At LBJ Grasslands, the Evening of May 27

(A writing experiment, with country cemeteries, beautiful prairie, a copperhead, and distant storms. On this visit to the grasslands, I did not take a camera. I intended to experience it without trying to “capture” it in images, although I did have my phone so I suppose I did have a camera. I also did not take a field notebook, but today I wrote some notes. It seemed like the sort of thing that would have, once upon a time, been sent back home as a letter, and so I offer my notes as a sort of letter from the grasslands, with no photos to augment whatever mental images and stories the words might manage to convey.)

I traveled to Wise County to see how all the rain has affected the prairies at LBJ Grasslands, and I also hoped to sit in the quiet darkness and watch lightning from the line of storms coming in from Oklahoma. In between those things, perhaps I would see a few snakes or frogs crossing the roads after sunset.

On the initial drive through the oak woodlands and patches of prairie, I looped around Ball Knob, a little hilltop and ridge. Tucked away among the oaks, prairie grasses, and wildflowers is a quiet little cemetery, a resting place for people who lived there in the 1700s and later. It is a beautiful place, dotted with oaks and a couple of junipers, with some of the headstones weathered beyond reading. It is comforting to think that they have rested here for hundreds of years in the peace of the cycling seasons. Who knows what it might mean to those who have passed, but for those who remain it is a reassuring reminder of eternal rest. For those who are buried here, each spring sees the return of Texas paintbrush and purple coneflower and each autumn their graves are kissed with a scattering of golden and scarlet oak leaves. The place is circled with an unassuming chain link fence, and there is a small, modest pavilion for anyone who wants to sit for a while. There is a historical marker, but no signs and nothing to disturb the peace. It is perfect.

I drove on, past the historical site of the settlement of Audubon and past the pine grove with its campsites and little ponds. From that pine grove, the road drops down to a broad, mostly open prairie that I walk year after year, following trails across fields of prairie grass and flowers and through post oak and blackjack woodland. Today, after the extended rains that have fallen, the fields were green and dotted with flowers. Red-orange Texas paintbrush pushed up through the green, and meadow pink flowers were tucked away near the ground. Big flower heads of antelope horn milkweed dotted the meadows. 

Butterflies and bumblebees visited these and other flowers. The first ones I saw were sulphur-yellow butterflies that fluttered near the ground, stopping at the yellow coreopsis and nervously moving on if I stepped closer. The buzz of the bees is very pleasant to me; I associate it with flowering and the expansion of life, and not at all with pain since these bees will gladly coexist and work around us if we just leave them alone. Everywhere the calls of northern cardinals and other birds made these meadows and woods all the more exquisite. To walk through the grasses and among the flowers, surrounded by bird song and the occasional bee, brings a peace and contentment that I find in few other places. 

I wandered for some time, soaking it all in. White-tailed deer peeked at me attentively from below a rise, bolted back a short distance as I continued walking and looked back at me again. Crows scolded me from a nearby line of trees. On a milkweed plant, a monarch butterfly moved among the flowers, took off when I got too close, and then circled back to the plant. The air was laden with moisture and felt warm and close, and the sky was hazy with thin clouds. Cricket frogs began to call, a soft and distant ‘grick-grick-grick’ from a pond somewhere.

Eventually I returned to my car, just prior to sunset. I started to get in and was interrupted by the graceful and acrobatic flight of a couple of birds very close to where I was. They had narrow wings that suggested a swallow, made for maneuvering rather than soaring. The tail feathers were cut into a fork rather than a broad fan, but these birds were too big to be swallows. They swooped and climbed, then one would rapidly pivot, diving down to catch an insect and then pull up and shoot across the meadow, flying out of range only to re-emerge a few moments later. Others joined, until there were five or six birds, each one putting on an athletic show for the earthbound human below. My friend Carly identified these as nighthawks based on their size and the big white spot under each wing. 

I drove the little back roads nearby, and at some point came upon a fairly large broad-banded copperhead. I always stop, both because they are beautiful and because they cruise very slowly across the road, very vulnerable to being run over. The glare of my flashlight showed the broad dark and light bands that give the snake its name, dark cinnamon alternating with sandy shade of tan. The finely-sculpted, wedge-shaped head had some of that cinnamon color in the back, divided from the lighter color of the face by a fine diagonal border. Like virtually all copperheads, this one held his head angled up, motionless for the moment, waiting to see what I would do. At such times they are balanced on the edge of a knife, between utter stillness (which would serve them well when camouflaged in dead leaves and grasses) and exploding into frantic attempts to escape. When I slid the snake hook under this one’s head and neck, he bunched up a little, maybe surprised and unsure what to do with this unexplained touching. He then decided it was time to leave, crawling quickly but not frantically off the road. 

That was an exciting encounter, despite my having found and interacted with a great many copperheads. I drove down the road with the satisfaction of seeing this beautiful snake and moving it so that it would survive this night. A few miles further, and another snake came into view. This one was a plain-bellied watersnake, dark and sullen but nonvenomous. I took a couple of photos with my phone but did not pick it up. At my approach, the snake pulled itself into a protective coil and lashed out with a quick jab. Watersnakes have no venom but usually do not hesitate to bite if they feel threatened. They leave small scratches, briefly painful and perhaps startling enough to make a coyote, a raccoon, or a human let it go. I nudged him off the road with my shoe and wished him well.

Soon, lightning could be seen along the northern horizon. An oncoming storm front and barometric pressure drop often sets the stage for snake activity, and that was a plus. However, when the clouds get close enough to watch the flashes of light and hear rumbling in the distance, I’m ready to stop and enjoy the experience. Maybe it is a contradiction that I respond to distant storms as gentle and soothing while at the same time representing immense power. Which part appeals to me, or is it the idea of such a powerful thing being capable of soothing? In any case, the faraway thunder is a lullabye and the flashes of lightning no more threatening than the moon or a shooting star. I pulled off onto a Forest Service road and stopped the car so that I could stand in the quiet darkness and watch.

It was very dark behind the tree line and then a flash appeared from within the clouds and rolled from one to the next. Then it was dark again until nearby clouds were briefly lit by what seemed like an internal fire, outlining the clouds in front of it for an instant or two. It was completely quiet. Radar showed the front still had not crossed the Red River; it was too far distant for thunder to be audible. Earlier, the air had felt warm and saturated, but now some cooler breezes were stirring. I stood in the darkness for a while longer, watching the random flowering of distant lightning and enjoying the quiet. 

Be well and happy. Visit the grasslands when you can.

Michael Smith

World Turtle Day at LLELA

May 23rd is World Turtle Day, an opportunity to celebrate those animals that found a good plan and stuck with it for over 200 million years. The earliest turtles developed a protective shell and then rearranged their bodies to be able to swim, walk, and even run while encased in that shell. It’s a remarkably effective evolutionary feat, which is why they kept that basic body plan for millenia. The DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club celebrated the day at the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA) hearing from box turtle researcher Sara van der Leek and her colleagues. 

Three-toed box turtles are found at LLELA

For me, there could hardly be a better choice, and I’ll freely admit my bias since these are my favorite turtles. They are beautiful, interesting, and everybody likes them. They also need help – wild populations of box turtles are in decline in lots of places in the U.S. Not many babies make it to adulthood, and then the adults are often run over on the highway or collected as pets. There are other threats, too, and so box turtles are in trouble. 

As the LLELA folks described it, they started out with a small population of box turtles. In order for the turtles to find each other and breed, there must be reasonably high numbers of adults. If the numbers are too low, the population is sometimes described as “reproductively dead,” meaning that the long-lived adults are still seen at times but there are too few of them to produce enough babies for survival. To keep box turtles as a healthy part of LLELA’s wildlife, staff and volunteers worked along with Sara to do a couple of things. First, they attach a miniature radio transmitter to each box turtle above a certain size, so they can track the turtle down periodically and check on how it is doing and study its movements. Second, they raise and head-start baby box turtles that are released on the property when they grow to a certain size. If they were released as soon as they hatched, most of them would be eaten by predators, but if raised until their shells are harder and more protective, they have a better chance.

Sara van der Leek

This all sounds like great fun, and when you hear Sara talk, you get the impression that it is very rewarding. However, it also involves pushing your way through the greenbrier and poison ivy and sometimes crawling through the woodland in search of a turtle’s radio signal. It’s a lot of work, and Sara and her team have earned our admiration and respect for the work that they do. 

The LLELA and DFWTTC crews – from L: Hugh Franks, Sara, Scott Kiester, and Barbara Dillard

This relaxed and enjoyable conversation among Turtle & Tortoise Club members and LLELA folks happened as a result of planning and coordination by Barbara Dillard, who leads the club. Turtle people and “herp people” (those interested in reptiles and amphibians) used to form clubs and societies to share stories, organize activities, and provide information to each other. That has largely shifted from in-person groups to Internet social media, and the DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club made that shift, too. Barbara deserves credit for the fact that the club continues to function. The get-together on World Turtle Day was an opening invitation for turtle fans to be, at least sometimes, an in-person community. The pandemic made it too risky to be with each other face-to-face, but those risks are receding and now it’s time to remember how good it is to see and hear each other in real life. If we do it carefully, there is a lot to be gained. Being with each other, physically present, is the glue that holds human connections together. We have been a fragmented collection of individuals, holding some semblance of community together by staring at pixelated images and listening to computer audio. That’s how we got through the last fifteen months or so, but now if we can safely and carefully come together, we will be happier for it.

Scott Kiester, President of Friends of LLELA
Hugh Franks, Master Naturalist and turtle-whisperer

The meeting on the 23rd also shows how much the interests of turtle folks can include the science and natural history of wild turtles and the keeping (and sometimes breeding) of captive turtles. In the professional world, there is the study of turtle populations living in forests and savannas, prairies and wetlands, as well as zoo collections and conservation programs as well as the assurance colonies maintained by the Turtle Survival Alliance. In the hobbyist and amateur world there are days spent photographing wild turtles and posting observations on iNaturalist, and also people who keep red-footed tortoises in the back yard or mud turtles in indoor tanks. The discussion with LLELA folks helps keep the turtle hobby grounded in the fact that turtles are wild animals and that we all have a stake in the continued existence of healthy populations in wild places.

Male three-toed box turtles often have colorful heads and forelegs

To help with that balance of interests, Meghan Cassidy worked with Barbara to create the DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club project on iNaturalist. “Projects” are collections of observations, either focusing on particular groups of species in certain geographic areas (like “Insects of Texas”) or the observations of an organization. This will be a great way for club members to share what they see in the wild with fellow members and with the scientific community.

One of the questions that came up was, “How can the average person help out with the box turtle work at LLELA?” It will not help (and oddly enough, would hurt) if we bring box turtles to LLELA and let them go. Volunteers can help out if they get the proper training from Sara. Mostly, we all need to remember that if we find a turtle somewhere, in most situations we should not pick it up and take it anywhere. When we see a native turtle, unless it is in a situation that is obviously not survivable, we should assume that it belongs where it is and knows where it is going. (It is good to help turtles when they are found crossing the road – more about that in another post.)

Hugh Franks shows us a box turtle in the outdoor pen in which turtles reach maturity before release

Thank you, Barbara and Meghan, and thanks Sara van der Leek, Hugh Franks (who raises the baby box turtles), and Scott Kiester with Friends of LLELA. Together, you made possible a beautiful World Turtle Day for a small, lucky group of people.

Back to the Thicket

For some time I have been focused on travel and writing for the planned book on mindfulness in Texas nature. Part of those plans involved visiting the Big Thicket, and that was a highlight on my calendar. Meghan and I spent a weekend in late April wandering through some of the forests, wetlands, and pine savannas of that incredible place. I have visited the Thicket on and off for nearly twenty years, and each visit is a treasure.

On a map of southeast Texas, if you drew a triangle between Livingston, Jasper, and Beaumont you would capture much of the region traditionally known as the Big Thicket. Originally it was a big, wild place with old growth forest and a tangle of vines and understory plants that could be nearly inaccessible. There were also open savannas with ferns and pitcher plants growing in the spaces between pine trees, as well as ponds and sloughs. The settlers came, and later the timber industry cut down big swaths of forest. Then the discovery of large deposits of oil in 1901, with the Spindletop gusher near Beaumont, initiated the oil boom. The Big Thicket could easily have disappeared, but environmentalists and a few politicians fought to save as much of it as they could. The Big Thicket National Preserve was established in 1974 and in 1993 additional land was added to it. The “units” of the Preserve are scattered patches of forest, wetland, and other habitat with protected corridors along creeks, bayous, and the Neches River connecting many of the larger units.

We arrived following a big rainstorm, and treefrogs and a few other frog species were calling. It is otherworldly to stand in the darkness next to a thicket full of chorusing frogs, listening to a wall of amphibian voices competing to attract females. The first night was dominated by gray treefrogs with fluttering, fairly musical trills loudly filling the dripping woodlands and seeming to come from everywhere. It is nearly disorienting, but in a good way!

A gray treefrog – a member of that big chorus we heard the first night

After about six hours’ sleep, we were ready to walk the Kirby Nature Trail. The trailhead is near the visitor’s center at the south end of the Turkey Creek Unit, an ecologically very diverse area between Kountze and Woodville. When I think of the American beech-southern magnolia-loblolly pine ecosystem that I associate with the Big Thicket, I picture this unit (although it contains multiple ecosystems, not just this one). We walked among tall trees and thick understory, with bird song echoing through the forest. Leaves were still wet with the previous night’s rain, making the woodland bright and fragrant.

A southern magnolia along the Kirby Nature Trail
Trunk of an American Beech, like a banded work of art

I sat on a bench looking around at the trees, including the occasional fallen tree whose trunk can stretch for a considerable distance through the forest. I listened to the breezes in the crowns of those trees and the birds calling back and forth. Sometimes I could empty my head and focus mindfully on these experiences, noticing them almost as if for the first time, without commentary or comparison with other years. At other times I did reflect on the span of time during which I’ve been able to come here, and how fortunate we all are that this place persists over the decades and will not be cut and cleared for a store or to plant a monoculture of slash pine for harvesting.

Fishing spider (Dolomedes sp.) on a tree trunk

Meghan and I also wandered along the trail, taking in everything around us from big trees to invertebrates like a fishing spider who remained motionless, tucked back into the bark, lichen, and tiny mosses growing on a tree trunk. It is best to go slow, give yourself plenty of time to discover these things by wandering a little and then stopping. I agree with Meghan’s assessment: it’s good to really see what’s in front of you, “and if it takes all day, it takes all day.”

We came to a bridge that crossed a slough, a sort of swampy little wetland flowing toward Village Creek. Sitting on the edge of the bridge, we could take photos from between the rails or just lean on them and imagine floating on this lazy stream through the forest. We spent a while lost in the sights and sounds of the slough. Much of the surface reflected the tree trunks and leaves like a mirror. I focused on an area of this reflection and was completely absorbed in how the occasional dropping of a leaf or small insect would set up ripples through the beautiful reflected image of the woodland. After a time, I decided to lie on the bridge between the water and the sky. Clouds passed overhead, and there was a sense of floating, a sort of suspension between the slow current of water below and a flowing stream of air above.

In the afternoon we visited the Hickory Creek Savannah Unit so that we could walk the Sundew Trail. This is a short trail through ecosystems such as the Pine Savannah Wetlands where scattered pine trees tower over several species of ferns as well as pale pitcher plants and sundews. In other areas, water seeps through thickets of azalea and other shrubs. The sundews are miniature ground-hugging plants with flat, reddish leaves covered in sticky hairs. When a small insect touches those hairs, each of which ends in a dab of glistening, dew-like goo, it is stuck and ultimately digested.

The tubes of pitcher plants rising up from among the ferns

We walked along the boardwalk and stopped for a while in one of the more open areas to sit quietly and watch the floating, darting flight of dragonflies among the scattered pine trees. There was barely any noise from nearby roads, and so we enjoyed the quiet space within which bird song and breezes in pines sound so incredibly sweet.

At the end of the day we wanted to see what reptiles and amphibians might venture out. Right away we found a young ribbonsnake, a common and beautiful species. Despite the cool night and nearly full moon, it was going to be a good night.

Western ribbonsnake (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Frogs were calling again as we made our way along the sandy and muddy back road, east of the Preserve. We could have mapped the wetlands in the dark just by noticing where we found big choruses of frogs. Some of them were dominated by gray treefrogs, but in other places the dominant voice was that of the green treefrog. While the former is a slightly flute-like trill, the latter is a sort of repeated quacking. It seemed to me that it resembled a big, intense gathering of space alien ducks whose quacking was a little too metallic and nasal to come from a real duck. Never mind all that, it was once again mesmerizing to stand in the dark and let all that amphibian energy surround you.

An alien quacker (the green treefrog on Meghan’s hand, that is!)

Roadside ditches were filled with water from the previous night’s rain, and in places the water contained juvenile bowfin from nearby flooded creeks. These little fishes may have been part of the reason that snakes were out hunting the ditches. We found a young broad-banded watersnake and a juvenile plain-bellied watersnake swimming in the narrow waterway at the edge of the road. Then Meghan found a baby cottonmouth, reddish and banded in its juvenile coloration. They are often confused with copperheads (to which they are related) because of those wavy bands. Meghan aptly described the young cottonmouth’s bands as looking more “pixelated” than those of the copperhead, and they are somewhat more ragged-looking.

Juvenile cottonmouth (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

The last snake of the evening was a beautiful DeKay’s brownsnake, paler than we usually see in north Texas. This one was another reminder of how the more common snakes, even those without bright patterns, can be interesting and attractive.

DeKay’s brownsnake

Next morning, we re-visited the road to release animals we had held overnight for photos. We did not see more herps on the road, but did get to see some of the wetlands where frog choruses had been focused.