with Post Oak Savannah. And on that first trail I could see for myself, the soil was reddish and sandy.

The trail passed a small clearing with some little bluestem and other grasses, and then descended through woodlands toward a tributary of the creek that runs north-south through the preserve. I was in search of uplands and, hopefully, open grasslands, so I moved on to another trail. The second trail started in a grove of pines and continued over a rolling landscape with oaks and other trees. It dropped down through another creek tributary and back up a hillside. Here and there, surfaces along the ground were covered with patches of moss. So far, this part of Fannin County just seemed like woodlands of oak and juniper.

IMG_2819

A small semi-open area within the woodlands, Caddo National Grasslands, Bois D’Arc Unit

Everywhere that I walked, recollections of another visit to Fannin County were never far from my thoughts. That visit was at a church camp, over fifty years ago, and the memory of finding eastern coachwhips is still very clear. These long, slender snakes are typically satiny black on the head and first part of the body, gradually fading to sandy brown. The scales toward the tail are edged in darker brown, making it look a little like a braided whip. As a teenager at camp so many years ago, I caught a couple of these snakes, typically by turning a log or a section of downed oak branch and grabbing the snake before it could escape. Coachwhips are so fast and agile that few people are able to chase them down when they are awake and on the prowl. I don’t remember what else we did at camp, but I’ll never forget those snakes. One of them in particular gave me quite a workout. In a group of kids walking back toward the camp buildings, I had spotted an entirely black coachwhip in the dirt road ahead of us. As it spotted us and took off toward a line of trees on the right, I broke into a run to intercept it. As our paths converged, I dived toward the snake and caught it. When attacked, coachwhips are known to target the face of a predator, and that is exactly what this one did, tagging me on the cheek. One of the kids ran ahead, no doubt telling a camp counselor that one of the boys had been bitten on the face by a snake. So as I headed up the road, proudly holding my prize, we were met by a group of panicky camp staff, ready for god-knew-what emergency. It was hard for me to see what all the fuss was about; all I cared about was that they would let me keep the snake. I doubt I’ll ever be able to think of Fannin County without picturing a satiny black serpent cruising through sandy soil and open woodlands.

I certainly wasn’t going to find any coachwhips on this January 28th trip, more or less in mid-winter. It’s true that the temperatures would reach into the mid-60’s that day, and I walked the trails in a t-shirt, very comfortable in the warm afternoon sunlight. However, most reptiles would be sheltering in burrows and under logs, with the layers of leaves and soil insulating them from the brief warm-up just as they protect them from hard freezes. The only activity in the forest was the occasional bird flying from tree to tree. It was quiet and peaceful as I walked through the leaf litter under the bare branches. But I still wanted to see some open savannah. I thought about how periodic fires are needed in order to maintain prairies and grasslands. Land managers in such places will use “prescribed burns,” carefully planned so that they do not get out of control, to burn off the woody plants that will turn prairies into woodlands if left unchecked. The grasses burn too, of course, but quickly regenerate from their roots and can compete with the slower growing sumac and tree seedlings. How long since there had been a burn here?

IMG_2834

A patch of open grassland within Caddo National Grasslands

I went in search of another trail, turning south down a county road a short distance, until I found gates for walking trails on either side of the road. One led further into woodland, but the other looked like it led up through a scrubby area, and that’s the way I went. The trail soon opened into a big open patch of grassland! Finally, here was a place that looked like savannah! The afternoon sun was getting low; it was nearly five o’clock and the light was golden and still warm. Sparrows flitted from low tree branches into a nearby thicket at the edge of the open grassland. Here was some north Texas perfection, and I stood there and soaked it in for a while. One of the things that I love about such moments, away from cities and towns, is the calm quiet of the place. The sparrows might call with their high-pitched “stip,” and dormant grasses might crunch as I walked, but such sounds did not have to compete with highway noise or other mechanized sounds. It was quiet, in a way that perfectly framed the occasional bird call. Here was a refuge, a sanctuary in that original sense of a sacred place. Like so many other natural places that have barely been touched by human activity, it was a place where the “noise” of everyday life could be stripped away, down to the experience of the garden in which we originally lived. That garden feels like home, even if most of us would not know how to live there now. It can be a brutal world of predator and prey, unforgiving of accidents or sickness, but in our sprint through the modern world, we might be forgiven if we romanticize that world just a little, and want to step away and stand in the late afternoon sunlight and listen to the birds.

SavannahSparrow-CaddoNG-28Jan18 – Version 2

Savannah sparrow, in a thicket at the edge of the patch of grassland

 

The Dark-eyed Junco

fullsizeoutput_14ccThere is a humble little sparrow that is part of every north Texas winter. When cold winds are blowing and the straw-yellow grasses, dry and dormant, rattle against each other, little groups of dark-eyed juncos flit through the branches and gather on the ground to scratch through loose material, looking for seeds. They are graceful and beautiful in their somber, two-toned gray and white plumage, the kind of little birds I could imagine gathering around the feet of St. Francis of Assisi. For me, their appeal is in their familiarity and in being small, graceful, and understated.

I got a couple of photos of dark-eyed juncos today, and when the photos turned out reasonably well, despite my limited equipment and limited skill, I wanted to share them. And since our goal here is to offer natural history along with stories and images from the field, I needed to check my bookshelf and a couple of websites, because I still know little about birds. I have good intentions, but not enough follow-through. Every winter, birds become a more noticeable presence for me, and at that point I swear I want to become a better birder. I make it a point to keep the binoculars nearby, and I make tiny inroads into the field of ornithology. And then in the spring, the re-emergence of reptiles and amphibians distracts me, my attention is drawn to the leafing out of a million plants that I have yet to learn about, and so on. But now it is winter again, and I have re-discovered birds, including the humble dark-eyed junco.fullsizeoutput_14d2

The eastern populations of this bird in the U.S. are said to be more clearly patterned in gray and white, supposedly leading some to call them “snow birds” because their color is the leaden gray of a winter sky above, and the white of the snowfall below. Further west, they may have some brown or rufous color on the back or sides, and some western populations are described as “pink-sided.” These different races used to be considered different species, and John Tveten writes about the heavy blow to birders’ life-lists when they were all consolidated into just one species in 1973.

Both the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon describe juncos as ground-nesting birds, with nests located under overhanging grass or nestled by a log. But don’t expect to find such a nest in north Texas; they spend winters here but breed further north, often in pine and spruce forests (Tveten mentions that one population of juncos may nest occasionally in the Guadalupe Mountains). During their winters here, they make use of open woodland, fields, and back yards, foraging mostly for seeds.

One nice feature of the Cornell site is recordings of songs and calls. The dark-eyed junco song is a high, musical trill, and they also have a very high pitched, fast “chip” call that they may use during flight and when foraging.

Audubon. Guide to North American Birds – Dark-eyed Junco. http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/dark-eyed-junco (accessed 1/27/18)

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds – Dark-eyed Junco. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dark-eyed_Junco/id (accessed 1/27/18)

Tveten, J.L. 1993. The Birds of Texas. Fredericksburg: Shearer Publishing.

A New Bird and the New Year

It was an attempt to make 2017 go out with a natural “bang,” one more walk on a bright winter day among trees and grasslands. Not long ago I was complaining about the abnormally warm, record-setting days and how I was ready for cold days and, hopefully, snow. Yesterday there was neither snow nor sunshine, but a walk through parts of Eagle Mountain Park under a deck of clouds, with temperatures in the mid-40’s, was brightened by a new avian friend. And that led to other positive things.

The park consists of 400 acres on the eastern side of Eagle Mountain Lake, and it includes woodlands and some patches of grasslands. Its sign declares that it is “where the prairies meet the timbers,” and on a map of our ecoregions, the eastern edge of the lake is indeed at the transition from the Grand Prairie to the Western Cross Timbers. A limestone ridge around the park entrance supports many live oak trees, but dropping down from there, it’s post oak (and some blackjack) all the way. It’s probably fair to say that the park is situated at the gateway to the Western Cross Timbers.

IMG_2752

Eagle Mountain Park

This was not my first visit; Clint, Amber and I first visited there seven years ago, almost to the day. On that particular winter day, we met a buck white-tailed deer that was completely uninterested in running away, and while we kept a little distance (no matter how unafraid, deer are not props for us to pose with), we did enjoy the close encounter. IMG_0148Further down toward the lake, we walked through open areas where beautiful waves of yellow dormant grasses stretched to the tree line some distance away. Arriving at a small inlet of the lake, we saw a basking turtle on a snag out in the water, very likely a red-eared slider. It was a reminder of how our cooters and sliders are cold-tolerant and active just about year-round.

IMG_0155

A patch of grassland within the park, 12/30/2010

IMG_0158

Turtle, basking at Eagle Mountain Lake, 12/30/2010

Yesterday’s walk was on trails that wound through the woods in a different direction, dropping down through post oaks and junipers, across a small foot bridge, and on through gently rolling woods with open glades where the reddish stems of dormant little bluestem grass add their distinctive texture and color.fullsizeoutput_14b1

I had seen a hawk soar by, and watched a turkey vulture riding whatever cold uplift could carry a big bird on a day like this. Here and there, I heard a crow calling to his buddies or scolding some annoying animal (or human). And then, flitting around the lower branches of a juniper, I spotted a small bird. It landed, then took off again, and sometimes hovered at the ends of branches almost like a hummingbird. It was a sort of dull yellow below, and the wings were dark with some wing bars or white pattern. I thought I got a momentary glimpse of a little spot of red on its crown, but was very uncertain, given this little bird’s constant motion.

The first thing was to switch lenses, and I hoped I could do it before losing the opportunity to get a photo. This is the only thing that has occasionally made me wonder if a good point-and-shoot camera would be a better choice – standing there changing lenses while the moment moves on. But I got the zoom lens on and my little friend was still nearby. Every time the bird landed and I got the autofocus going, it flitted away just as the image sharpened and I was about to take the photo. The best image I managed to get before the bird moved on to some other tree shows its back and tail in low flight over a juniper branch. Not a satisfying photo, but might it help identify the species?

fullsizeoutput_14b8

A bad photo of the kinglet as it flew away

Back home, I got out the Sibley guide and was promptly overwhelmed with the variety of warblers and other small birds with some degree of yellow with darker wing covers. The alternative was to post this crummy photo to some Internet community of birders and naturalists who might be able to help. I posted it to the Facebook page for DFW Urban Wildlife (and yes, I did later add it to iNaturalist, a fantastic resource for citizen science and sharing what we see in nature). Soon, I got an identification from a friend – the little bird was a ruby-crowned kinglet. I thought of that little red spot I thought I had seen on the crown of this bird’s head, and was more confident that I had actually seen it. Other comments within the group, as well as information from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and John Tveten’s book The Birds of Texas also matched this little kinglet. They nest far to the north but come to Texas in the winter, they flit nervously through the woods, may hover around tree foliage in search of the small insects that are their prey, and the male’s little red patch on the crown is often not visible but may be seen when agitated or courting.

I thought about how glad I am that there are communities of people who care about these things and are so willing to speak up and share information. Just in our little corner of Texas there are groups like DFW Urban Wildlife and Mark Pyle’s page, “What Kind of Snake Is This? North Texas,” with people willing to jump in and lend a hand. The California Academy of Sciences’ iNaturalist is a grand collection of local and regional projects, where any of us can easily post sightings from a smartphone or computer, providing a photo, location, and other notes, and each sighting contributes to our scientific understanding of the natural world.

In 2018, with all of its worry and difficulty, we need communities of naturalists and just plain nature-friendly folks who will support each other and support wild places. We need people who understand science and people who will contribute to science. And we urgently need every person who can look at a patch of cross timbers or prairie and see something with inherent value, beyond its monetary value as property to be developed or resources to be extracted. Such people give me some measure of courage with which to face the new year.IMG_2745

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. Ruby-crowned kinglet. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-crowned_Kinglet/id (accessed 12/30/17)

DFW Urban Wildlife (Facebook page) https://www.facebook.com/groups/726012804182335/ (accessed 12/29/17)

iNaturalist. https://www.inaturalist.org/home (accessed 12/30/17)

Tveten, J.L. 1993. The Birds of Texas. Fredericksburg: Shearer Publishing, p. 283.

What Kind of Snake is This? North Texas (Facebook page) https://www.facebook.com/groups/whatsnakeisthis/ (accessed 12/30/17)

Signs of Autumn From the Front Porch

As I write, the signs of fall are all around me. The resident bobwhite quail chicks in the field are several months older now and learning to fly. The sinking sun casts long shadows over the eaves of my porch as early as six pm. My wife and I are sitting there now, with only the munching of dried kibble by our cat, Travelin’ Jones, at our feet. The days are still warm but there is a briskness to the air. The first dying leaves of autumn have begun to feel its presence, and respond by sailing over the fenceline from the elms and post oaks and sugarberries and lodging in the grass blades in my yard. Silverleaf nightshade has yet to yield any such quarter; the small crop growing at the edge of the porch has shed its toxic fruit but still stands tall.

I keep a small collection of common native cacti on the other side, a motley assembly of spikey succulents that resemble a line of punk rockers waiting for a show outside the Roxy. There is a hedgehog cactus, a Spanish dagger, a polyheaded hydra of lace cactus, a nipple cactus, and a prickly pear, the latter of which still bears its rosy fruit.

IMG_1813

Giant swallowtail butterfly

Out in the yard a flash of color catches my eye. In the green and straw-yellow sea of short grass beyond the porch the dried remains of a giant swallowtail butterfly sway in the wind like a tattered flag of final surrender. The sulphur-hued diagonal bars on its forewings still stand out against the soft chocolate brown background of microscopic scales. Soon the ants will be picking it apart with all the efficiency of a team of microsurgeons, storing up on energy that will see their colony through another winter in the cross timbers.  Giant swallowtails in this neck of the woods utilize hawthorn as their chief host plant, and the big greenbriar-strangled bush of it that winds its thorny branches about my fenceline sees its share of the exquisitely camouflaged larvae, which resemble bird droppings to the point of giving off a waxy shine of browns, blues, olives and whites. The adult butterfly is among our largest of lepidopterans, reaching a wingspan over 120 millimeters. At the pinnacle of its lifespan it is a common sight as it flaps its massive wings lazily across a glen or hovers over pollen-rich flora.

Speaking of pollen-rich flora, a sprig of goldenrod has sprung up along my eastern fenceline and has somehow gone unnoticed until this evening. As a hunter of bugs I am always eager to check out the bright yellow blossoms of this perennial member of the aster family.  The variety of insects that are attracted to this plant can be astounding.  Bees, wasps, blister beetles, butterflies, and more are all drawn to their intriguing combination of color and aroma. A particular species of beetle that also utilizes goldenrods in this way is the colorful amorpha borer Megacyllene decora, which is adorned with the same black and yellow caution stripes of the likewise ringed scoliid wasps they share space with. Although the beetle itself is harmless it is usually offered the same amount of protection from birds and other movement-oriented predators by this convincing display of mimicry. Amorpha borers are quite uncommon, as their emergence from the false indigo plants that host them coincides with the late emergence of the goldenrod, and the adult beetles’ affection for Solidago blooms limits them to areas where both of these plant species grow.

IMG_0003

Bordered patch butterfly

IMG_0006

Green metallic sweat bee

Of course I must explore this newly discovered goldenrod stalk while the sun is still full enough to coax out the beetles.  Amber follows me on my slow progression by cane across the driveway and to the edge of the field, which feels like a mile. But finally we make it and spend a few minutes checking out a scoliid wasp perched alongside a bordered patch butterfly. Nearby, the shimmering emerald abdomen of a green metallic bee comes into view. No Amorpha borers, as we are not blessed with the presence of false indigo here, but the goldenrod yet again produces its typical generous gathering of insects.

IMG_0009

A pair of great horned owls

Back at the porch, I make a vain attempt to study for an upcoming biology exam, but my concentration is cut short by the raucous cacophony of a murder of crows in the field to the west. This is shortly followed by the piercing scream of an enraged redtail hawk. These signs usually point to some large predator, usually a rat snake (in nesting season) or a coyote. Tonight I was in for something a little more special.  Our resident great horned owl sat perched atop the highwire at the top of a telephone pole. I have seen my fair share of great horned owls, and this is very likely the largest of those. He is the infamous bane of Travelin’ Jones, whose insistent presence beneath the eaves this evening now makes sudden sense. I have often shared my evenings in the presence of both cat and owl, but have never been able to get any pictures. Seeing the chance to remedy this, I dart inside to get my camera. When I get back Amber informs me that a second owl has flown in from the nearby post oak motte and joined our big male. Travelin’ Jones looks up at me and gives a single low-pitched mew wrought with concern. Double trouble.

A pair of crows swoop in for a cheap shot and then a pair of redtail hawks. The hawks wing their way back toward the motte, but the crows circle around and go back for a second round. The owls are instantly aware of my presence, even though I attempt to conceal myself by peering around the corner of my house. They respond by turning their heads in my direction, the silhouettes of their tufted heads portraying a glimpse of the beauty that is the Wilson Prairie at sunset.

IMG_0012

Zev and the owls

No sooner have I acquired my long-awaited pictures than Zev shows up. He has been studying owls for a week or so now and the coinciding events of the evening serve to further entice his interest. He stares out across the open field at the silhouettes of the pair and marvels, as do I.

At dark the owls fly away, but Zev has found a big female green lynx spider protecting her egg sac in the windowsill, and his attention has thus so diverged in her direction. He calls to my attention, and I take the photo opportunity that accompanies the discovery of one of these unusually-colored arachnids.

IMG_0014

Green lynx spider and egg case

It is a nice night. The air is warm and just beginning to be sung into being by a chorus of meadow katydids.  Between the stalks of bitterweed and bluestem they cling to, the cottontail rabbits forage, unaware that death lurks from above on the silent wings of the great horned owls. The crows have retired to their roosts in the tops of the post oaks, their owl-heckling over for the night. And mine as well. There are therapy and exams and labs to think about with the sunrise, but for now it sets humbly over the treetops, its light changing like the color of their leaves as summer gives way to fall on the Wilson Prairie.