Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek

You may recall that Clint and I visited the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area last spring (Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands) and had all good intentions of returning to this Anderson County location during the summer. After all, it is a place with velvety-black eastern coachwhips, the occasional box turtle, plenty of five-lined skinks, and it has its share of copperheads and cottonmouths. What could be better? However, I missed traveling to this spot except for a brief visit with Carl Franklin on September 29 where we were able to photograph a very nice cottonmouth.

Now that winter is approaching, we have had some cold weather, and the leaves are dropping from the trees in the bottomlands at Gus Engeling, my thoughts turn to salamanders. And so yesterday, Viviana Ricardez and I rolled the dice (and a few logs) to see if we might spot a salamander or two.

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A flooded patch of bottomland at Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area

According to the Texas Amphibians field guide (Tipton, et al., 2012), The western part of Anderson County should be within the range of the small-mouthed salamander, the eastern tiger salamander, and the dwarf salamander, and we’d be within rock-throwing range of at least one more, the marbled salamander. Because of the extraordinarily wet autumn this season (you may recall the record rainfall and flooding in north and central Texas within the past two months), it seemed possible that some salamander breeding might already have taken place and there could be larvae in some of the pools. Low places that temporarily fill with water are great for amphibian breeding because they don’t have fish that would eat the eggs and larvae. In any case, a visit to this patch of the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion on a fine late autumn day seemed like a great idea.IMG_3086

Viviana is a veteran of lots of turtle field work, though she is ready to see any herp species that come her way. She told me of a trip to Pennsylvania during which she saw several salamander species, including our biggest, baddest, most wonderful salamander, the hellbender. We could not possibly top that on this walk, but we would have fun seeing what we could find.

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A tiny crayfish from our net

We sampled several pools, pulling a dip net across the bottom and investigating the leaves, twigs, and whatever critters it might catch. Larval salamanders would look a little like tadpoles, but longer and with a feathery frill of external gills behind the head. Late in their development they would have the four small legs typical of the salamanders of the genera Ambystoma (small-mouthed and tiger salamanders as well as others) or Eurycea (including the dwarf salamander). Instead, what we found in the dip net included a few freshwater shrimp a some tiny juvenile crayfish.

IMG_3099We also visited some upland areas, and one beautiful pond that, as Viviana pointed out, had few snags for turtles to pull out on and bask. Otherwise, it was a delightful spot that should harbor all kinds of herps. I won’t say that Viviana is single-minded in her devotion to turtles, but if she was a character in Game of Thrones, she would be known as the Mother of Turtles. In fact, some do call her that!

We walked through a patch of cut and burned land that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is attempting to restore to the savannah that was once typical in this part of Texas. Some native grasses are attempting to come back, although the shrubby growth that swallows up parts of the WMA are trying their best to reclaim this spot. Before this part of Texas was tamed, periodic fires helped keep the woody plants down and helped grasses dominate the spaces between the trees. Small, prescribed fires are the best friend this patch of habitat could have.

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Returning grassland, with the forest edge in the background

We returned to the bottomlands, and as we walked the sand and clay road toward a tributary of Catfish Creek, there was Old Man Turtle, to greet Viviana. The old man was a red-eared slider, with the typical pattern of greens and yellows now gone and replaced by dark pigment. Old male sliders often become melanistic in this way, with the carapace (upper shell) a sort of charcoal or vaguely olive-gray color with black borders of the scutes of the carapace. The head, neck, and limbs similarly darken, with the thin green lines breaking up into dots and dashes of darker and lighter gray or olive.

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The Old Man – a melanistic male red-eared slider

Viviana, of course, spotted him first, and she picked him up to examine the details of his shell and pattern. There was a notch, an old injury, on his marginals just a little to the right of center near his neck. There were subtle but lovely shades of yellow darkening to gray on his forelimbs and parts of the shell.img_3089.jpg

His response might have been, “Good day, Khaleesi – to what do I owe the honor of your examining me?” Truly, you would think that this would be the only fitting response to Viviana’s joy and respect when she handles any of these turtles. However, he was not thrilled with being interrupted in his walk to the nearby creek tributary, and his opened mouth was not exactly a grin.

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An exchange of gestures

After a series of photos of this delightful old turtle, we let him finish his trek across the road, plunging into the creek and immediately vanishing into the dark water. We were grateful to make his acquaintance, and happy to see him return to his watery domain as a free turtle.

We did not find salamanders, but we got to walk through some wonderful autumn woodlands and savannah, and meet Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek!

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Ghosts of Alligator Snapping Turtles

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Skull of an Alligator Snapping Turtle

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

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Carapace (upper shell) of one of the turtles

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

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

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

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

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The mushrooms in lowland habitats were pretty

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

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

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

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

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A pond near where the cottonmouth was seen

Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands

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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].

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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.

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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.

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Lichen

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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?

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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.

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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.

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The “wetland cathedral”

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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!).

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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.

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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?

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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.

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