Hibernating Herps and the Wintertime Search for Salamanders

I talked about hibernation today with a small group at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I love doing anything that may connect people to the natural world to a greater extent, either through knowledge, discovery, or “losing” oneself in a place of peace and beauty. Maybe we did a little of all that today, at least I hope so.

It’s fun to consider “where do they go when winter comes?” It’s fascinating to talk about what it really means to be “cold-blooded” and think about the different strategies herps use to protect themselves from excessive cold. And then it was time to go for a walk, in bright sunshine and temperatures that climbed into the low 60’s.

IMG_3137

West Fork Trinity River

We walked the Crosstimbers trail, starting along the banks of the West Fork Trinity River and then bending to the west and into Cross Timbers woodland, dropping into a bottomland forest along a slough. The river usually provides some wintertime sightings of sliders or cooters, and sure enough, pulled out on a tree branch that had fallen into the water were a red-eared slider and a river cooter. Both turtles have somewhat similar overall forms. Among the differences, one of the easiest to spot is the red patch toward the back of the head of the red-eared slider, which river cooters do not have. However, some red-ears, like the one we saw today, are old dark melanistic males.

IMG_3136In the woods, we talked about possible wintertime shelters for the western ratsnakes, five-lined skinks, and other herps that live in the Cross Timbers. The downed trees or standing dead trees may have cavities that stay above freezing, and burrows beneath the leaves and soil can protect from freezing.

Mo4CgV9xQTe9Udq+Q13SWA

Flooded bottomland

We also discussed salamanders, and the small-mouthed salamander that used to be seen more often in our area. Why wouldn’t we find them now, when late fall and winter in flooded bottomlands is when and where you would expect them? The refuge has some wonderful bottomland habitat, as well as patches of prairie with small ponds. And yet, there don’t seem to be any records in recent years of small-mouthed (or other) salamanders at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.

IMG_3128.jpg

Leaves beneath the water, overlaid by reflections of trees

The entry about the small-mouthed salamander in James Petranka’s Salamanders of the United States and Canadaindicates that breeding takes place after rains between January and February at about our latitude, and that they favor completely fish-less pools and ditches for breeding (since fish readily eat the larvae). More than some other mole salamanders, these can make use of very shallow pools, sometimes with depths no more than a few centimeters. In the section about conservation, he mentions loss of bottomland habitat as a threat.

So maybe this is the winter to pay more attention to possible salamanders in this part of north Texas. We had a very wet fall and we continue to have some rainfall, and so perhaps we will find one, or discover developing larvae in some ephemeral pool, sometime between February and May. It would sure be fun to go looking!

wpafe02252_05_06

Small-mouthed salamander, seen in another place, at another time

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

DSCN0224

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.

DSCN0225

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.

fullsizeoutput_1628

Flower longhorn beetle

fullsizeoutput_1629

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.

IMG_0004

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.

DSCN0234

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.

fullsizeoutput_1627

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.

fullsizeoutput_161c

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.

IMG_0020

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.

fullsizeoutput_162a

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.

fullsizeoutput_15e8

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.

fullsizeoutput_1614

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.

fullsizeoutput_1615

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.

fullsizeoutput_1616

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.

IMG_0023

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.

fullsizeoutput_1617

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.

fullsizeoutput_1618

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.

IMG_0040

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.)