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

Hanging Out with Master Naturalists – II

This past week, I taught the herpetology section of the training for an incoming group of Master Naturalists. I’ve done this several times before, and it is an honor – and it’s fun. For twenty years, the Texas Master Naturalist program has trained and supported a great many volunteers who do all kinds of good things for the wild places and wildlife of Texas. Some of them are experts about one or more subjects, and their training is designed to make sure that they become literate across a broad range of natural history topics. What a great thing that is, to be among people who understand the natural world like they do.

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The classroom training happened at the Hardwicke Center, Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge

On the evening of the eleventh, they sat through three hours of photos and discussion of everything from turtle skeletal structure to the various strategies herps use to find food and defend themselves from predators. They listened to some of my stories from the field and how urgent the conservation needs of herps are (along with most other species of plants and animals). They stuck with me and asked some great questions. Talking with them was a blast!

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Bottomland forest near the marsh

Then came the “field trip” portion of the training, yesterday at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. The class was divided in two groups, with half of them canoeing with Michael Perez while the other half spent about 90 short minutes with me at the marsh boardwalk and the bottomlands near the marsh (and then they switched places and the other half spent time with me). They were ready to see herps and not shy about picking their way through the deadfall and leaf litter of the forest floor. We had talked about cottonmouths, emphasizing their nonaggressive nature as well as the respect and caution that their venom should inspire. I try to get people to be careful and alert without being afraid, and I didn’t see anyone who looked afraid. And unfortunately, we did not see any cottonmouths on that particular day.

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Toad with some characteristics of both Woodhouse’s and Central Plains toads

They were certainly alert, spotting lots of things in the leaf litter that most people would miss. We found just-metamorphed toadlets and cricket frogs. Someone came up with a rough earth snake, and another spotted a baby Dekay’s brownsnake. One of the toads we saw had spots suggesting that it was a hybrid between the Central Plains toad (previously the Gulf Coast toad) and Woodhouse’s toad. Even though it requires a pairing between not just two species but two different genera, such hybrids do happen, and it was cool to see one.

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Green treefrog

The boardwalk was wonderfully productive. Each group got to see and photograph green treefrogs resting on leaves and stalks of the big Phragmites grasses, and one observant person spotted a young ribbonsnake basking on some vegetation. Looking at the photograph later, I saw that it was digesting a meal, possibly an unlucky green treefrog.

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Western ribbonsnake, digesting a meal

In a world preoccupied with … well, with things that seem less than wonderful, it is a privilege to spend time in forests and marshes with people who get excited about finding a small skink in the leaf litter or finding a particularly diverse group of lichens growing on a fallen branch.

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Lichens

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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Shelf fungus

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.

For the Sabal Palms, No Sanctuary From Drought

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Sabal Palm frond, turning yellow

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

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On the trail to the resaca

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

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

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A resaca, still green but dry

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

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Green anole, in its brown color at the moment

A Morning at Boca Chica Beach

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A dune at Boca Chica

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

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Keeled earless lizard (photo by Clint King)

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Railroad vine

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Beach morning glory

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

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Dunes at Boca Chica

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

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LBJ National Grasslands, near Alvord, TX

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

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Prairie gentian, among other flowers, grasses, and forbs

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

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

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Flower longhorn beetle

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Green lynx spider

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

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A small Brunner’s mantis

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

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Ornate box turtle

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

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Western ribbonsnake (juvenile)

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

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Northern cottonmouth (juvenile)

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

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

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

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

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Broad-banded copperhead (photo by Michael Perez)

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

Herping in the Rain

As we got nearer to Paducah, on the Rolling Plains of west Texas, what had been a smudge of blue-gray on the horizon became recognizable as a big storm cell. We had hoped that our destination, the Matador Wildlife Management Area (WMA), would be south of those storms. Instead, we were headed straight into the heart of that grayish-green wall of water. Somewhere between Crowell and Paducah, the rain began to spatter the window in big, percussive drops, and the wind picked up. Next, we plunged into a wall of rain so heavy that we slowed to a crawl and hoped that anyone coming toward us on this two-lane road had not been blown off course and into our lane. Next came hail, hitting the windshield with distinctive pops, but not with enough force to shatter it. We kept pushing forward and within minutes we were on the other side, the rain slacking to a mere shower and then trailing off. As we arrived at Paducah, a minor flash flood was rolling down the street and off into a ditch.

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Heading into the storm

A little north of there, we arrived at the headquarters of the Matador WMA and met Chip Ruthven, The Project Leader who is involved in the management of WMA’s in the Rolling Plains and up into the Panhandle. Ruthven and his colleagues and graduate students have been monitoring Texas horned lizards and ornate box turtles at Matador for years, and for some time I have wanted to meet him and talk about their work with these lizards and turtles.

After a brief look around part of the WMA, Clint and I checked in where we were staying in Childress and planned a night drive down U.S. Highway 83 all the way to Aspermont, and hopefully south of the storms where a barometric pressure drop, but not a big temperature drop, might be bringing out the snakes. As it turned out, a big line of storms was pushing eastward, and the radar showed large red storm cells sliding from southwest to northeast. It wasn’t at all clear that we could get to the south and ahead of all those storms, but we were going to try.

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Woodhouse’s toad

Darkness was coming early and the sky to either side of us was lit by nearly constant lightning, either distant flashes in the clouds or bolts straight from the hammer of Thor. At 9:00pm we saw our first herp, and we discovered it was the humble and familiar Woodhouse’s toad, common back home in parts of the Cross Timbers. Eight minutes later, Clint spotted what he thought might have been a little snake lying in an irregularity of the pavement. It turned out to be a baby western massasauga, born last year only to be run over in the spring storms while crossing the road. We took it for the collection of specimens maintained by UTA.

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Baby massasauga, found dead on the road (DOR). The snake was thoroughly limp, and so this positioning for a photograph was safe – had there been any remaining movement, it would not because a recently killed snake sometimes can still bite.

We did not get far into Stonewall County before finding a species I really love – a baby bullsnake was making its way across the wet pavement. West Texas bullsnakes get big, but this one was 18 or 20 inches long. It was also very even-tempered for a species that can put on quite a bluff routine, including some very loud hissing.

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Juvenile bullsnake

No more than five or six minutes later, at 9:57pm, Clint’s sharp eyes detected a very small snake moving across the road between the storms. It was another baby, and this one was a glossy snake. The species can be very common in west Texas, and they are handsomely blotched burrowers that eat lizards and mice.

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Juvenile glossy snake

Then we reached Aspermont, one of the stops along the Great Rattlesnake Highway (U.S. Highway 380, running from north of the Metroplex westward across Texas to New Mexico). It was the principal highway that figured in Clint’s tale of seven nights, the last few of which were gloriously productive, that constitutes one of the chapters of Herping Texas. We always have high expectations on the Great Rattlesnake Highway.

A few miles to the east we found a western massasauga, recently run over. A couple of minutes later we found a Texas toad who was out enjoying the rain and thunder, and possibly seeking a temporary pool to take advantage of this opportunity to breed, leaving eggs that hatch into tadpoles that develop into land-dwelling toadlets before the pool dries up.

Then, at 11:00pm, we pulled up on an adult western diamond-backed rattlesnake. While such snakes often sit still as you approach, this one nervously doubled back as we stopped the truck and disappeared into the grass at roadside. We quickly found this approximately four-foot long snake, which soon headed further away from the road in quick serpentine undulations. This snake was very active, and perhaps the surrounding storms and rain had it on edge. It was not particularly irritable. I followed it, making a video recording of it high-tailing toward the fenceline. I flanked the snake, and Clint was following on the other side, and sometimes the rattler would stop briefly but it did not rattle or assume the typical defensive posture. It merely took off again, always generally heading for the shelter beyond the fence while staying a little distance away from us. We let it glide away into the night, wishing it a peaceful evening.

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Western massasauga

About five minutes later there was a live massasauga on the road. We were grateful to see one that had not been hit, and after a quick photo we got the little snake into the relative safety of the roadside grass. At 11:52pm we found a bigger massasauga, also alive. This was such a strange evening, seeing snakes like this moving in the light rain between storm cells, with almost continuous lightning around us. Ordinarily, the best snake activity is near the storms, in an area of dropping barometric pressure but before rain arrives. We could hardly remember a time when we had seen so many snakes out either in light rain or in a lull in the rainfall.

We headed back up Highway 83 and pushed on through some very heavy rain with high winds. It felt a little like an airplane flight through bad weather, with Clint keeping the truck lined up correctly while I periodically checked the radar on the cell phone to see what we might expect next, watching a very big blob of red representing a big storm cell sliding up into our path. Clint talked about how his dad had taught him to cope with hydroplaning, steadying the steering wheel with the palms of his hands so that he would not too actively pull against the slipping wheels.

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Checkered gartersnake, photographed and then released back into the rain

After we got through the storm, more herps turned up in the light rain toward Paducah. At 12:43am we saw the first of several checkered gartersnakes that were probably searching for dinner, in the form of the various amphibians coming out after the storm. Those amphibians were definitely on the move, including a green toad seen just a little after 1:00am, and then a Plains spadefoot at 1:27am.

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Green toad

By the time we were between Paducah and Childress, the lateness of the hour and the cold air in the storms had brought the temperatures down quite a bit, so that it felt good to get out of the light rain and into the warmth of the truck. It was late, and we hoped to get out to the WMA in the morning, so we wrapped up this very strange, stormy, and delightful road cruise.

(The activities described above were carried out under a scientific collecting permit.)