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

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The north pond

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


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

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

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Red-eared slider

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

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Two turtles at the north pond

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

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Dragonfly

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

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A cluster of red post oak leaves

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Bluestem seeds

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

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Honey locust seed pods

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

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Great egret

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

Two Short Walks in a Midsummer Heat Wave

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

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The moon, over a shrinking pond

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

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Sunset through the leaves of a giant oak

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

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

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The little pond, ringed by water primrose

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

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

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

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The late afternoon sun shining through grass seed

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

 

Poolside and Under a Tree, on the Fourth of July

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

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Texas spiny lizard

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

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The second Texas spiny lizard

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

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Southern leopard frog

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Water primrose

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

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Widow skimmer dragonfly

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

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Lichen – or abstract art – or both

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

At Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

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A trail at Santa Ana NWR

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

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Dekay’s brown snakes, courting

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

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A snail on the mesquite bark

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

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Rose-bellied lizard

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

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Texas spotted whiptail lizard

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

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

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Black witch moth

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

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

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LBJ National Grasslands, near Alvord, TX

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

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Prairie gentian, among other flowers, grasses, and forbs

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

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

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Flower longhorn beetle

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Green lynx spider

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

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A small Brunner’s mantis

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

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Ornate box turtle

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

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Western ribbonsnake (juvenile)

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

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Northern cottonmouth (juvenile)

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

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

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

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

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Broad-banded copperhead (photo by Michael Perez)

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

In the Best Places, With the Best People

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Fleabane

There is a wonderful community of naturalists in Fort Worth and surrounding areas, and some of us got together on April 28 to do two important things: add a little bit to our knowledge of natural history, and enjoy each other’s company. Nic Martinez, Clint King and I had offered to lead some activities at the Southwest Nature Preserve, a 58-acre patch of eastern Cross Timbers in Arlington. Nic knows a lot about the fish and other aquatic life of ponds, rivers, and other wetlands. He was there with several nets, ready to help participants take a look at what lives in the ponds at the preserve. Clint’s specialties are invertebrates and herps, and reptiles and amphibians are my first love. As so often happens in these events at Southwest Nature Preserve, other people who specialize in plants, birds, and other things were there as well. That’s the best thing about it. As we walk along, somebody mentions the odd presence of farkleberry, a shrub whose little flowers tend to hang downward, “like chandeliers,” someone says. The thing is that we are a little west of where farkleberry naturally occurs, supposedly, but here it is anyway. Then at the lovely whistling call of a bird, someone else says, “Listen – it’s a chuck-will’s-widow!” And later, as nightfall comes to the pond, I point out the calls of cricket frogs and bullfrogs. We all learn from each other.

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Farkleberry

This all happened on the weekend of the City Nature Challenge, a friendly competition held annually to see who can document the most wildlife and plants on citizen science platforms like iNaturalist. Among major U.S. cities, Dallas-Fort Worth turned in the most observations last year, and this year it is looking like we are among the top five in terms of the number of people involved, number of species seen, and the number of observations documented. People with tons of experience and people with little or no experience got out there, took photos of plants and animals, and posted them on iNaturalist, where the camera’s or phone’s metadata provided the location and time, and experts confirmed the identities of critters, flowers and trees. While technology took care of those details, we were free to re-connect with old friends and make new friends.

Nic started things off by gathering a few things that live in the ponds. Frogs have been calling and breeding, and he captured tadpoles that were probably going to be cricket frogs and leopard frogs (tadpole identification is not a simple thing, and can involve examining mouth parts and tail shapes, and so we could not confirm their identities). He also netted up the larvae of dragonflies and damselflies, tough predators with little of the grace and beauty of the adults – though I realize that “grace and beauty” are in the eye of the beholder. Later, at the pond with the boardwalk and fishing dock, he netted several sunfish. Don’t let the fact that they are common (“it’s just a sunfish”) distract you from the beauty of these fish with tall, disk-shaped bodies and spines in the dorsal and anal fins. Sunfish have scales that are green or bluish in places, yellow or orange toward the chin and breast, and all manner of blue or green squiggles or spots around the head and gill cover, that is, the operculum. The two I photographed were bluegill, one of our common sunfishes. Near the fishing dock, sunfish gathered in a large group of thirty or so, just below the water’s surface and probably hoping to steal a little bait off someone’s fishhook.

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Bluegill

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Blanchard’s cricket frog

Additional things seen around the ponds were Blanchard’s cricket frog – I netted a pretty one with patches of rust color on the snout and just behind the head – and a bee assassin, a type of assassin bug that may wait within a flower to ambush a bee, which it punctures with a straw-like mouthpart. I also took a photo of a pretty aquatic plant, some species of water primrose, that can form mats on the water with rounded, spoon-shaped leaves connected by red runners.

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Bee assassin

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Rough greensnake (photo – Clint King)

The group of us took a late afternoon walk, with several members of the Friends of Southwest Nature Preserve as well as urban biologist Rachel Richter. Clint and his family caught up with us at the top of the ridge, and they had found a rough greensnake, which Zev held as several of us took photos and admired its graceful, lime-green body. A pale orange tongue and golden eyes round out the beautiful colors of this inoffensive predator of spiders and caterpillars. The snake was then taken back and released on the same bush on which it was found. We made our way around a small trail at the top of the hill, photographing standing cypress, the farkleberry mentioned earlier, and, lo and behold, R2D2 hiding behind some of the woodland understory. We did not post the photo of the little robot to iNaturalist, but we did have fun imagining what he was up to, out there in the woods.

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“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobe, you’re my only hope”

The evening walk was a highlight, in part because of the mix of experts and nonexperts. One of the folks who joined us was a young lady who offered the opinion that she would just as soon not see spiders and snakes, thank you very much. Since these were two of the things we specifically planned to see on this walk, it promised to be an interesting time. I mentioned my own history of spider phobia that began with the time, as a child of about eight, when I gently maneuvered something soft out of a hole in the ground and it turned out to be a tarantula. I’m not sure the story helped a lot, but this brave person stayed with us for the walk. Right away, down by the biggest pond, Clint and Zev came up with a juvenile plain-bellied watersnake. As daylight faded, we examined this little snake by flashlight, and talked about the habits of this harmless species. This particular little snake took the handling and examination good-naturedly and was soon returned to its wetland. As it became really dark, we spotted a few spiders here and there, including a slender little one Clint identified as a long-jawed orb-weaver. We also saw a couple of six-spotted fishing spiders sitting on floating vegetation a foot or so from the pond’s edge. The larger females may reach nearly two-and-a-half inches in length, and they can rest on the water’s surface or even dive beneath to catch some unwary prey. A year or so ago, during a similar event at the preserve, Nic discovered a six-spotted fishing spider munching on a cricket frog, so these are pretty formidable spiders (though not dangerous to us). I suspected that a certain member of our party might be re-thinking her decision to come along on this night walk, but she hung in there like a champion.

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Juvenile plain-bellied watersnake (Photo – Clint King)

We climbed up from the pond and walked around to the yucca meadow, listening to that chuck-will’s-widow as well as a screech owl. And on the way back, I found a Texas threadsnake (until recently, a Texas blindsnake) crossing the trail. Nighttime is when they are apt to be seen moving around on the ground’s surface, and the last time I led a night walk at the preserve, Zachary found a small one beside the trail. During the day, these primitive little pinkish-silvery serpents are prowling through ant or termite colonies, helping themselves to the soft-bodied larvae. We showed this one to the participants, and Clint talked about the snake’s secretion that repels ants and incidentally gives it that silvery sheen. We talked about its vestigial eyes, looking like small vague dots beneath the protective scales of the head, so that it can sense light and dark but probably not much else. Who needs good vision when you spend your days in the darkness of insect colonies? Someone also talked about the habit some screech owls have of taking live threadsnakes to their nests, where the snakes presumably eat tiny invertebrates that would otherwise bother the owls.

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Texas thread snake – the head is in the lower part of the photo, with two vestigial eyes like small dots (Photo – Clint King)

Back at the parking lot, we all said goodbye. The woman who had said she didn’t want to see spiders and snakes thanked us, and I think she meant it. I hope she had fun, and that she was left with the perception that these are harmless and useful critters that can be admired from a few feet away without much worry. And all the other folks, the naturalists and nerds, we all went home with that satisfied feeling from being in the company of others who share an intense love of wild places, even on small preserves surrounded by urban development.fullsizeoutput_1581.jpeg

A Walk at the Grasslands on a December Afternoon

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LBJ Grasslands, Wise County

Fall is my favorite season, which doesn’t align perfectly with my interest in herpetology, because as fall deepens, there is less reptile and amphibian activity, for the most part. But the quality of the lower, slanting light deepens shadows and contrasts, and there is something nostalgic in the way the light suggests that the day is ending, the year is ending, and it’s a time for reflecting on what has come before. The colors are part of the feeling of fall. Even when the leaves don’t turn that brightly, the countryside is a study in bright straw yellow, russet, muted orange, rust, brown, and gray, under what, on some days, is a deep blue sky. A walk in the woods, when you can find a quiet woods, is calm and peaceful, with the crunch of grass or leaves underfoot, and the far-off call of a crow. The smell of the carpet of leaves on the ground is subtle and good – it is good the way that the earth should smell in the woods as it prepares for winter’s sleep.

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Cross Timbers woodland

“Winter” is hardly a word that came to mind yesterday, December the second, as Clint, his son Zev, and I arrived at the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) National Grasslands. The high temperature that day in Decatur was 79°F, twenty degrees higher than average. However, it felt comfortable, compared to many of the late spring and summer walks I have had there, and so we set out across a patch of grasslands and into the oak woods. The path became very sandy, like walking through several inches of fine beach sand. To either side, the mixture of grasses, trees, and woody plants like sumac provide a thin layer of organic debris and tie the ground together, but on the trail, the steps of humans and horses churn the sand and keep it loose and powdery. In many places along the trail, harvester ants were on the march, collecting bits of vegetation and seed to carry down to the colony, to see them through the winter.

The Western Cross Timbers, of which this place is a part, is built mostly on sandstone and clay, and at the LBJ Grasslands the soil shifts between patches of deep sand and patches where red clay dominates. It is a place where erosion often cuts into the land, making the land drop unevenly or seem torn into open ravines.

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Erosion cuts through the grassland

We soon came to such as place, where the grasses gave way to a gully where the water cut through the sand and clay and washed it down into one of the area’s many little ponds. Clint and Zev were inspecting the edge of the pond well before I took yet another photograph and made my way down one of the cuts to the water’s edge. As is always the case, Blanchard’s cricket frogs are still active long after other herps dig into shelters for protection from the night time cold, even if the days may warm to record highs. The little frogs make every day of their short lives count, and when the sun is shining they are likely to be sitting by the water, waiting for the tiny invertebrates that they eat. Nine-year-old Zev is already known to be a master at catching cricket frogs, but the need to keep his shoes dry kept his success at cricket frog capture just out of reach. He walked the narrow space between the dirt embankment and the pond’s edge skillfully, ducking under brush and exposed roots like a tightrope walker, like a confident nine-year-old boy with more experience walking in the woods than most men.

On down the trail we walked, past the stands of post oak and blackjack, juniper, the wild plum thickets, and the open patches of bluestem and Indiangrass. While the dominant trees of the Cross Timbers are post oak and blackjack oak, many other trees flourish there. In places, the junipers are almost numerous enough to suggest the phrase “cedar breaks,” those dense patches of juniper (or “cedar”) on the Edwards Plateau where almost everything is crowded out by the junipers standing shoulder to shoulder.

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Blister beetle

Somewhere along the way, Clint and Zev came upon a sizable black beetle making its way across the trail. Clint identified it as a blister beetle, and puzzled over the fact that its wing covers (elytra) looked a little too short for it to be a black blister beetle (Epicauta pennsylvanica). Whichever member of the family Meloidae it turns out to be, it was black as midnight, and carried a skin-blistering toxin called cantharidin that it would release if harmed. The insect exudes this fluid in a defensive reaction known as “reflex bleeding,” where fluids are released from pores in the exoskeleton. Clint said the point of release in these blister beetles was the leg joints. We photographed it and sent it on its way, unharmed and presumably with all its cantharidins safely within its own body.

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“Fire” in the forest

In some places, one of the oaks would have some leaves with color remaining. Often these were blackjack oaks, but sometimes they were post oak, and they created a nice effect, like a glimpse of orange fire within a forest primarily lichen-gray with green junipers here and there. We appreciated these patches of color even more because they were uncommon.

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Zev, halfway up a juniper

The trail meandered through this woodland, and sometimes required the trimming of a tree or two to accommodate the hikers and horse riders that use it. A few times, the cut limbs of a juniper made just the right set of rungs for Zev to climb. We talked a little about how to go about this successfully. He mentioned the cut limb stubs offering great places to step, while testing other branches to make sure they were not brittle and would not break. I’m really thankful for kids like Zev, who not only have opportunities to explore places like this but who eagerly embrace the experience of climbing trees, catching frogs, and wondering at the intricacies of the little webs of bowl and doily weaving spiders that Clint pointed out among the twigs of the tree limbs. Magical places like the grasslands will be in good hands if inherited by people like Zev.

On the way back, a little bit off the trail, we saw an armadillo snuffling along the woodland floor, pushing neck deep through leaf litter in search of invertebrates to munch on. The nine-banded armadillo is a staple of Texas culture, and it is even designated as the state small mammal. The Armadillo World Headquarters was a venerable spot in the Austin music scene in the 1970s. The real animal is a fascinating creature, armored from neck to tail in hard but somewhat flexible, leather-like skin with bony plates strengthening it. The tail is covered in rings of that same material. In the middle of the back, the animal’s bony shield is broken up into nine bands, adding to its flexibility. They dig multiple burrows that may be anywhere from one to five meters long; short ones may function as not much more than a pitfall trap where insects collect and will be eaten, but longer ones are used as refuges. According to David Schmidly’s The Mammals of Texas, studies of stomach contents show that 93% of the diet is animal matter, such things as insects, grubs, caterpillars, termites, and at times crayfish! The occasional reptile or amphibian is taken as well, as this small mammalian tank plows through the woodlands.

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Nine-banded armadillo

Anyone who has tried to approach an armadillo knows that their vision is poor and their hearing is probably not much better, but their sense of smell is well-developed. By staying downwind, moving slowly or only when the armadillo is head-down in the leaf litter and digging for food, one can often approach them quite closely. I did manage to get a few pictures of this one, initially digging and then sitting up on its haunches to sniff the air. They are inoffensive but exceedingly strong. I freely admit to trying to catch one here and there during my adolescence, and when touched or grabbed their first reaction is to buck (sometimes launching themselves into the air) and then scramble away noisily through the thicket. While they only have small, peg-like teeth, their legs are equipped with very strong claws adapted for digging and are almost impossible to hold onto.

We emerged from this walk tired, after about three miles on the trail, and ready to do it again at a moment’s notice. If you want to visit the LBJ Grasslands, there are trails for hiking or horseback riding in several locations, and a downloadable map at the Forest Service website. You will find over 20,250 acres of Western Cross Timbers habitat, that is, belts of oak woodland and patches of prairie or savannah.fullsizeoutput_1473

Holiday Homecoming in the Cross Timbers

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Light playing with oak leaves

The day after Thanksgiving, November 24, the itch to get outside combined with perfect weather – I had to go somewhere.  I headed for the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, a place that, after practically a lifetime of walking its trails, feels like home. I have a dim recollection of going to Greer Island with Rick Pratt, from whom I learned a lot at the museum as a young volunteer, soon after the first 380 acres had been set aside as the “Greer Island Refuge & Nature Center.” That was in the mid-1960’s. A lot has changed in the fifty years that followed; the refuge expanded to become the largest city-owned nature center in the country, and the twenty miles of hiking trails leads you through cross timbers woods, prairie, bottomland forest, marshland, and limestone caprock at the top of a ridge. It feels familiar and welcoming, like an old friend who you see from time to time and immediately resume a comfortable and warm relationship. It is like home.

In yesterday’s homecoming, my aim was to visit some places along the oak motte trail. One of them is a patch of prairie within the oak woodland, where a giant live oak tree overlooks a gentle hillside with prairie grasses and yucca. Here is some of what I wrote in my notes, at 1:30pm:

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Live oak

I’m sitting beside a very big live oak tree with the early afternoon sun at my back, looking out across a little prairie within the Western Cross Timbers. Here, the soil is a sort of ash-gray, but as the elevation drops, more caliche and limestone appears, with more yucca and the grass is more sparse. Below that, a rusty beige line shows where little bluestem is dominant.

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A patch of prairie

As I walk down to the line of bluestem, it is obvious that (a) a tremendous diversity of grasses and forbs is present, and (b) my plant identification skills are not nearly up to the task. There appears to be broomweed growing amid the yucca, and who knows how many other species, from small, ground-hugging plants to a few big clumps of Indiangrass growing more than head-high. The prairie is dotted with a mesquite here, a couple of junipers there.

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American snout – the reason for the butterfly’s name is clear!

An American snout butterfly comes in over me, low and hard, fluttering away in a strong tailwind. These butterflies are out in force today, and for the most part they make it hard to photograph because they take off when approached. They must have some orange or yellow on the dorsal wings, but their flight is constant motion and when they rest on a stem of grass, their wings are folded, showing shades of gray with a little orange showing where one wing disappears beneath another.

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Northern cardinal, male

So far I have seen a northern cardinal, a mockingbird, a few turkey vultures soaring overhead, and only a couple of other small unidentified birds. The woods and fields are mostly quiet.

As the afternoon progresses, the sun is getting low and the quality of the light makes everything look more beautiful. Autumn here is an amazing mix of yellow, tan, rust, brown, orange, and red, with splashes of green. The yellows and russets of the grasses paint pictures with so many textures and patterns. It is 78 degrees (F) and 22% relative humidity. There is a light breeze. I want to stay!

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A sort of pocket prairie within the oak-juniper woodlands

At the National Butterfly Center – South Texas, Day 3

IMG_2544.JPGWhen you first arrive at the National Butterfly Center, you see a quiet pool with lotus and other plants, and then walk to the visitor center entrance through patches of flowers alive with bees and butterflies. In our visit on October 18, these plants were heavily visited by queen butterflies (among many others), creating a kaleidoscope of black-edged orange wings with a sprinkling of white spots. But amid the peace and beauty of the center’s gardens looms a threat to the center’s integrity, as well as a threat to our system of fairness and due process. Clint and I were there to learn about the beauty of the place, the work of the center staff, as well as the threat that the property will be torn apart by a border wall. The Center’s director, Marianna Trevino Wright, was very generous, taking us on a walking tour of the 30 acres at the front of the center and then a tour of the 70 additional acres of habitat behind a canal and levee that currently can be driven or walked over.

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The marine toad on his perch

Knowing our interest in reptiles and amphibians, she first took us down a trail where an indigo snake periodically turns up. While we did not see the indigo, we did find a marine toad (or “cane toad”) hunkered down in a big lump on top of a cut tree stump, several feet off the ground. Wright said that they climb, and here was a clear demonstration of that! Marine toads are found in Central America and the Mexican coasts, making it barely into the United States along several counties of the lower Rio Grande Valley. It is our biggest toad, growing to roughly four to six inches long. Unfortunately, the species has been introduced in several spots around the world and is a harmful invasive in those areas. Marine toads have very large parotoid glands that produce toxic secretions that discourage predators, and while they are not dangerous to humans (provided you don’t eat them!) it is important to wash your hands if you handle a marine toad.

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Chachalacas, photographed in Harlingen

A little later, as the trail bent around to another area with plants for pollinators, a group of chachalacas ran, hopped, and briefly flew nearby. These birds are roughly chicken-sized, mostly a sort of gray-brown color with a buff-colored belly and white-tipped tail feathers, and we saw several groups at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. There, they usually moved about on the ground and on low branches, and sometimes one would trot along in a way that reminded me a little of a big, chunky roadrunner. Like the roadrunner, their flight was often low and for short distances. Here at the National Butterfly Center, this small group emerged from the brush, hopped onto something and flew on to the next group of trees.

Wright showed us the canal and levee that divides the front and back of the property. The North American Butterfly Association (NABA), which is the parent organization to the Center, owns the land that the levee is on, but the government has an easement at the levee for flood control. The easement would allow government officials or contractors to enter the land and use it for specified purposes. While the language about the purpose of the easement may not say “border wall,” the government can describe the wall as a “fence” and assert that it is an improvement to the levee, thereby attempting to stay within the purposes of the easement.

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Part of the property behind the levee

On the other side of the levee, the Center’s property is mostly a combination of forest and the kinds of plants that make up the south Texas thorn scrub. The low mesquites, acacias, and other trees shelter cacti and various shrubs that can support a variety of wildlife. A little over a mile down the road, we emerged at the banks of the Rio Grande, in this spot looking wide and grand, indeed. The possibilities for supporting wildlife and providing education and research opportunities are clear. Wright described how the Center, as one part of the chain of refuges, preserves, and parks, is supposed to function as a conservation corridor, connecting habitat up and down the river to support everything from indigo snakes to ocelots, Texas tortoises to great kiskadees. Along with preserving a piece of the lower Rio Grande habitat, the Center is also busily helping schoolkids and others learn about wildlife. Wright said that they worked with 6,000 kids last year, and they are working with Streamable Learning to provide virtual field trips to classrooms anywhere and everywhere.

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The Rio Grande, at the south end of the Center’s property

Unfortunately, the border wall will significantly limit some possibilities and destroy others. The threat is not off in the distance, it is here right now. Last July, a government-contracted work crew showed up on the back property, with no notice and no communication to the Center, beginning to take earth samples and cutting trees and brush to widen an already wide dirt road. It is worth noting that this was not on the levee itself, where the government has the easement, but along a 1.2 mile road owned by the Center running back to the Rio Grande. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) come onto the property at will, and occasionally things are tense. Wright said that the NABA has filed a notice of intent to sue CBP regarding their destroying habitat and property without due process – the Center got no notification and no opportunity to challenge what was happening in court. Keep in mind that CBP’s plans not only include a wall of concrete and steel bollards on top of the levee, but clearing a 150-foot zone around the wall that will be barren, and setting up lights and surveillance around the wall. Wright told us that she has been told that the workers will be back, accompanied by armed CBP agents. It appears that the intent to go to court means nothing, and they may show up and clear the land, getting it done before NABA would even be able to try to get a court injunction that would make them wait until the legal question is settled.

For some background information about the wall in the lower Rio Grande Valley, you could read “Over the Wall,” an article from this past June in the Texas Observer. Another article described how the wall would destroy the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, in the words of a federal official quoted by the Observer.

We know that readers of this blog may be united in an interest in wildlife and habitat but have diverse political opinions. However, my perspective is that this is not necessarily a political issue in the usual sense. I don’t care who you vote for, but chances are you support conservation of wildlife and habitat, nature education, and the preservation of our rights as private citizens (or private nonprofit organizations) to hold private property without worry that the government will simply take it, overrun it, or destroy it without due process – without our having our day in court to say why it shouldn’t happen.

It you would like to support the National Butterfly Center, there are a couple of ways to do this, through their website. One is to support their legal defense fund, and the other is to download and send their model letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supporting NABA’s right to due process prior to CBP taking part of their land, making a strip of it completely unusable for its purposes, and consigning over half of their property to a “no man’s land” behind the wall.

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The mercurial skipper, a rare species seen while we visited the Center

A Day at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary – South Texas, Day 2

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Historic Rabb House, the visitors center for the Sabal Palms Sanctuary

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Sabal palm

Today I hiked through the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, a 557-acre preserve along the Rio Grande, about as far south in Texas as it is possible to go. It is known for birding, butterflies, and among herpers, its claim to fame is the presence of such species as Texas indigo snakes, black-striped snakes, and speckled racers. The Master of Ceremonies, however, is the sabal palm or sabal palmetto, a palm tree that can reach over 60 feet in height and has a crown of fan-shaped leaves. While sabal palms used to grow in groves along a considerable portion of the lower Rio Grande valley, these wild-growing groves or forests of palms have mostly disappeared. The trunks of these palm trees often have a cross-hatched, latticework appearance because when it loses leaves, the bases of the leaves often remain in a sort of upside-down “Y” known as a “bootjack.” The diagonal portions of the “Y” are overlapped by newer bootjacks, leading to the distinctive appearance. On the other hand, if these bootjacks are removed or lost, the trunk has a fairly smooth appearance.

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Detail of the trunk, showing “bootjacks”

We drove down Las Palmas Road, and over a levee and through a gap in the enormous border fence, while a Border Patrol vehicle looked on. The first person we spoke with at the sanctuary said they really have no comment about the border wall, because of the controversy. A different person we spoke to before leaving said that he understood no further wall was planned at this location, other than the existing “fence” of 18-foot reddish-brown upright steel bars.

When we arrived, of course Clint contrived to get the very first sighting, suitable for posting to iNaturalist: it was a Mediterranean gecko, and a dead one at that, lying on the sidewalk into the visitors center. Some people will do anything for an added sighting at iNat!

We started our walk through some open woodland and checked out the overlook to the Rio Grande, and then headed for the butterfly garden. Along the way, Clint found several noteworthy invertebrates – one was an ant mimic, apparently a type of assassin bug that looks at first glance like an ant. We began seeing large numbers of what appeared to be the milkweed tussock moth caterpillar, a hairy beast with tufts of black and white with a few spots of orange, advertising to any and all birds that it is too toxic to eat.

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Ant mimic

An additional caterpillar was a little black-and-white banded critter with yellow projections or knobs around it. This was the larval form of Forbes’ silkmoth, a very uncommon species. The adult winged form is huge and decorated with bands of reddish brown and yellow, with four translucent teardrop-shaped spots that give it the name “cuatro espejos” (four mirrors) in Mexico.

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Forbe’s silkmoth caterpillar

We then entered the Forest Trail, winding through a more closed canopy of sabal palms and other trees. At 11:32am, a fair distance in, the temperature was 77 degrees with a comfortable relative humidity of 49%, with breezes sighing overhead. The forest here is like the Rio Grande Valley’s version of the Big Thicket: dense, biodiverse, and looking like it had been undisturbed since before Texas was settled. Palms were mixed with acacias, ebony blackbead trees, and the understory a profusion of vines. Without enough sunlight for grass, the ground was covered in such things as palm fronds, seed pods from the ebony trees, and downed palm trunks here and there, growing moss. It was like sitting on a bench in a prehistoric forest.

The trail took us on a short boardwalk over a low place and further along through this semi-tropical wonderland. In a couple of places, an odd cactus grew in the dappled light, with long strongly-ribbed stems that lean this way and that, with tufts of spines along each rib. It is called barbed-wire cactus or triangle cactus (presumably because of the shape, in cross section, of the stems). It is said to be night-blooming in the summer, with big white blooms that attract hummingbird moths.

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Barbed-wire cactus

By this time we had gone down separate paths, as Clint and I often do on these trips. I went past fragrant thickets of some bush with small white flowers, with clumps and patches of Turk’s cap scattered through it. The hum of the bees and the fragrance of the flowers was hypnotic, and tiger swallowtail and sulphur butterflies danced among the flowers. The trail led back up and into the forest.

By this time I wondered if Clint was anywhere near, and I called him. He said he was near the blind, an elevated structure extending partly over the resaca where birders can watch different species without spooking them. He said he had seen an indigo snake, and so I set out to join him. When I arrived, he said it was gone; it had been cruising through some cut brush near the water and had then made its way up and disappeared within the layers of vines, palm fronds, and other vegetation. That was a disappointment, as the Texas indigo snake is such a great find that even a short glimpse of this large, glossy serpent is a big deal.

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A glimpse of a Texas indigo snake

Down a path into a particularly lush part of this jungle/forest, I sat on a bench for a while looking at the magnificence of the place. Something grew in every available inch of space; vines threaded their way up the latticework of palm trunks, and on the ground under the carpet of living plants must be a complex layer of decaying palm fronds, fallen branches, and fungi, returning previous years’ plants to the soil. How many frogs must by hidden in all this complexity? What lizards prowl through the leaf litter? There are certainly worlds within worlds in this place, from the birds in the canopy to the communities of invertebrates and their predators in the branches, to the various things below that living carpet of plants, the scavenging, root-munching, soil digesting invertebrates and the insects, reptiles, and amphibians that search them out and eat them. We could study these communities of life for years and still have more to learn.

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In the sabal palm forest

And then it was time to visit more worlds. We walked along a boardwalk over a part of the resaca (which is a body of water that started out as a bend in a river but then got cut off and isolated, but can be recharged during floods or by rainfall). Further along the trail, at the edge of a small pond, we saw a white peacock butterfly, which was an unusual enough find to catch Clint’s attention. The upper wings are pale, with beige and light brown markings that has been suggested to resemble antique lace. According to the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, it is found in south Texas and down through Central America, and its habitat is “open, moist areas such as edges of ponds and streams” – a perfect description for where we found this one.

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White peacock butterfly

One last interesting find waited for us on the way out. We had seen Texas spiny lizards, green anoles, and whiptail lizards, and now we would see a pretty invasive, the brown anole. This anole is native to Cuba and the Bahamas, and has been introduced to parts of the southern U.S. where it aggressively out-competes our native green anoles. This is a sad state of affairs, but one that we could not correct with this little lizard, busily climbing a piece of rebar in a small butterfly garden near the visitor’s center. So, we admired him and let him go on his way, hunting for insects for a late lunch.

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Brown anole