Dear Urban Hiker

We’ve spent way too much time in the house, binge-watched Netflix until we get pulled into the screen and sucked dry. We’re trying to get through a crisis where people are dying and others are wondering how they will make a living. Uncertainty and stress pile up, and we crave an escape from all of it. Some of the preserves and natural areas around the city are open – and your thought is: “put on the Nikes and grab the water bottles, let’s go!” I get it; those preserves and natural areas are places I want to go, too. I just hope we can use them in ways that let them survive in good shape.

I watch you cut through the temporary fencing at the preserve so that you can take the short cut, climbing straight up the hill. You may not have noticed that this hill is composed of fine sand from the sandstone rock under the soil and exposed at the top as a scenic ridge. The oaks, yuccas, vines and other plants hold that sand together and create a thin soil. It is enough to support the cacti, wildflowers and other plants, but your footsteps break through that thin network holding the sand together, and the wind and rain wash it away. That happens later, and you do not see the consequences of your short cut, so it seems OK to you.

I also see you fishing at the ponds, maybe showing your child how to bait the hook and wait patiently for a bite. Sitting quietly with someone you care about, taking in the sights and the feel of the breeze, that is a wonderful experience that every child should have. I sure wish that you could bring a small trash bag with you, because the fast food wrappers and bait cups should not stay behind once you have left. It would also teach responsibility and thoughtfulness if you would pack out that broken fishing line and the floats and bobbers that we see caught in the shoreline vegetation. Small animals often get tangled in that fishing line and strangle or starve. This also happens later, and so again you do not see the consequences of what you leave behind.

We visit these places for a variety of reasons, and I know that this is OK. One of my reasons is to watch birds and other wildlife. Even urban preserves can support a good number of animals, from the cardinals, doves, and hawks in the air to lizards on the tree trunks, frogs on the banks of the ponds, and sunfish in the water. When your group passes me on the trail, loudly talking about the topic of the moment, I wonder if you know what we all just missed as the wildlife scatter. Keep in mind that I know you have the right to jog along the trail or amble along in social groups (although during this pandemic I very much wish that you would stay some distance from each other). Once you pass, I’ll wait for the wildlife to re-emerge. Lately, though, as everyone visits the preserves, it is more challenging because sometimes there is little break from the stream of hikers.

We all get to make use of these places, and I do try (I promise) to remember that different ways of using them can be just fine. Some of the things people do, though, are not so fine. Let’s compare some ways of visiting parks and refuges. Some visitors come for a little diversion and a workout opportunity, and going off-trail, moving  or destroying barriers, and ignoring signs asking people to stay on the trail seems like no big deal – “rules for other people, not for me.” For some it is a pleasant place to bring their burgers and onion rings, and since no one thought to station trash cans along the trails, what can you do but toss the Styrofoam cup and food wrappers into the woods. Who wants to carry a handful of trash for the rest of their walk?

Other people come for exercise in beautiful surroundings, with a commitment to leaving the place like they found it. They may jog through the place without stopping to look for birds or flowers, but they stay on the trail. Others might come for the solitude – or relative solitude – of a walk through a woods or prairie. They may be birdwatching, or might be looking for particular plants or flowers, or some other part of the natural world that has survived the surrounding city. You might pass these people sitting quietly somewhere or squinting through some binoculars. Chances are they are not interested in taking short cuts, and they know that they should not go off-trail to see some particular plant or animal.

The two uses of preserves and parks – one as a momentary convenience and the other as a place valued because of relatively undisturbed nature – are not the same. That “relatively undisturbed” part is the key. Users who trample the plants and create erosion, paint or carve graffiti, or litter, those folks are using the preserve up. Each visit brings the place closer to just some urban vacant lot, although the process is very gradual so each discarded cup, each carved initial, each off-trail excursion seems like no big deal. There is much less damage from the other users who walk or jog along the trails, pack out anything they bring in, and leave the place just like they found it. Yes, the noise and presence of people may make wildlife more scarce, and even foot traffic on trails can do a little damage. But these are impacts from which nature can recover.

So, my friend, here’s what I ask, respectfully and in the hope that we can all use the lands that belong to all of us: please leave it like you found it, and please visit in ways that allow others who are present to use it too. You are in an uncommon and wonderful place, and the slower and quieter you are, the more you are likely to discover that. Quite often you are getting a glimpse of what the surrounding area used to be like before the land was settled and developed. You can get a look at things that are in many cases being lost to us. They are disappearing in our minds and in our imaginations, and often they are disappearing literally, in terms of numbers. So when you are there, remember that we get to use it but we do not get to use it up.

Passing the Creek Along to a New Generation

In about 1962 or ’63 I was given a gift that lasts a lifetime. I was introduced to a certain creek in western Tarrant County with clear running water rippling over white limestone and gathering in shaded pools. In deeper, still water the sunfish guarded their nests and hid in shadows. At about twelve years old, I would spend entire days there, chasing chalk-white earless lizards over jumbled limestone rocks and plunging into the water to catch the nonvenomous watersnakes that were common at the creek. With a friend or two, I’d wander the fields along the creek and sit where the grass and soil ended and the creek flowed twenty or thirty feet below us, watching turtles basking in the sun. It’s hard to imagine a more carefree existence than spending a day discovering the life of that creek.

I brought home mosquitofish, a surface-feeding little fish looking like a guppy without the fancy tail. Their blue iridescence, seen only with light at certain angles, is subtle but definitely caught my imagination. I was also drawn to the blackstripe topminnow, another surface-feeding fish like a little torpedo with a thick black line down its side.

The snakes, however, were the real prize. I was already hooked on gartersnakes, but the creek was home to incredibly graceful ribbonsnakes, seeming to trace calligraphy over the water as they swam. The bright orange and cream-colored stripes glowed in the sunlight when one of those slender little snakes swam across the water and traced its way through the streamside vegetation.

The creek was a place I returned to over and over. I walked it in summer heat when drought stopped the water’s flow and turned the pools into algae-choked saunas of warm water. I walked it in late fall when the water was almost too cold to wade, and flowed over yellow, brown, and rust-colored layers of dropped leaves. In the winter, I kept visiting even though most reptiles and amphibians were dormant in burrows and crevices. Cricket frogs, however, were out on almost any sunny day that gave them a chance to bask and hunt whatever tiny invertebrates were out and about. Fish didn’t seem to mind the winter’s chill and I could observe them while threading my way along limestone shelves and earthen embankments, trying not to step in the cold water.

Going to college spaced my visits out more but did not stop them. When we lived in Houston, work and distance kept me away. However, when we moved back to Arlington, I found times to visit. The creeping expansion of Fort Worth required that I enter the creek further out. Gradually, the city was gnawing away at my creek, as more land was sold to developers who turned perfectly good nature into bricks, concrete, and turf grass.

Casey examining a Red-eared Slider at the creek

This isn’t the story of the loss of the creek, however. It is the story of sharing it and passing it along to new generations. The connection I formed with the creek was forged in childhood, while spending day after day there when school was out for the summer, exploring and discovering as if that time would never end. Maybe it never did end, at least for that place as I internalized it and made it an important part of who I am. I have taken friends to that creek many times over the years. Most of them share a sense that this is a special place, and I hope that they return or else find some place to make theirs. It is too late for the adults to form the same kind of connection that I have with the creek. I am pretty sure that such a bond happens only during childhood, when a place seems to be what people call “larger than life.” What I really mean is “as large as life,” completely occupying that wide open space we give it when we live in it regularly and get to know it intimately. As we become adults, that space narrows; by then we have spent our lives in a lot of places, often in brief and fragmented chunks, making use of places in utilitarian ways. Usually there is little room left in which we can open ourselves to some beautiful place and live in it, getting to know its little mysteries and its seasons in an unhurried way.

Elijah at the creek

I recently took Elijah for a little exploring at the creek. He is in many ways a grandson. I saw him on the day he was born and have watched him grow into a wonderful six-year-old who has been on many walks in nature preserves with his parents and me. I dedicated my forthcoming book to him and to an old mentor of mine, once again mindful of how a love of the natural world is passed along from one generation to the next. And on the day of the walk at the creek, it was just Elijah and me. We were prepared with a net and walking sticks. When wading the creek, the stick becomes a third leg to help balance on algae-coated limestone, and while the old man didn’t fall, Elijah did get a couple of soakings.

Water pennywort

Along a part of one side of the creek, in dappled shade, I saw some water pennyworts like parasols on thin little stems. I called Elijah over, saying “Look, they’re like little umbrellas.” At the time, I didn’t know what name to call them when Elijah asked. They were just some kind of pennywort. After another question or two, we moved on. He was on a Pokemon jag so that the dragonflies sailing on the sun-warmed air were “dragonfly-Pokemon,” and the turtles we looked for would have been “turtle-Pokemon.” We did find fish, all of which were too fast for our net. The group of shiners swimming close to the bottom scattered in front of the net, and the sunfish scooted out of reach with a flick of its caudal fin. We saw a small bass as well, but it was getting nowhere near the net.

A turtle-Pokemon?

We had to decide whether to walk into an area where the water was forced into a small channel and ran swiftly – the equivalent of whitewater for the creek. I let him test his strength without getting into the biggest and fastest part and being pulled down. It’s good to get just enough real-life lesson about the power of moving water so that you know when it’s safe to wade and when it will drag you into the current.

After our explore was done and we were back at the car, Elijah asked how I knew so much about nature. I explained that I had been doing it for a lot of years, had read many books, and had hung out with people who knew a lot, just as he was doing with me today. He told me, “When I’m older and I can read better, we will find things and I’ll look them up in the books and we’ll know which plant we saw.” Such a beautiful dream only comes along once in a great while, and I would gladly see it come true. Elijah, you’ve got a deal. I promise. If I can give you the gift of this creek, or a woods or prairie somewhere, I will surely do it.

Finding a Box Turtle

(I wrote this in The Great Rattlesnake Highway blog, several years ago. I thought it was worth bringing over here before I finally retire the other blog.)

Another Ornate Box Turtle, this one a female

In May of the year 2000, Steve Campbell and I found a box turtle on our way to the LBJ National Grasslands, north of Decatur. It was an old male that had probably walked the fields and fencerows for twenty or perhaps thirty years or more. These ornate box turtles, with their yellow streaks on a compact, dark shell, used to be a common sight in the western cross timbers north and west of Fort Worth. In the last fifty years they’ve become increasingly uncommon in most of the places where they are found. So Steve and I were faced with a problem: what do you do with a turtle found just past someone’s driveway, on a busy farm road at the outskirts of a small but growing city?

Taking it home was never an option for us to consider. The box turtles that are left in the wild need to stay there, because the species depends on adults living a long time and continuing to reproduce, in order to have a chance of surviving. That individual turtle might have done fine if we had collected him; both Steve and I understood its need for a varied diet, an outdoor enclosure with access to direct sunlight as well as water and refuge, and such things. However, once picked up and taken home, it is dead to the population of box turtles. It might as well have been run over, as far as the impact on the box turtle population is concerned. We would like future generations to be able to see box turtles in the wild, and so we were not going to take that turtle out of the population.

A male Ornate Box Turtle, seen in Grand Prairie, Texas

Perhaps one way to keep the turtle in the population would be to take it far down a side road, away from traffic, and release it in a meadow near a pond – how does that sound? It used to sound great to me, but it can only sound good if we ignore something pretty important about box turtle behavior. If I was picked up and taken far from home, placed on an unfamiliar street surrounded by strangers, I would set out to try to find home. It probably would not matter that the neighborhood might not look so bad, I would want to find the place I know. I would want to go home. It is similar with box turtles. I do not want to anthropomorphize, trying to make box turtles just like people. However, these turtles do learn and remember important landmarks, and as they grow up, they generally establish a “home range.” This is an area that the turtle uses for day-to-day activities, in the same patch of woods or the same meadow, for most or all of the year.  In North American Box Turtles: A Natural History, C. Kenneth Dodd reports that while it is an area of variable size, often it is about the size of a couple of football fields. While some box turtles are transients, most stay within a small area over the course of years. And if moved out of this home range, they generally try to find their way back.

This tendency toward “homing” has plagued efforts to re-populate areas from which box turtles have declined. It also makes it hard to know what to do with box turtles found on city streets or other places where they cannot stay. If you take them to some new place, even an apparently good place, they may wander off. This is generally true of many reptile species – they know where they live and they don’t do well when released far from home. The mortality rate among relocated reptiles is high, presumably from wandering into danger or failing to settle down and find adequate shelter and food.

In a study published last year in Herpetological Conservation & Biology, J. Alan Sosa and Gad Perry reported on their work releasing adult, juvenile, and hatchling ornate box turtles in the Lubbock area. The turtles came from a wildlife rehabilitation facility, where they were brought after being hurt or found in areas that were obviously unsuitable for them. The researchers relocated only healthy turtles, placing them in a variety of locations. Some were released in suburban back yards, others in small undeveloped areas within the city limits, and still others were released on ranchland outside the city. Their whereabouts were tracked using radio transmitters glued to their shells. They found that only 24% of the adult turtles remained in the area where they were released, regardless of what which area it was. There were better results with juveniles and hatchlings, but even then, only 40% of them remained in the area.

And so, if we had taken our ornate box turtle to some place we considered safer and better, it is likely that the outcome for the turtle would be bad, with the turtle failing to settle down and “make a living” in a new place. Imagine how this applies to all the turtles that well-intentioned people take some place and let go, thinking that they’ve done the turtle a favor or helped boost the local population of turtles. And yet, it’s hard to know the right thing to do when you find a box turtle in a suburban neighborhood, in imminent danger from traffic, dogs, pesticides, and many other hazards. Our box turtle’s circumstances were a little better. It was at the edge of a small town, with open fields across the road.

We did about the only thing that our knowledge of box turtle natural history and our commitment to conservation left for us to do. We took the turtle across the road and released it in the nearby field. I thought about the chances that this turtle could go on living in this same patch of grassland, near a line of trees and a little creek, where it probably grew up. It had been lucky enough to survive all these years and not been run over by a car, or collected and put in some dirty aquarium in somebody’s house. Maybe that turtle is still roaming around on the outskirts of Decatur, eating dewberries and grasshoppers, and getting a good soak in the puddles after it rains. Maybe he ran across a female box turtle and together they generated one more clutch of eggs, from which one hatchling (if it was lucky) would survive to adulthood to carry on the species.

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An ornate box turtle seen at LBJ Grasslands on a different occasion – I made sure it got across the road and watched it walk out into the grasslands

On the other hand, I don’t know if that turtle wandered back out on the road the next day, possibly to be run over. There is no way for me to know, but I am sure we made the right decision on that day, sixteen years ago. Over the years since then, I have wandered the LBJ Grasslands many times, but have only seen  two or three other box turtles. We need to keep those turtles out there, alive and at home.

The Western (or “Texas”) Ratsnake

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Western Ratsnake

Many years ago I was contacted to go to my son’s day care, which had some land and kept a few animals around a small barn. They said that a big snake had been eating the duck eggs, and the culprit had been spotted earlier in the day. I went over and had a look, and as I raked hay away from what appeared to be an old burrow in the floor of a stall, I caught sight of the dark coils of a ratsnake. After pulling about five feet of Texas Ratsnake from her refuge, the next challenge was to get a very unruly snake into the bag so that I could relocate her. A day or two later I took the snake to the wooded corridor of a large creek and tried to pose her for some photos before letting her go. This did not go particularly well; draping a big ratsnake along a log by the woods gives the snake an immediate plan for escape and a very impatient attitude about sticking around for pictures. Of course she turned and bit me. I stood, finger dripping blood into the creek, wondering how many hundred times I have been bitten by Texas Ratsnakes. Meanwhile I did get a photo or two before the big snake climbed into the highest branches of a nearby pecan tree.

I wished her luck, and she would need it. Relocated snakes often do not do very well, because they learn to recognize a particular area (their “home range”) where they live, and when taken somewhere new, even if the habitat is pretty good, they may act as though they are lost, and wander without settling down. Many studies of translocated snakes show that they’re more likely to die, failing to avoid hazards and/or to take advantage of resources in the new location. However, sometimes a snake like this Texas Ratsnake faces a dilemma: stay and be killed or get relocated and “lost.” At least in her new woodland, she had a chance.

While I stubbornly hang onto the name “Texas Ratsnake,” this species was re-named a few years ago after changes in the scientific understanding of the relationships among North American ratsnakes. Its proper name is now the Western Ratsnake, Pantherophis obsoletus. What used to be called the “Black Ratsnake” and “Yellow Ratsnake,” east of the Allegheny Mountains, is now the “Eastern Ratsnake,” Pantherophis alleghaniensis. In the middle part of eastern North America, they are Pantherophis spiloides, a new name for the Gray Ratsnake. West of the Mississippi River, they become Western Ratsnakes, but some habits are hard to break, and so I still sometimes call them Texas Ratsnakes.

This species may be the subject of more run-ins with people than any other snake in our area. Lots of “snake calls” are generated by people seeing a Texas Ratsnake in their trees or yards. Soon after eggs hatch at the end of summer, babies sometimes turn up in people’s garages and sheds. Lots of them are killed on the road each year. Yet somehow, they continue to be abundant year after year around parks and suburbs (as well as in more remote locations).

This is one of our longest snakes, averaging about 3.5 to 6 feet long, with a record length of seven feet, according to Werler & Dixon’s Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution, and Natural History. Like several other ratsnake species, the Texas Ratsnake’s body, seen in cross-section, is rounded on top and squared at the bottom, like a section of a loaf of bread. This is thought to aid them in climbing trees.

The adult snake’s fairly broad, flat head is dark gray on top, shading to white on the lips and chin. Starting with the neck, there is a pattern of dark saddles going down the back. The dorsal ground color may be yellowish-gray to gray or charcoal. Along the sides is another row of blotches, these being somewhat diamond-shaped. The skin between the scales of the neck and forebody generally includes reddish or orange color, more visible when the skin is stretched. Some of the skin between the scales within the blotches is light gray to white, showing as small flecks of white in a patch on the lower parts of the blotch. Add to this one further complexity of pattern – many adults have the suggestion of vague, smudgy stripes where the edges of the blotches seem to smear a little and join each other down the back. On the belly, the scales are light on the throat, darkening from front to back with large pale squarish blotches and then a mottling of gray and yellow toward the tail.Texas rat snake - subadult femaleA young adult Texas Ratsnake with more yellow in the background colorE-o-lindheimeri-2_2An individual with lots of gray color, though considerable red can be seen between the scales

Hatchling Texas Ratsnakes have brighter and bolder patterns than the adults, with a light ground color so that the blotches stand out more. On the top of the head, juveniles have some dark spots and flecks, and a broad, dark band across the snout just in front of the eyes. That band then goes through the eyes diagonally to the jawline. The pattern darkens with age.E-o-lindh- juv-LBJG-Jun02Juvenile Texas Ratsnake

Texas Ratsnakes take advantage of a wide variety of habitats within roughly the eastern two-thirds of Texas where they are found. They occur in east Texas and down the Gulf Coast to Corpus Christi, and in central Texas to a little west of Wichita Falls, out to San Angelo, and southwest nearly to Del Rio. This means that they live in east Texas piney woods, bottomland hardwoods, cross timbers woodland, and savannas from north Texas down through the Hill Country. They are excellent climbers, and this may be one factor in their success, keeping them away from ground-based predators and people at least some of the time. While up in the trees, they may eat birds and their eggs.

My field notes and my memory indicate that I’ve found lots of Texas Ratsnakes in patches of prairie, old fields with at least a creek nearby, and woodlands and forests. During the day, I have been more likely to find them by flipping cover such as discarded plywood or logs. I’ve seen a great many on back roads at twilight or at night, quite often in brushy or wooded areas, or within a short distance of a creek. Undoubtedly they use wooded creek and river corridors to move around in more dry, open areas further west in their range.

Both the accepted common name, “rat” snake, and the often used name “chicken” snake refer to some of their preferred food. A stomach contents study cited in Werler & Dixon, looking at 100 wild specimens in north Louisiana, found mice, rats, and a few squirrels and rabbits in their stomachs. This snake is more than happy to eat birds and their eggs. Coming upon nests, it may eat eggs or fledglings. A big adult reportedly can swallow an adult chicken. While this may not make the Texas Ratsnake popular with either farmers or birders, it is simply doing its “job” and may eat enough rats that it does the farmer more good than harm.

The most memorable activity seen in Texas Ratsnakes may be their belligerent self-defense when cornered or handled. When first approached, the snake may “make a break for it” or may stay where it is. I have often seen one pull its body into a series of short kinks and sit still, hoping that it won’t be seen. Once picked up, the snake thrashes in an attempt to get away, and may bite repeatedly while discharging musk from the other end. While some snake musk is only moderately disagreeable, musk from a Texas Ratsnake is very offensive, a little reminiscent of burnt tires. But the open-mouthed gape while looking for an opportunity to bite is worse. Very commonly, having picked up one of these snakes, it remains coiled on one of your arms as if it were a tree limb while gaping at your hand or other arm as the obvious visible target. If your hand moves closer, the snake will strike, leaving a series of pinprick holes. Occasionally it will hold on and chew. It is important to remember that this only happens to humans who harass and pick up a ratsnake; an observer who simply watches and photographs will not be attacked.TX-rat-gape-aThe famous Texas Ratsnake gape, ready to bite the attacker

One additional note in defense of the Texas Ratsnake, showing that biting is only self-protective and never because it wants to pick a fight: I have many times been able to pick up a Texas Ratsnake by slipping a hand under it and supporting it while giving it no target that looks like an enemy. A freshly-caught ratsnake may crawl from one arm to the other as long as nothing comes at it like an attacker. However, this is in no way foolproof, and fairly often it pauses and seems to recognize that this is no tree, abruptly biting my arm. And again I would stress that I have never, ever been bitten by a Texas Ratsnake that I was  not handling or attempting to handle. They have no venom and they have no interest in becoming aggressive as long as they are left alone.

Spring mating results in the laying of a clutch of five to twenty eggs in June or July. The eggs are laid in rotting logs, in a protected area under leaf litter, in abandoned mammal burrows, or under rocks. It is also known to use above-ground tree cavities for nesting, and the description in Werler & Dixon notes that the tree cavity was used by perhaps four different females for communal nesting. The eggs hatch in August and September, and the baby snakes have much the same temperament as their parents!

(This article is adapted from one I wrote for the January, 2003 issue of the Cross Timbers Herpetologist, newsletter of the DFW Herpetological Society.)

The Racer and the Jump to Light Speed

This article originally appeared in The Great Rattlesnake Highway blog.

There was once a time when I could chase down an Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer. Well, if it was on a flat surface … maybe if I had a head start. Probably not now, unless my head start was that I was allowed to grab it before it saw me. These snakes are not called “racers” for nothing.

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Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer

They can cruise around on a hot summer day, their big eyes alert to any movement, watching for a grasshopper or lizard to spring into action, and ready to give chase. When they do flush some unfortunate prey animal, they are unrelenting in pursuit. When a big grasshopper lands and freezes, the snake may have to search until it again makes the insect jump, and at that point the chase resumes. Having no venom and no ability to wrap and constrict, the racer simply swallows its prey or maybe pins it on the ground with a section of its body while swallowing. Racers can eat animals as large as a mouse or medium-sized frog, relying on the rows of sharp, recurved teeth and strong jaws to overcome the struggles of its prey.

Many years ago, my family moved to Fort Worth and my knowledge of reptiles and amphibians expanded from days spent hanging out with museum staff and reading books. At the end of the summer, I would occasionally find a little spotted snake around the yard. Their pretty yellow bellies were speckled with rust-colored spots, and as I held them their large eyes looked alert, and their jet-black tongues tested the air. Around the same time, a group of us kids found a medium-sized snake stretched along a branch within a shrub in a neighbor’s yard. It sat motionless, watching us, and I recall it being a sort of olive greenish color. I was puzzled about this snake’s identity but later figured out that it was what some people called a “blue racer,” but down here in Texas it was a different form called the Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer.  With further study, I discovered that the little spotted snakes I sometimes found at the end of summer were actually hatchlings of that same species. Over the course of a couple of years, the spots would fade and the snake would be brownish or olive or grayish-blue on top, and yellow underneath.

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A juvenile Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer, probably in its second year, still showing the spotted pattern.

Occasionally I would find one in the field, sometimes as a serpentine blur disappearing in the grass. Other times I might find one under a board or a rock, and if I grabbed quickly, I might get a close look at this muscular coil of pure energy. When grabbed, that same energy is directed toward thrashing and biting, and the poor snake may injure itself if not supported properly. The bites are annoying but not particularly painful, and they seem to come out of nowhere as the snake thrashes around to a new vantage point. However, when gently supported and not harmed, the snake may settle down, after a fashion, continually testing the air with that black tongue and watching its captor like a hawk. Drawing the animal closer, for a detailed look, often results in a strike aimed at the person’s face. Loosening the grip a little too much results in a sudden attempt to break free, as if the racer was waiting for just this opportunity.

Part of the racer’s reputation as a snake that can make the jump to “light speed” is its ability to navigate through brush and around rocks without slowing. Its top speed is actually a little slower that a person could run on a track, but when seen, these snakes are often around rocky outcrops, fallen logs, or tangles of undergrowth, none of which cause the snake to slow down. Imagine the speed with which this reptile processes the visual images coming at it, like a fighter pilot flying low over the landscape, dodging left and right but keeping right on going!

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Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer

Eastern Yellow-bellied Racers make use of a fairly large “home range,” or area within which it hunts, rests, finds water, and so on. In their book, Texas Snakes, Werler & Dixon cite research done in Kansas showing that racers may use about 25 acres as a home range. Within that area, the individual snake may be familiar with refuges such as a particular abandoned burrow or crevice under the rocks, and where the best pools in a little creek may be. These racers prefer open areas such as patches of prairie or savannah, and they may hang around near the edge of a woodland.

Texas has a four other forms or subspecies of racer. The Buttermilk Racer lives in parts of east Texas, and has the same overall bluish-gray to olive coloration but is speckled here and there with small globs and specks of white. The Tan Racer, found around the Big Thicket, uses forest habitat much more than the other racers, and is a uniform tan color above and pale whitish below. Along the southern Texas coast, the Mexican Racer zips along through the thorn scrub. And at the northeastern corner of the state, the Southern Black Racer is found in several counties.

On a cool, overcast day in March, 2012, I found a young Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer under a big rock in Wise County. I was out with Clint and his wife, and we thought we might get an early start on field herping that year. Sure enough, we did find several things, but everything was under cover, since March in north Texas may turn unpredictably from sunny and fairly warm to rainy and cool. When I turned the rock over, the young racer was too cool to dart off. Oh, the disadvantages of being an ectotherm! Being cold-blooded means that if you hang out in a cold place, you are cold, too. The engines that drive all that nervous, alert activity depend on warmth, and if you’re a reptile you cannot generate your own heat. The little snake sat while I recorded it on video, tongue-flicking and moving slowly. It even flattened its neck vertically a little at one point, in a threatening display meant to make it look bigger.

In the summer, being an ectotherm would be a big advantage for the reptile. Us endotherms have to take in lots of nutrients so that our metabolic engines can constantly generate heat. Snakes are “solar-powered,” directly or indirectly, making use of sunlight or a sun-warmed environment to get up to speed. As a result, they do not have to eat as often. But on this day, at the end of winter, the little racer was slow-moving and vulnerable. After I got all the photos I wanted, I let her return to the shelter of the rock and wait for a warmer day.

If you find one, admire whatever glimpse you get of this snake and let it go. That three-feet or so of nimble hyperactivity will just make you sprain your ankle or get a face full of cactus if you chase it. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, you will find one under sheets of tin, or boards, or under a rock on a cool day when light speed is not an option. They are beautiful, graceful animals!

Benefits of Nature: Notes from One Study

This is another blog entry that is “off the beaten path,” but I’m looking at some of the studies on benefits of time spent in nature (as well as mindfulness), and you are welcome to come along for the ride.

Mayer, F.S., Frantz, C.M., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & K. Dolliver. 2009. Why is Nature Beneficial? The Role of Connectedness to Nature

This paper contained three studies looking at the effects of exposure to real or virtual nature. They used questionnaire-type data to measure positive emotions and ability to reflect on a real-life problem.

The authors noted that years of research have established that time spent in nature “decreases negative behaviors and states” and “increases positive ones.” They also noted that we aren’t so sure if pictures and videos of nature are as effective as the real thing, or how exposure to nature works to produce benefits. Among the possibilities that have been considered are: nature helps us recover from stress and attention fatigue, it encourages exercise, it may facilitate social contact, it may encourage optimal development in children and/or perhaps it provides “opportunities for personal development and a sense of purpose.” They wondered if increases in connectedness to nature might be a mechanism through which time in nature yields benefits.

To measure this sense of connection to nature, the first two authors developed a self-report scale, the “Connectedness to Nature Scale” (CNS). With it, participants rate (on a seven-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”) their agreement with statements about feeling kinship with animals and plants or a sense of belonging with the natural world. The authors reported that earlier studies have shown that the CNS measures a real “thing” and does its job effectively.

The authors also wanted to see whether exposure to nature can lead to increases in the ability to reflect on a problem and feel more prepared to address that problem.

Study 1

Seventy-six students participated. One group was taken to an urban downtown area and the other went to a nature preserve. While on the way, they were asked to reflect on a personal issue that needed resolving. After taking a walk in the assigned setting (downtown or preserve), they were asked to spread out from each other and independently complete some measures of attention, positive/negative emotion, connectedness to nature (the CNS), self-awareness, and a rating of how they perceived their ability to resolve that personal issue noted above.

Those in the nature condition reported positive emotions to a significantly higher degree than those in the urban condition. They also rated their ability to reflect on their personal issue as much greater. Spending time in nature also had higher scores for connectedness to nature. Further, those in the nature condition made fewer errors on the measure of ability to pay attention.

Study 2

In this study, the investigators looked at whether real nature provides more benefits than virtual nature. Ninety-two undergraduate students participated. They met on campus and one group walked to an arboretum while the other walked to the psychology building where they were further divided into a group that watched a ten minute video of a walk at the arboretum and the other watched a video of a busy metropolitan street.

Those who walked in the arboretum had significantly more positive emotion either the virtual nature or virtual urban conditions. Participants’ ability to reflect on a problem issue was greater after either the real or virtual nature exposure and worse after the urban exposure. The measures of connectedness to nature were higher for both nature groups and lower for the urban video group.

Study 3

This study was done to further examine the effect of real and virtual nature on participants’ ability to reflect on a personal issue that needed solving. Sixty-four students participated, meeting at an on-campus building. One group walked to the arboretum and the other group walked to the psychology building. Once arriving, the nature group walked for 10 minutes in the arboretum and the virtual nature group watched a 10 minute video of a similar walk in the same arboretum.

Again, those who took the real walk in nature reported more positive emotion. This time, with greater statistical power because there were only two groups to compare, the “real” nature group were significantly more able to reflect on an issue needing to be resolved.

A Final Note

The authors looked at the relationships among the variables, and for each study concluded that a person’s sense of connectedness to nature generally predicted the positive emotions, ability to reflect, and other positive results. Their conclusion was that exposure to nature increases the sense of connectedness to nature, and that is what brings some of the other benefits of time spent in nature.

Doing research to investigate these issues is challenging. To compare the reactions of different people, you must design experiences that do not have unintentional differences that could bias the results. The way you measure things must be the same across different people, or else you could get results that are skewed because of different ways that you measured your results. These challenges tend to result in studies that use paper-and-pencil measures and brief or limited exposure to nature.

Many of us might think “connectedness with nature” is hard to capture in a 13 or 14 item rating scale. We might note that our ability to reflect on problems might not fully be captured by having people rate how much they think they have that capacity. Additionally, positive or negative emotions were measured by having participants rate the degree to which they were experiencing mood states like enthusiasm or engagement, or anger or fear (the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, or PANAS). That is different from directly measuring emotions (and just how would we really do that?).

I do not mean to say that the study isn’t meaningful, and I’m not suggesting that it is misleading. On the contrary, the authors were careful to design studies that creatively come up with measurements and exposures to nature or to urban settings that allow different groups of people to be compared.

The Cloud Castles of Heaven, Seen From the Texas Plains

Or, in Plain English, a Visit to Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge

Long perspectives and flat horizons (photo by the author)

Last month, Meghan Cassidy, Paul Mendoza and I visited the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge for two days, a brief trip in search of open skies, prairie, and Sandhill Cranes. It was part of a project in which I am writing about mindfully spending time in nature and Meghan is photographing the places we visit and the wildlife that we see.

Muleshoe is northwest of Lubbock, and one way to get there is to go through Levelland, a community that is proud of the high school girls basketball team, the Loboettes. You can be sure that James McMurtry’s unforgettable song about sitting outside with his mom, watching the stars and dreaming of being gone from Levelland, was playing as we drove past.

“Welcome to Levelland” (photo by the author)

We arrived at the refuge, getting out of the car into an open expanse of grass, a broad flat prairie set between two ridges. Above us, the sky was bigger than I had ever seen it before. Clouds passed in an infinite field of blue. It was hard to judge where the horizon was, but it felt like we could see all the way to Montana. Above us the clouds were big masses of puffy white with gray underneath, but nearer the horizon they overlapped and formed a fantasy landscape of floating islands and castles. Standing there and absorbing all this felt wonderful, resetting my frame of reference from the human scale of houses and yards to the High Plains scale in which we can take our place with a little awe and humility.

Grassland and clouds at Muleshoe NWR (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Dry, winter-dormant grasses covered the gently rolling fields and ridges that stretched into the distance to meet the sky. Here and there a spindly cholla cactus or a sage plant grew, but the only visible trees were in the distance where rainfall drained toward White Lake. The land was ruled by grasses. We could make out several species, one of which sent up tall, slender stalks about waist-high, with leaves nearer the ground that were like curled ribbons.

(photo by the author)

Once again I thought about how much I am attracted to grasslands. I love walking through fields of grass and taking in the amazing but subtle variety of colors and textures. Here on the High Plains, the sense of openness and space was bigger than anywhere I have been except in the Trans-Pecos. Here was more prairie than I could walk through in a day, grass as far as my eye could see.

It turned out that much of the refuge property was off-limits to protect the winter population of Sandhill Cranes. A refuge staff member told us that people had been approaching much too closely, so they had taken action to protect the birds. We were able to see some of them, from a distance, in the northern part of the refuge around Paul’s Lake. Across the lake, the shore was dotted with well over a hundred big pale Sandhill Cranes. We watched and listened, though the birds were too far away for a good photo. Their calls and conversations came across the lake’s surface clearly when the wind was not blowing. The cranes were calling in a sort of low, stuttering whistle, repeated over and over again. Occasionally a squawk of protest came through, but mostly it was that short rattling call at a low pitch but with a higher whistling overtone. I found a spot of bare ground among the burned clumps of grass and settled in to watch and listen. The streaks of clouds were mirrored in the motionless surface of the lake, with some pastel blue and rose among the white and gray. Everything was still, and I could imagine that time was not moving forward or was only moving in slow motion.

Sandhill Cranes, flying overhead (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Sandhill Cranes calling (video by the author)

The next morning started with a cold rain, but by the time we headed back to the refuge, the rain was moving out of the area. Arriving before 8:00am, we saw a sky with clouds gathered in dark blue-gray masses and in some places stretched thin enough to be cottony white or even admit a patch of blue sky. In some places around us there were dark curtains of rain. Once again I was struck by the giant scale of this place. From horizon to horizon there was nothing to obstruct the sky, no trees and no buildings. All those clouds, all those mountains of water vapor, dark blue and dense or brightly illuminated where the sun struck them, slid across the sky on currents of wind. I meandered across the grassland, thinking of nothing as the clouds passed, trying to be empty of internal mental chatter so that I could absorb this experience in as raw and direct a way as possible. Standing here might have felt vulnerable, alone and uncovered to the sky, because in everyday life we rely on buildings, roads, signs, or even trees as cues for what is normal and safe. Instead I felt completely open and connected with the land and sky, without distraction.

Rain clouds at Muleshoe (photo by the author)

We saw a number of grassland birds, including meadowlarks. The Western Meadowlark prefers open grasslands and prairies, feeding as well as nesting on the ground. The Cornell Lab website indicates that they are still numerous but have declined about 1% per year over a period of nearly 50 years. It had been a while since I had seen one, but here they really were numerous, though quick to fly off when we approached. Our best observations happened when we used the car as an improvised bird blind. From the open window we watched and listened as a male sang his heart out while perched high on a thorny shrub, his musical whistling notes rising and falling. The call has been described as flute-like, with high notes dropping, coming back up and falling into a low warble. If we did not love this grassland already, we would have after listening to the meadowlarks singing spring into existence here at the end of winter.

Meadowlark (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Meadowlark singing (video by the author)

Our meadowlark dropped to the ground when a Northern Harrier cruised through the area, flying low and looking for prey. These raptors have a very distinctive white patch on the rump that helped us to identify them on the refuge and in nearby areas. They hunt near the ground, listening as well as watching for food such as rats, mice, birds, and the occasional small snake or lizard. As our meadowlark hunkered down under the grasses, the harrier sailed by and circled the area, at one point fixing us with a withering stare. He reminded us of why so many animals are cryptically colored, alert and fast, or take shelter in burrows in the ground. Harriers, owls, coyotes and other predators are a constant presence, weeding out the slow, the sick, and the unlucky. This constant dance between predator and prey added another dimension to what we took away from Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. It is a beautiful, wild place that seems larger than life, with a complex community of living things on the ground as well as above and below it.

Northern Harrier (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

It was a great trip and my notes, and especially Meghan’s photos, will be a memorable part of this project, which will take us to places all around the state.

Meghan, photographing White Lake from a ridge (photo by the author)

A Project for the Next Couple of Years

Great Egret (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Over the next couple of years I will be traveling once again to various places in Texas for a new writing project that will also include great photos from my friend Meghan Cassidy. I want to explore ways to connect with nature, what happens to us when that connection happens, and the range of beauty and diversity found in Texas nature.

Palo Duro Canyon (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

The importance of nature is a theme that caught hold of me early in life and I’m grateful that it will never let go. When I was in the 7th or 8th grade, I remember reading about a proposed dam that would have flooded portions of the Grand Canyon. I gave a class presentation about it, arguing that the Grand Canyon must be saved. I was a committed nature nerd, then and now.

Gray Treefrog (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Fast forward to the publication in 2018 of Clint King’s and my book, Herping Texas. Yes, we are both herp nerds with lots of stories of rattlesnakes, treefrogs and the like, but the message of the book is, “Look at the magnificent places that exist in Texas and the richness of plants and animals that can give so much pleasure if you get out there and walk among them.” Reptiles and amphibians are the sweet spot for us, but all if it is a breathtaking treasure, and more of it disappears every single day.

Bluestem and Blackjack Oak at Southwest Nature Preserve (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Now this year will see the publication of my book, The Wild Lives of Reptiles and Amphibians. As the title suggests, the point of the book is not that pet snakes are cool, but rather that wild populations of native herps are some of the most fascinating and beautiful things you can experience. And further, that the best way to experience them is where they live, in the wild. And not only that, the last chapter is a call for young people “to be a voice for the wild places in this country and the plants and animals that live in them.”

Rough Greensnake (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Ladybird Beetle (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

And now there is this new project in which I am teaming up with Meghan Cassidy, a photographer who can capture landscapes and wildlife in beautiful images. We will visit each of the state’s ecoregions, just as Clint and I did, but this time focusing on all kinds of plants and animals and how we can deepen our connection to those places. I will describe the use of mindfulness, nature journaling, and other ways to experience the prairies, deserts, mountains, woods and wetlands. We will include narratives and photos from each of the seasons – bare trees and golden prairies on sunny winter days, the return of spring with its flowers and frog calls, the hot desert summer and cool dark nights in the Big Bend, and the low-slanting sunlight and bright colors of autumn.

Prairie Dogs (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Meghan capturing a mushroom (photo by Michael Smith)

Time spent in nature is associated with a wide range of benefits to physical and mental health, and I will summarize some of the relevant research. I’ll talk to a few ecotherapists in Texas who are taking people into the wild and include some perspectives based on my own training and experience as a Psychological Associate. While there is no one way to spend time in nature, I will describe some ways that can increase a sense of connectedness and openness to the experience.

Spider – mother and child reunion (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
The ants’ challenge (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Meghan’s images will speak with their own language about the wonder and fascination to be found in nature. Whether bringing a bird up close with a telephoto lens, capturing a miniature world with macro photography, or laying out the details of a landscape, her photos beautifully illustrate what can be seen in the diverse ecoregions of Texas. Together, I think we will tell the story of Texas nature in a way that will stay in your imagination and, hopefully, inspire you to spend time in some beautiful place, quiet and fully present.

Smooth Softshell Turtle (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Osprey with lunch (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Sunset at LBJ National Grasslands (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Examining Mindfulness – Notes From One Study

This isn’t the usual sort of post for this blog. I’m looking through some of the literature about mindfulness, and I plan to post a few summaries of studies, at least for my own understanding of it. If you’d like to look at little more closely at mindfulness, please join me.

Shapiro, S.L., Carlson, L.E., Astin, J.A., & B. Freedman. 2006. Mechanisms of Mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(3), 373-386.

This article reviewed the mechanisms by which mindfulness might work and proposed a model of mindfulness. Much of the research on mindfulness evaluates the effectiveness of interventions such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and shows that it can effectively treat psychological as well as physical symptoms. To examine how mindfulness works, the authors break the practice down into three “building blocks” of mindfulness:

  • Intention – the issue here is “why are you practicing mindfulness?” It could be for such purposes as self-regulation (e.g. to relieve a physical symptom), self-exploration, or self-liberation
  • Attention – observing one’s own moment-to-moment internal and external experience. It does not involve interpretation, but simply paying attention to the present experience.
  • Attitude – the qualities that one brings with them to paying attention. For example, is it cold and clinical or is it a friendly and compassionate presence? When one pays attention to their experience in an open, curious, and kind way, the result may be a capacity to not constantly strive for one kind of experience or push another kind away. The desired outcome is an acceptance of what is.

The authors suggest that intentionally attending to experience with openness and without judgment leads to a shift in perspective that they term “reperceiving.” Instead of being immersed in our life story, we can stand back and witness it from a little distance. This perspective changes the experience and makes us less likely to react automatically. The authors draw a parallel between this and the development of an ability, as a child grows older, to take the perspective of another person. We are no longer caught up in a subjective or self-centered view of the other person and can more accurately understand the other person’s world. Reperceiving strengthens a sort of “observing self” who can observe conscious experience without being fused with it or defined by it.

Some additional mechanisms or processes are described as following from reperceiving. One is self-regulation. Intentional, nonjudgmental attention to our experience allows us to connect with what is happening without having to react and avoid. Automatic and maladaptive responses may drop away if we can experience anxiety or pain from a little distance, seeing it as a temporary thing that will pass.

Reperceiving can help us be more purposeful about choosing what really is important to us. While we might have adopted values based on what our culture or family provided, mindful observations make it easier to consider what is truly meaningful for us, choosing values reflectively rather than reflexively.

Greater cognitive and behavioral flexibility may follow from our ability to see our experience clearly and observe our internal commentary about it. Our thoughts may become less automatic and, more objectively observing our experience, we have more choice over how we think about and respond to our circumstances.

Finally, reperceiving may allow for us to tolerate greater exposure to emotions, thoughts, or sensations that previously were experienced as intolerable. If we can remain still, so to speak, in the face of such experiences, their power over us diminishes. The benefits of such exposure, in terms of decreased anxiety and avoidance, are well-documented in research.

Moonlight

Walking down a moonlit path in the forest, the trees on either side were dark sentinels, dimly seen but keenly felt. They held this place together with an underground network of roots, weaving the soil and rocks of the bottomland into one tapestry of living things. The last season’s leaves gave that fabric its pattern and colors, visible tonight only as shades of dark and light. On the path, in the moonlight, the leaves were edged in a faint silver-blue.

But above the trees, there was light. The moon looked on, her face a pale disc. In the surrounding blue-black sky, an uncounted field of stars shone in frozen pinpoints of light. At the edges of the sky, the trees reached up with bare branches, like river deltas dividing into ever-smaller paths, like the blood vessels of the earth reaching toward the stars.

That field of stars reminded me of a summer night in this very spot when fireflies blinked into existence in the dark forest, three and then twenty, and then more, swirling among the tree branches. It was as if the stars had come down from heaven to dance for a time here on earth, before returning to their cold stillness.

A low, hooting call brought me back to this night. Somewhere in the distance, a barred owl was signaling his presence. The deep quiet resumed for a time, but then, toward the river, there was a sound like the cracking of a big branch. Was it the weight of time, finally bringing part of a dead tree to the ground? A powerful animal, passing through a tangle of brittle branches? It stirred some unquiet thing within me.

Still, the luminous moon sailed in the sky. No sound disturbed her. No calamity could change her serene expression. Paradoxically, in her stillness it was as if she was speaking to me.

“Peace! Do not be troubled. Nothing happens here that is not part of life’s story. Tomorrow the forest will be here, strong and beautiful. Let your troubles go, and see the sunrise!”