End of Winter, at the Coast

A cold morning beach on the Bolivar Peninsula (photo by M. Smith)

Meghan Cassidy and I traveled to the upper Texas coast the weekend of March 6, working on the book project about mindfulness in nature in Texas. I am posting a few preview photos and a little description of what Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and Sea Rim State Park were like, here at the end of winter. Most of the photos here are mine (they won’t be in the book; I snap pictures but Meghan takes photographs on a whole other level!) and a few are Meghan’s.

From the High Island Bridge (photo by M. Cassidy)

It’s the end of winter if you count the seasons according to equinoxes and solstices. By that reckoning, we’re still in winter until March 20th, but that first weekend in March felt like the cusp of spring. The smallest wildflowers were beginning to bloom, and the sun was higher and stronger, to the delight of all the wildlife.

A humble plant with a fantastic name: Sticky Mouse-ear Chickweed (photo by M. Smith)

The bird population was busy and diverse. We saw White Ibis, American Coots, shovelers and other ducks and the occasional Pied-billed Grebe like the one below.

Pied-billed Grebe (photo by M. Cassidy)

Anahuac is the first place where I saw American Alligators in large numbers, years ago on another early March weekend. They were out basking in the sun then and they were doing the same thing now, resting on the banks of waterways like inert statues. The alligators here seem to be accustomed to the many birders and naturalists who pass through without getting too close. Make no mistake, if disturbed they are capable of instantly plunging into the water to get away, or even charging a person if they harassed a ‘gator. And for short distances, they can move faster than we can.

American Alligator (photo by M. Smith)
Another alligator, re-entering the water (photo by M. Smith)

We came to a place where over forty young alligators were basking, piled on top of each other in many cases. Some were adolescents and some appeared to be last season’s hatchlings, so they were not one nest of alligators. I have described for the book what happened when a little water snake came cruising by and decided, through the worst decision making ever, to swim over to the edge right where the greatest concentration of little alligators lay.

The World Conference of Young Alligators, or so it seemed (photo by M. Smith)

The boardwalk on the Shoveler Pond at Anahuac NWR is a wonderful place, extending over a marsh and ending with an observation deck. There was an amazing variety of bird life, including a Cinnamon Teal that swam near the deck for a while. Turtles were basking, Red-winged Blackbirds were busy among the reeds, and a couple of Mississippi Green Watersnakes basked very close to the boardwalk. Those were life-listers for me, as I’ve seen almost all of Texas’ watersnakes but not this one until now.

Cinnamon Teal (photo by M. Smith)
Red-winged Blackbird (photo by M. Smith)
A swallowtail greets Meghan on the deck (photo by M. Smith)
A gar waiting in the shallows (photo by M. Smith)
Mississippi Green Watersnakes – the tail of the second one extends up from the bottom of the photo (photo by M. Smith)

The Great Blue Herons were very common, and we spotted one that had just captured one of the local snakes. Meghan did get a couple of photos as it lifted off ponderously and flew away (that shot should be in the book). There were other larger birds such as an Osprey we saw in McFaddin NWR.

Great Blue Heron (photo by M. Cassidy)
Osprey with a half-eaten fish (photo by M. Cassidy)

There was a mindful component to all of this, staying in the moment and fully attentive to the experience. In the car (on the Shoveler Pond Auto Loop, for example) we weren’t driving around with the radio on and chatting about various things. There were periods of silence along with times when one might get the other and say, “look at that!” We spent the time absorbed in the experience of the sunshine, bird calls, wildlife, and the various textures and colors of the water and vegetation.

The varieties of blue in the water and sky at Shoveler Pond (photo by M. Smith)

One a drive near the beach, going to McFaddin NWR, Meghan spotted a juvenile Gulf Coast Ribbonsnake, and we were able to get some photos. Ribbonsnakes are always elegant and graceful, and I am a big fan of the brown and golden colors in the Gulf coast subspecies.

Gulf Coast Ribbonsnake (photo by M. Cassidy)

The beach at Sea Rim State Park, when sunset came on the first day, was memorable. The beach was nearly deserted, which is a gift in itself for someone who wants to experience the waves and sand in their full depth and breadth, without the cars, radio, and chatter. As the sun went down we saw a child far away, standing in the waves fishing. I began to think about the possibilities – what a child like that might carry with him or her from that day. A beautiful sky, the wild Gulf of Mexico, imagining some amazing creature that might appear at any moment on the fishing line. I hope that the adult who was there with the child provides many other days and nights when such magical experiences can occur.

The Snow birds

We become complacent, sometimes, about living in comfort and security, but reminders of our fragility eventually come along. This time, February grabbed us by the throat, wrapping humans and wildlife alike in arctic cold. Wind and blowing snow sucked warmth from living bodies, until survival became a question not just for animals but sometimes for humans, too. The question for every living thing was this: Can I shake off the icy vampire pulling warmth out of me, or will this end my life? The birds around my back yard feeder have to confront this question every winter, at least during a cold front or two. We humans, surrounded by the built world of houses and heaters, usually do not even consider it.

There are states where winter routinely pushes temperatures down to zero degrees, but Texas is not one of them. As this year began, the weather system over the arctic did not play nice, and as a result the swirling bitterly cold air near the north pole wobbled badly and was pushed down into Texas where it should not go. After several days when the high temperatures mostly were in the 20s, Valentine’s Day brought snow in north Texas. The next day the temperatures stayed in the teens, and Monday night the low was variously reported as -2 degrees, zero, or perhaps one degree. If we ventured outside, frostbite could come in as little as fifteen minutes, we were told. 

Pine Siskins

The more our world was swallowed up in bitter cold and blowing snow, the more urgently the birds mobbed the feeders. Northern Cardinals appeared, with flocks of Pine Siskins and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Along the ground and in low tree branches, they were joined by Dark-eyed Juncos, the “snow birds.” They breed in Alaska and Canada, but migrate southward in winter, and on Valentine’s Day they no doubt wondered if they had migrated far enough.

The wind blew both snow and birds, but the juncos flew where they would, regardless of the wind. The flight skills of Pine Siskins and warblers allowed them to find a spot on the feeder, correct for a quick change in the wind, and find a perch. Through the snowflakes I watched them reach into the feeder to get seed, look around in quick, vigilant movements as they processed and swallowed the grain, and go in for more. Bird faces are not good at conveying emotion; a rigid bill cannot convey a smile or a grimace, and their little dark eyes seemed expressionless as they fought to get enough food to sustain the little metabolic engines generating heat under those feathers. What was their state of mind? Did those quick movements reflect urgency and anxiety, or just a bird doing what its small body does to get by? A friend described what I was seeing this way: “They have to keep moving in this cold – constantly moving, because if they stop, they die.” 

Two snow birds (juncos) foraging on the ground as snow begins

I stood in my kitchen, looking out at this and bringing the full force of my anthropomorphic imagination to what I was seeing. What would it be like to be that bird? The bitter cold would be miserable in a tiny body like that, and every decision carries the weight of life and death. One misstep would allow a predator to take you; failing to find enough food would sap your energy, bring hypothermia and then oblivion. What happens at night? What refuge is there for a fragile thing with feathers, other than the crook of a tree branch or a juniper’s evergreen bough to slow the wind? The depths of the dark night, when the deepest cold arrives and there is no acrobatic exertion to build heat and no food to fuel it, that seems like the most lonely and desperate time. Thank God for the shelter that I had, the light and heat from the gadgets of the built world that kept me from experiencing such a cruel night.

Was this hypocrisy? How many times have I complained about our over-involvement with our gadgets and our obsession with adding to the built world. If I get an afternoon on the prairie, I am in love with the grasses and do not want to return to the world of highways and towns. Spending the day in the mountains makes me long for a shack tucked away on a meadow on the lower slopes, to live among the trees and the quiet. Should this storm chase me back to my co-dependence with the heater and running water? The polar vortex was a reminder that I may love wild places but I am poorly adapted to live in them. On a bright spring day or a mild and contemplative autumn evening, I am in heaven. I can cope with summer heat for the most part, and given a good coat, winter days can be fine. Weeks like this one, though, with frostbite waiting outside the door, make me want a good shelter and a working heater.

The rest of Texas wanted a good shelter and a working heater, too. As the weekend progressed the announcements came that Texas’ electricity grid was becoming overwhelmed and rolling blackouts would begin. For most people, when the blackouts came, they stayed. Just as record low temperatures and the state’s first-ever wind chill warning were on the way, lights were going out in apartments and homes, and heaters went cold. Birds continued to fly from place to place, searching for berries, seeds, and bird feeders, while humans huddled together under blankets. The built world was failing us. Stories emerged of people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, running cars and camp stoves and anything that might generate some heat. A man who was dependent on bottled oxygen was found dead, forced outside to use a spare bottle in his truck. Some broke up furniture to burn, and even added their child’s wooden blocks to the flames.  

The water stopped flowing at our house on Saturday, in time for us to get out and buy bottled water before freezing rain made travel too dangerous. The water came back on later that day, and we were fortunate that it stayed on, except for an interruption a few days later. Many people were unlucky. The parts of the built world having to do with water treatment and delivery froze and failed in many places, and so people went without water. And they went without power and heat. We have wrapped ourselves in mechanisms and gadgets that become our life support system. We expect running water, we expect to be protected from extremes of temperature, and the required gadgets run mostly in the background so that we do not think about them. When they fail, not just for one household but for whole communities and regions, it is a crisis.

I stood at our window and watched the birds, waiting for the power to fail. Mindfulness helped bring me back to this moment, in which I was there in a warm house looking at the outside world while drinking a cup of coffee. I tried to stay in the present and not overwhelm my awareness with the possibility that the house could become dark and freezing, with snow-packed streets trapping us. How would we fare? It seemed unlikely we would meet the cold with the same energy and resilience I witnessed in the Dark-eyed Juncos foraging in the snow. I opened the back door to toss another handful of peanuts out for the Blue Jays. It was the sort of cold we describe as “biting,” for the sharp, painful sensation it brings to our skin. I could stand out there dressed as I was, but for how long before I got that other kind of bite when skin and tissues start to freeze? Meanwhile, word had gotten around to the jays, and they arrived soon after the door was shut. One or two came to the Sweetgum tree, carefully assessing the situation and then flying down to pick up a peanut and even try for a second before figuring out that they were too big. Another perched on the deck and dropped down for his prize. As I peeked out the window, he cocked his head to look at me, took his peanut, and was gone. Did his feathers protect him from frostbite, and his activity keep the hypothermia away? A couple of days before, I worried about how the birds would survive the storm; now the birds seemed like role models for how to get through it.

When our son was able to get around on relatively level streets, we had him and some of his friends over to warm up, shower, and have something to eat and drink. It was like celebrating our getting this far through the storm, by offering comfort and playing some Uno or Scrabble. When we get through it, we get through it together. When I watched the birds outside, it was my inability to see this empathy and connection that cast the biggest shadow on what I saw. For us, in our human skin, the sense that others can feel what we are feeling and will stand with us to face whatever comes – that is as crucial as oxygen. Without it, we are lost and wandering in darkness. And so, on some level I could not put into words, my perception was that the snow birds were also lost. 

That is the danger of anthropomorphizing, of assigning human qualities where they are unwarranted. When birds connect, it need not look like human connection, and so we may fail to recognize it. Ravens, crows, and others in the corvid clan (like our Blue Jays) have complicated social relationships and even recognize some familiar humans. Black vultures care for their young past the point where the youngster has fledged. Chickadees have a syntax to their calls that allows for basic communication among their flock. I am not suggesting that birds have social relationships with the same depth and complexity that we do. I expect that the birds at my feeder may have social relationships greater than I could discern, and also that those relationships would be different than those of humans. Birds have the brains that they are built to have; their brains do amazing things that our brains cannot, just as they cannot do some things that ours can.

White-winged Doves

By Thursday the 18th, the sun was out for a time and the afternoon high temperature reached the freezing mark. It felt like the storm was beginning to fade, but much damage had been done. A friend posted a photo of an Eastern Bluebird lying dead in the snow, its efforts to stay alive having failed. In our yard, White-winged Doves had gathered under one of the feeders to forage for any seed that had spilled from above. Sometimes they quietly hunkered down in the snow, keeping a low profile against the wind. And one of them stayed too long, not foraging and not reacting when other birds landed nearby. I don’t know how long the dove stayed motionless, waiting for the end, maybe trying to hold on, and then willing or not, surrendering its life.

I imagine that there are lonelier deaths. Other birds continued to come and go, including other White-winged Doves. I’d like to think that as the world dimmed, the dove noticed familiar faces, and even as the snow and ice drained the life from her body, she wondered if she was just resting among friends, preparing to fly one more time.

The Undertaker’s Community Picnic

It was Monday afternoon, February 8th. The hours of broken clouds and sunshine were ticking away, and I made it to Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge around 3:00pm. Faced with an array of good spots to choose from, I decided to walk the Cross Timbers Trail, which initially tracks the Trinity River before breaking away back into the woodland. I crossed the little bridge where the marsh reaches the river and kept going north. 

Bottomland at the refuge

Along this stretch of river, the trail is at the top of a small levee, with some bottomland habitat to the west. Some of the huge Cottonwood and other trees are wrapped in climbing vines as big as your arm, crisscrossing the trunk and reaching high into the tree canopy to claim their share of sunlight. On the other side of the trail is the river, with forest beyond it. 

The east bank of the river was the site of a community picnic. Some of the participants watched from up in the trees while others shared the bounty on the ground. All were arrayed in black, a solemn picnic resembling a funeral gathering. Two of the black figures on the ground were focused on a small patch of two-toned fur that might have been the last earthly remains of a raccoon. This was a gathering in which the undertakers eat the dead. 

Black Vulture, warming its wings in the sun

These were Black Vultures, and they almost completely live up to their name. Even their bare heads are black, unlike the red heads of the slightly larger Turkey Vultures. A couple of the birds in today’s gathering stretched their wings to their full three- or four-foot reach, gathering the sun’s warmth. Those outstretched wings revealed six slightly dark-edged white feathers at the end of each wing, those first primary feathers like pale fingertips on a black bird. You can see them in flight, like a vague white spot on each black wing.

These are said to be very social birds, staying with mates for years and taking care of young for months after they fledge. They roost in community groups and those who have not found food can follow roost mates back to carrion. To quote Bruce Springsteen, “We take care of our own.” It’s family values with an aggressive tribal streak, as groups of Black Vultures are said to descend on a carcass and drive the Turkey Vultures back while they eat their fill. 

I walked on down the trail, seeing plenty of other birds. American Robins were searching for food on the woodland floor and flying up to low perches as I walked through. I could hear calls of Northern Cardinals periodically as males gear up for the coming spring. 

More bottomland

As the trail turned away from the river, it bordered a low area where water can drain toward the river, although at present it is all but dry. On the other side the land rises into Cross Timbers woodland. At the edge of the trail, two trees grew together in what looked like an embrace, one a Hackberry and the other a different kind of tree. They were entwined and seemed to be physically connected, two joined into one. 

The trees’ embrace

I soon had to turn around in order to get back before the refuge closed, and the clouds seemed a little heavier. Along the river, the late afternoon sun was shining so as to light up the bigger trees from a low angle. At one magical point, the sunlight made the top branches of the tallest trees glow, and against the darker blue-gray of the clouds behind them, those small curving branches were like silver filigree against the sky. The clouds shifted, obscuring the sun and the moment was gone. The experience stuck with me, one of thousands of such moments at this wonderful place.

A moment of sunshine

As I passed the site of the picnic, a few of the undertakers remained. I suppose virtually all of the banquet was gone, or at least I could see little of it. The vultures had done their job well, helping to return the dead back to the soil from which they came. 

the Acrobatic Flight of “Butter-Butts”

Yellow-rumped Warbler in Dallas County (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Yesterday was sunny and clear, and Southwest Nature Preserve was the right place to take a walk. Its 52 acres are hemmed in by a major freeway and suburban development, and many visitors walk its trails and drop fishing lines into its waters. Despite all that, it’s a pretty resilient little remainder of the oak woodlands and sandstone that are the calling cards of the Eastern Cross Timbers.

There’s something about winter-bare oak woodlands, with the sun shining through branches and lighting up the layer of leaves on the ground. And ponds, with clear water shading into a deeper gloom with aquatic plants and the waterlogged wood of fallen branches, hidden in the dark. Depending on where you stand, the pond’s surface may be a sapphire reflection of sunlight, and the surface may have shifting rough patches where cold winter breezes blow across it. Southwest Nature Preserve has those things. 

The north pond

It also has birds, and this winter there have been a lot of them. I have paid better attention, or this has been a season with good bird numbers and diversity, or both. And as a result, I’ve learned more about them this year, although I’m no expert. I’m also better able to put aside the old herpetologist’s habit of active searching. Instead of staying on the move, I can sit and blend in with the habitat for a while. Mindfulness and advancing age have helped with that.

I visited the smallest pond, expecting a little dried mud bowl because of the very dry conditions. Instead, it had several inches of clear water. As I watched, several small nondescript birds took turns flying out over the water. Often one of them would fly into the breeze and momentarily be held there, fifteen feet above the water, until it turned and in a ball of wind-splayed feathers it was pushed back to a nearby tree. 

I sat on the banks of the pond for a while, watching these birds and listening to their calls back and forth: a single “cheet” repeated frequently. In my binoculars I would see gray-brown on the head and wings, with white and dark wing bars, and then that little patch of yellow on the side of the body. When one perched on a nearby twig, the binoculars showed a highlighter-yellow patch of feathers on the rump, more than justifying the name “butter-butt” that some birders give them. More properly, they are Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Yellow-rumped Warbler half-hidden in vegetation

As I watched, my naturalist’s reasoning suspected that they were catching insects too small for me to see. I imagined them to be having fun, as if their forays out over the water might start with a call to their neighbor to “watch this!” Sometimes they found a place to perch very close to the surface of the pond, but mostly they flew out above the water and returned to the winter-dry stalks of vegetation or up into the branches of an oak. A later check with some birding sources, including Cornell’s All About Birds site, seemed to confirm that their flight would have been in pursuit of insects. I don’t think this negates my suspicion that they were enjoying themselves.

Red-eared Slider, basking at one of the ponds

There were other things to see on this sunny afternoon. In an adjacent pond, a male Red-eared Slider was basking on a log at the water’s edge, across from the fishing pier that extends out over part of the pond. He was unconcerned about my photographing him. In warmer circumstances, these turtles are shy and quick to drop into the water, but this guy was unwilling to give up the bright sunshine of a cool winter day.

Mallards

Nearby, a couple of pairs of Mallards were cruising across the surface of a small pool, periodically going “tail-up” to dabble through the material along the bottom and extract whatever was good to eat. In contrast, there was no activity on the surface of the north pond, which often has its share of ducks and turtles. Today not even the cricket frogs were out, despite plenty of sunshine along the northeast banks of the pond.

It was a good day to wander along the ponds of the preserve and up over the ridge and through the woods. I learned more about its birds today and got to visit with the willows and oaks and pay my respects to the boulders and grasses. 

Late afternoon on the trail

Winter at the Refuge, with Birds

A savannah along the Canyon Ridge Trail

On a beautiful December 24th last year, I sat on a bench in a little pocket of prairie at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, and wrote about it in this blog. This year the refuge seemed the perfect place to spend part of the winter solstice. With Barbara and her kids, I spent the afternoon up on the ridge overlooking the lake, and then at the marsh boardwalk just before sunset. Today, the day after Christmas, was a clear and warm day and I had to go back to that same bench that charmed me last year. And so, here are some notes and some photos of the refuge and some of the birds we saw there.

On the 21st, the first thing I saw was a group of vultures, apparently riding rising thermal air currents. My field notes included the following: 11:55am – There were numerous black vultures flying low through the area (the lake shore) and they converged over the water, were joined by a few turkey vultures – and 20 became 30 as they flew in a tight circle and gained altitude, working their way past Greer Island, high in the sky.

Black vulture

When the others arrived, we started our visit at Lone Point, the stone shell of a shelter built long ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It overlooks Lake Worth, and on this day it was a popular vantage point for more vultures. Below us on the water, and above us in the sky, there were American white pelicans with their black-edged wings and big pouched bills.

American white pelican
A nest from earlier this year, at the marsh boardwalk

At the end of the day, the boardwalk and surrounding marsh were alive with many bird species. On the water there were American coots, mallards, American wigeons, great egrets, and a belted kingfisher that soared over the marsh and landed not far off, then flew further away before I could get a photo.

The marsh
A belted kingfisher in the distance

Closer to us, at the muddy margins of the marsh, we were amazed at the birds that kept popping up in front of us or down below the boardwalk. One species entirely new to Barbara and me was a sora, a secretive marsh bird that tends to stay among grasses and reeds looking for seeds and aquatic invertebrates to eat. There was also a swamp sparrow hopping around the water’s edge, and a common yellowthroat.

A sora
Swamp sparrow

Higher up in the Phragmites stems was a handsome song sparrow, although the photo I was able to get hardly did it justice. And higher up, flitting among tree branches and the tops of the reeds, was a ruby-crowned kinglet. These are gorgeous little birds who don’t sit still long, although they’ll spend long enough at my suet feeder for me to get a good look, sometimes even seeing the little red patch of feathers on the crown of the head that gives them their name.

Song sparrow in the reeds
Ruby-crowned kinglet

When I returned after Christmas and four days into winter, once again it was clear and warm. I walked the trail up through woodlands to that spot where a live oak overhangs a bench that looks over a little patch of little bluestem grasses. It is one of several places I am strongly drawn to at the refuge. I got there a little after 2:00pm, and my field notes included these entries: It is breezy – even windy enough to shake the treetops in a sort of slow motion way. The bare tops of oaks and other trees stiffly swayed as if nodding greetings all around.

From the bench, looking north

It was still and the sun at my back warmed my shirt. And then the breeze would come, slightly cool, and making a rushing sound especially through the live oaks with their leaves intact. I could hear the breeze rolling through this part of the woods like a wave of moving air. It was otherwise as peaceful and quiet as I have found it to be before.

I walked back through some woodland to get a look at a favorite patch of savannah. As I walked through the woods, I saw the only substantial bird life of this day – birds that mostly included the American Robin, moving from place to place eating berries from vines and mistletoe.

American robin

The savannah was beautiful, with waist-high prairie grasses such as little bluestem and split-beard bluestem.

Savannah

Wading a Winter Creek

On a day when the temperatures reached the upper 70s, under bright sunshine, we took a walk and a wade through a cold creek, ten days into winter (using the December 1st meteorological beginning). It was delightful.

It probably seemed ridiculous to Barbara’s kids when we arrived at the creek bed and found much more water flowing than I had predicted. They followed me upstream a short distance until I reached a broad pool that would require serious wading. I volunteered to go ahead and see how deep it would be, and when it became thigh deep, frigid and numbing, I glanced back toward them. Barbara was gamely ready to give it a shot; Nicholas stood with his infectious grin as if to say, “you gotta be crazy.” Dani looked like she was figuring out how she could quietly slip back to the car. 

“OK, well how about downstream?” I asked, and everyone quickly assented. By the time we got back to our entry point, I could not feel my feet. Above the water was a different story. There could hardly be a more comfortable, sunny day as we made our way downstream over dry limestone rock and water only an inch or two deep. 

Fragments of ammonite (the piece on the right is a cast, not a piece of the ammonite itself)

I talked about finding fossils in this white Cretaceous limestone, including echinoids (like sea urchins), conical snails, and ammonites. The most dramatic fossils are the ammonites with their ribbed, coiled shells resembling today’s nautilus and related to the squid or octopus. I rarely find intact ammonites but it is exciting to find even a portion of one. We soon found a fragment or two, along with some fossil oysters and other bivalves. Nicholas soon found a living modern bivalve, that is, a freshwater clam that a friend identified as a species originally brought here from Asia. 

The water got deeper, and that give me a chance to net up some fish for us to examine. What I netted were mosquitofish, a sort of minnow that often swims in groups searching for something edible on the surface of the water. I showed the others the little ones among the wet leaves in the net and mentioned one of the things that charms me about these fish. While they are basically colorless, when seen in the right light a blue color is evident. It might be a sort of iridescence, though it seems to come from within the fish. I noticed it when I first caught and kept them as a teenager – mosquitofish and I go back a long way – and it is still one of the first things I think of when I see them.

Throughout autumn the leaves fall, spinning and sailing down to the water’s surface where they become saturated and sink to the bottom. Bur oaks, beeches, red oaks and sycamores all contribute to a beautiful collection resting under the clear water. The pale silt from limestone and shale lightly dusts these leaves, making them the creek equivalent of a sepia-toned photo.

We found a place where the creek has cut straight down through sand and shale, forming a sort of wall. Some layers and spots erode more easily, so during floods the current has carved a shallow pocket into the wall, leaving a bench of gravelly soil that we sat on for a while. I wrote notes while Barbara sketched sections of ammonite and leaves. Dani found a comfortable place in the sun. 

As Dani enjoyed the sunshine, the rest of us waded further downstream. Because it was sunny, the cricket frogs were sitting at the water’s edge, waiting to ambush tiny invertebrates to eat. These thumbnail-sized frogs may seek shelter when it’s truly cold and when it’s overcast or raining, but otherwise they are active year-round in our area. In summer they seem impossibly fast, jumping into the water and swimming to some place of concealment almost faster than your eyes can follow. Today their “cold-blooded” metabolisms could not generate that kind of energy. 

A Blanchard’s cricket frog floating in the water

Nicholas caught a couple of cricket frogs by hand, a pretty cool trick in summer but much easier today. When one slipped away and jumped into the creek, it hung in that clear, numbing cold water and floated over the rocks and leaves of the creek bottom. A few minutes later it would be sunning on the creek bank and hoping for a little hunting success.

Further down the creek, Nicholas spotted a small bird getting a drink at the water’s edge. It dipped it’s slender beak into the water a couple of times and soon flew away. I got a good photo but struggled to know this bird’s identity, but with the help if iNaturalist I found that it was a yellow-rumped warbler. The narrow beak, a bit of a white ring around the eye, and the wing bars helped, but there was only a suggestion of a yellow patch on its breast. It turns out that in its winter plumage, there’s not a lot of yellow to be seen, and this bird’s position obscured whatever yellow may have been evident on its rump. 

Yellow-rumped warbler

There were no clouds in the sky, and in shallow riffles the sun and water created the most beautiful patterns of light. Each ripple in the water focused sunlight onto the pale limestone creek bottom in a shimmering, dancing line. Sometimes they moved in the direction of the current and they swirled when the water was disturbed as it passed through troughs and over stones. At times through some trick of the light they seemed to move back against the current. It might be a small and ordinary thing to watch what the bright sunlight creates in clear, moving water, but it was a wonderful gift today.

And then it was time to head back. This creek has been such a treasure over the fifty-plus years that I have visited it, and I look forward to seeing another spring there when the new green growth and spring rains transform it into one more wonderful version of itself. 

Embracing the Cold, Looking for Solitude

Today was cold and cloudy. Not bitterly cold, but there was a sort of damp chill underneath the deck of gray clouds that made you pull your jacket close around you. I wanted to get out for a while to somewhere pretty close by and so I chose Oliver Nature Park in Mansfield. It is 80 acres situated alongside Walnut Creek a little distance upstream from Joe Pool Lake, much of it oak and juniper woodland, a little island of nature within the city of Mansfield. And Mansfield is just one of several varieties of sprawl; Arlington, Kennedale, Grand Prairie, and Cedar Hill, spreading southward from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. There are a few islands of nature embedded within those cities, all of them much needed and all of them too small.

From the observation platform

I climbed up the hill to an observation platform overlooking Walnut Creek, passing a jogger or two along the way. Once on the platform, you look down through oaks, cedar elm and other trees to the creek as it winds along past a few slabs of rock. It could be a good birding overlook or just a peaceful place to sit as if perched in the tree canopy, but it also places you within mostly unobstructed earshot of a nearby street. On that street, someone was doing their best to get noticed, loud and powerful. A motorcycle engine wound up higher and louder, speeding in one direction and then coming back. It was time to move on. 

I waited for a family to pass by before starting down the path, and was approached by a very nice woman who told me I looked like I might be a birder. I did my best to speculate about what kind of bird she may have seen, and told her about iNaturalist, which will be much more helpful than I was able to be. I was awfully glad she talked with me. Isn’t that the sort of community that I believe is ideal, people interacting face to face to share and learn about the natural world? But everywhere I turned, there were people. I stepped around a photographer taking a photo of a girl on the boardwalk, and hurried along to stay ahead of a group of people headed my way. Solitude was definitely escaping me today. 

Honey locust

Further along the boardwalk, there was the roar of a big plane on approach to DFW airport to our north. Right, I remembered, we are just about due south of the airport, on the southern approach to the runways. It’s just the way it is. There is no quiet place in the metroplex. But there were still treasures to see, like a big honey locust tree whose curled and twisted seed pods had mostly fallen. The trunk with those clusters of spikes, and dark reddish-brown spiral pods still clinging here and there, attracted me. And in places there were clusters of oak leaves turning beautiful bright red.

The farthest section of the park had the fewest visitors. Near a couple of bird blinds a group of sparrows was flitting from ground to low branches in a tangle of vines and understory. That woman who approached me earlier was right – today I was a birder. No self-respecting spiny lizard or ratsnake would be prowling around on this chilly 50-degree day, but crows had been calling to each other and now these little sparrows where challenging my naturalist skills. I got the best photo that I could of what turned out to be white-throated sparrows.

White-throated sparrow

This group appears to have behaved quite typically, foraging near the ground in a brushy area, with one positioned higher in a tree sounding the alarm as I walked up on them. They eat seeds as well as small fruits and insects. According to the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds site, white-throated sparrows are abundant but have declined over the past fifty years or so. 

My walk continued, among the many others using the park. At one point as I was engrossed with a group of doves in a nearby tree, about to take flight, I was startled by crunching on the trail and turned to see a jogger pass me. I had to hurry to stay ahead of a family group in which a child was repeatedly screaming (in annoyance rather than distress, apparently). The situation in the park today is one likely to trigger in me a good bit of cognitive dissonance. I write, give talks, and lead interpretive walks with the goal of sparking a love of the natural world. Most of these people were presumably there out of some sort of love of nature, not in my nerdy and introverted manner perhaps, but they wanted to get outside at a nature park on this cold autumn day. That ought to be worth celebrating.

A tributary stream within the woodland

We need more and bigger places. Urban preserves and parks are full, especially during this past year of pandemic, to the point where it can be hard to stay socially-distanced. People blaze networks of unauthorized trails, contributing to erosion and leaving hardly any refuge in which wildlife can feel safe. What if this park and other small urban preserves were at least twice as big? Visitors would not be bumping into each other and the birding and wildlife watching would surely be better. And for people like me, who want to get lost somewhere with no one else to be seen or heard, to experience solitude and quiet, it would be heaven.

Autumn at Eagle Mountain Park

Today I walked a rolling patch of Cross Timbers woodland at Eagle Mountain Park, to the Ridge Loop Trail. The numerous other walkers and joggers reminded me that this was no unusual accomplishment, but the 3.8 miles I walked and climbed today is a sort of extension of my cardiac rehabilitation. In fact, I went to rehab this morning, doing exercise that was much less demanding than the afternoon’s walk. A month ago I was grateful to take a short walk at Southwest Nature Preserve, so today is progress.

Some of my motivation was provided by my companions, Barbara and her kids, Dani and Nicky (see Orb Weavers and Quiet Conversation). When the two of them took a short cut up a steep hillside, I figured it was do-able and charged up after them. I needed to catch my breath at the top, but did OK. And they’re bright and curious, giving me a chance to pass along some of what I know about nature. Both found some red fruit on a prickly pear cactus and wanted to try eating them. Nicky managed to pick up one of these tunas, and I told him how I’ve wanted to skin one and eat it, but instead I always manage to get those glochids, the tiny spines, stuck in my skin and feel them for days afterward. Maybe I helped him avoid that experience.

Yucca and prickly pear in a prairie opening in the woods

We also compared notes about eating juniper berries, and then we discussed how the berries are really modified cones. Noticing that only some trees had berries, I said that these junipers exist separately as male trees (their pollen making them look like they’ve been dusted in gold this time of year) and female trees.

Trying not to subject them to too much natural history and just have fun, I still could not resist pointing out how the tiny tufted seeds on little bluestem grass shine in the sunlight. I have an unnatural attraction to native prairie grasses, even though I have only modest knowledge of them. Regardless, walking through a patch of these grasses is powerful medicine, and it’s medicine that I’m always eager to take.

We found mistletoe, and we did talk a little about how this plant is a parasite, although most of the trees we see do not appear to be harmed much unless the tree is covered with many of the plants. The woods were beautiful, with the signature post oak and blackjack, and at least one species of the red oak group. In some places, especially in spots with more limestone emerging from the soil, there were live oaks.

Mistletoe

We reached a point where we emerged at the shore of Eagle Mountain Lake, and stood watching a few gulls flying and a group of American coots paddling on the lake surface. Nicky found a branch with a pretty fair resemblance to Gandalf’s staff in the Lord of the Rings movies, and he traced a number of runes into the trail surface. “Ash nazg gimbatul!” There’s much fun to be found on a walk like this.

The shore of Eagle Mountain Lake

It seems to me that the Cross Timbers is not usually a place with spectacular fall foliage on a grand scale. Most years, you appreciate the more subtle loveliness of the woods, and you find small patches of colorful leaves. That is what we found today. The woods were beautiful in shades of brown, rust, and straw, and in places the leaves were bright red and green.

I’m grateful to have been in the company of these socially-distanced friends today, and grateful to have been able to walk and climb through these woods. May everyone have a safe and healthy Thanksgiving tomorrow.

Grateful for an Autumn Walk

Today’s walk at Southwest Nature Preserve was especially rewarding for me. A week ago last Sunday, I got prompt, excellent medical care for a heart attack and I seem to be recovering well. As a result, I had the chance to take a very routine short hike today, and even though it was routine, it was one that I felt very privileged to take. It could have been very different.

Sumac leaves changing color

The past few days have been cold and wet, and today started out cold – by north Texas standards – and cloudy. It has been autumn for a month now, but today it really felt like autumn. Leaves are dropping and you can see further through the woods as a result. The carpet of leaves is an intricate study in shapes and earthy colors which always captures my imagination. 

The path up the hillside opens onto a shelf of sandstone that falls off toward the northwest, forming a ridge. Lately it has been so dry that you wondered how the clumps of little bluestem grasses didn’t dry up and blow away, but a little rain over the past few days left the thin soil a little muddy and the colors a little brighter. Or perhaps it was my frame of mind that was brighter, being able to walk along this ridge again. 

Some tiny yellow flowers mixed in with a patch of native grasses pulled my attention toward a little path around the crown of the hill. I paused at a juniper to chew a couple of the small “berries” to get that little bit of sweetness along with the delightful botanical aroma. By the time I returned to the ridge, the clouds were finally breaking up and the sun lit up the preserve in a bright, beautiful afternoon that seemed especially lovely today.

Juniper berries
Maximilian sunflower, at the end of the walk

Summer’s Snakey End

It was September12, with ten days of summer left to us before the autumn equinox, and so we decided that the last outing of summer ought to be spent at the LBJ National Grasslands, in Wise County. It was some combination of work on this book I’m writing about spending time in nature, and just enjoying one more day of summer.

Meghan, Paul and I started at one of the pine groves, those patches of ponderosa pine brought in by the Forest Service long ago and planted here in the Cross Timbers. The series of ponds beneath this grove support huge numbers of cricket frogs, leopard frogs, and a couple of other species. In turn, the frogs help support a community of snakes, both the harmless watersnake and the venomous cottonmouth. We walked along, hearing frogs plunk into the water and seeing a few frogs that did not disappear fast enough.

A juvenile leopard frog

Beyond the pine grove is a gently rolling landscape of prairie patches and oak woodland dotted with small ponds. Among my prairie favorites are little bluestem and Indiangrass, creating a fine vertical texture of straight stems reaching waist-high or even head-high. The flowering tops and seed heads of Indiangrass remind me of candle flames on impossibly skinny candles. And while the Cross Timbers is dominated by oak trees, there are plenty of junipers scattered through the clumps and belts of woodland. Late summer flowers – goldenrod and various asters – add beautiful colors to the mix.

A green layer of mostly western ragweed beneath layers of little bluestem and Indiangrass

Something scaley was spotted – a snake of some kind – around a big fallen tree branch. We searched intensively for a few minutes, but the tall grasses and the tangle of other plants and tree branches concealed the serpent well. My guess is that it found a deeper place of concealment such as a burrow underneath the vegetation, or else made a quick unseen getaway while we were looking elsewhere.

On the walk back, I spotted something stretched across the damp sandy trail. It could have been a stick or an irregular ripple of soil, but that didn’t look right to me. As I approached, twenty feet away or so, it seemed to draw up into some kinks. I walked up on a fairly dark spotted snake that turned out to be a prairie kingsnake.

A prairie kingsnake

I gently picked it up, anticipating some thrashing or even a bite, which would have been briefly uncomfortable but of no consequence. Our nonvenomous snakes mostly have small, very sharp needle-like teeth that make small punctures or scratches but need no special treatment. This kingsnake, however, never thrashed, just moved her body as if trying to crawl away. She never offered to bite. We spent several minutes admiring her (judged to be a “her” because the tail tapered fairly quickly, as opposed to the thicker and longer tails of male snakes, whose reproductive organs are kept inverted inside the first part of the tail), and then released her.

When placed on the trail, she immediately moved to the edge of the leaf litter, nosed down just beneath the thin layer of leaves and vines, and began to disappear under it. The amazing thing was how she gradually disappeared under the leaves without moving them in the slightest or making any sounds. The snake simply dissolved into the prairie!

A little further down the trail, Meghan was determined to find another snake, and her attention was drawn to an area beside the trail with some old fallen branches that offered some cover. Sure enough, she spotted a small snake, fast and agile and therefore hard to get a good look at to verify that it was harmless. I hurried to where she was, and she wanted me to identify whether it was safe for her to pick up. I got a glimpse of scales and said “yes.” Together we lifted a piece of wood and as the snake took off in her direction, she restrained it and picked it up.

A baby western coachwhip

This was a baby western coachwhip, a snake that can grow to around six feet in length, although most are not quite that long. Babies are born in late summer and measure a little over a foot long. Based on time of year and length, this little snake had not been out of the egg very long. A coachwhip’s big, piercing eyes hint at its daytime hunting strategy, visually locating lizards or even big grasshoppers and chasing them down. It is hard to imagine winning a race with a determined coachwhip, not because they are so fast in miles per hour but because of their agility in weaving through branches and around rocks.

On the final part of our walk, back through the pine grove, we spotted a watersnake slipping over the banks of one of the ponds and into the water. I got enough of a look at its body shape and especially its movement to know that it was a harmless watersnake. While cottonmouths can move quickly, they never seem to have the grace and speed of a watersnake. While this one immediately slipped beneath the water, a cottonmouth would typically (not always!) ride along the water’s surface, more focused on looking around it or simply sitting still. A watersnake fleeing danger usually swims at high speed, along the bottom, until it finds a place of concealment where it can wait for danger to pass.

Eryngo

We visited other places and stayed until sunset, admiring things like eryngo, that beautiful, prickly purple plant found at the end of the summer. Sunset was subtle but beautiful, offering a wonderful way to say goodbye to summer.