Ready for Spring

As I drove through a northern part of LBJ National Grasslands, last year’s grasses were burned off along with some of the low growing brush. At the ground, some tree trunks were blackened, but the bark of the bigger trees protected the living tissue underneath. The trees will be fine. So will the grasses. The living roots below ground were already starting to send green shoots up within the charred clumps of little bluestem and Indiangrass. After all, what burned was just the dead stems and leaves of last year’s growth. What was pushed back was, hopefully, the growth of woody shrubs and tree seedlings. These ecosystems were built with periodic fire as an important ingredient. Without it, the shrubs and seedlings would grow into thickets, closing off open areas and replacing the meadows and pockets of prairie in this place.

The Forest Service had done well, lighting fires that would move across the land quickly so that it did its job with little real damage. Larger wildlife would move out of the way and most smaller animals would shelter in burrows or climb higher in trees. They would plan the burn when fuel loads would not be too high and wind conditions were right, keeping the fire within certain boundaries. With a well-planned burn, the fire would not linger long enough to become very big or hot. 

I walked a trail northeast of Alvord through areas cleared out by fire and looked at the green shoots beginning to emerge here and there where fire had burned last year’s growth to black stubs. Not only were grasses re-growing, along the surface of the soil – much more exposed than usual – new green growth was beginning everywhere. Spring is just days away (or already started, by meteorological reckoning).

Tiger beetle

A little movement caught my eye. A small wolf spider was scampering over soil and bits of wood on the trail. “Welcome, little survivor,” I thought. A fluttering spot of yellow bounded along the ground. The little butterfly, perhaps a clouded sulphur, had also made it through the fire or the wind had carried her in from nearby fields. Altogether in my walks in two areas of the grasslands today I saw sulphurs, variegated fritillaries, and a very dark swallowtail. At another point on the trail a small insect flew ahead of me, always landing back on the bare sandy soil of the trail. Sure enough, it was a tiger beetle with a metallic green head and thorax and a brushstroke of iridescent red on the wing covers (the elytra). It appeared that the invertebrates were doing pretty well after the burn.

Nine-banded armadillo

Somebody else may have noticed how well the invertebrates were doing. As I came around on the trail, I saw an armadillo about thirty feet away, busily rooting into the soil looking for anything edible. These tough, chunky mammals have a sort of leathery armor over their hips and shoulders, connected in the middle by nine bands of the same stuff (thus their name, “nine-banded armadillo”). Bony deposits are embedded in this modified skin, even on their foreheads and tails. They are very strong, as anyone who has tried to pick one up can attest. 

Armadillos need these attributes, because they are not gifted with strong eyesight or attentiveness to their surroundings. I approached the little beast quietly and downwind, moving mostly when he had his snout in the ground. Periodically he stopped to look around and sniff the air and then returned to the search for insects and grubs. I got within six feet or so, with no intention of doing anything more than taking a photo. At some point he figured out that I was present and ran off, sometimes bounding into the air with all four legs like a deer. It might seem like a parody of gracefulness, but he was fast and had a sort of armadillo-style agility.

Like Texas’ national forests, the national grasslands in our state are maintained in the belief that many different uses of the land are appropriate. These uses include mineral extraction along with recreation, hunting and fishing. We can walk and study nature on what’s left. I got my first reminder that this is a “multi-use” area when the path opened on a big cleared area with gas storage tanks and some sort of building. Nearby, a wide, bulldozed corridor led into the distance with signs saying, “Warning, natural gas pipeline.” Oil and gas extraction sometimes seems like the pre-eminent use of this place.

The other reminder of the multiple uses of the grasslands happened as I finished the walk back to my car. From the pine grove camping area came several loud shotgun blasts. Hunting is allowed on the grasslands, although what I was hearing seemed unlikely to represent hunting in any competent sense, as the shotgun was discharged sometimes four to six times in rapid succession. After a pause, more shots. I wondered if it was safe to get to my car. I decided that I must be hearing some sort of target practice and chose to believe the target was not in my vicinity. I have not had this experience before, but I have passed hunters with shotguns on the trail. When visiting, we should all keep in mind that hunters (and I suppose wild target shooters) may be present.

My last hour in the grasslands on this day was spent a little distance away, in a unit that had not been burned. I wrote this in my journal:

“I’m sitting at the top of a big rise, under a blue sky with a half-moon above and to my right. There is a light breeze, a little cool and a perfect balance to the warm sun behind me. It’s such a nice spring warmth that it’s hard to believe that in twelve hours it will be blustery, cold and raining. In my shade it is 68.9ºF and 59% relative humidity. 

“It’s quiet and peaceful – a sunny refuge with post oaks, butterflies and cardinals for companions. There’s a post oak in front of me with a trunk so thick that I was reminded of the baobab tree. A cardinal flew into it and is in the high branches – “cheer, cheer, cheer” – and when he faces me there is a bright crimson dot in the branches. 

“To my right is a huge oak with twisted arms, right out of a scary story. Along the trail a pair of small sulphurs, swirling together in figure-eights nonstop across the ground.”

The twisted branches of a post oak

I’ll be back soon, watchful for armadillos and butterflies and curious about the new spring growth of grasses and flowers after the burn. Frogs will be calling soon, especially if we get some rain. There’s a lot to look forward to.

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