My friend Ruthann Panipinto was sure that Palmetto State Park, east of San Antonio in Gonzales County, would be a great place to visit. She really wanted to see if we could find a cottonmouth there, which involved neither bravado nor fear on her part. It was simple curiosity and love for those misunderstood pit-vipers. Ruthann has answered many snake relocation calls from fearful homeowners. She has captured and moved many venomous snakes and freed some that were stuck in glue traps, too. We both would welcome whatever reptiles and amphibians we might see. And so, we decided on March 29 as a good day for a road trip.
And if we didn’t see reptiles and amphibians (herps), Ruthann would be delighted with the plants that would now be flowering there. She remembered from a previous visit that there were lots of red buckeye with deep green compound leaves and upright clusters of red flowers. In addition to buckeyes, a couple of flowers – baby blue eyes and blue-eyed grasses – were blooming among the palmettos.
We started our walk at 2:30pm and within minutes we heard a gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) calling. That call is what allowed me to identify it, because the trill of one species (versicolor) is slower and musical, like a bird call. The other gray treefrog species (Cope’s gray treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis) has a faster raspy-sounding trill. If you see a gray treefrog without hearing the call, you won’t know which of those species you are looking at, because their appearance is nearly identical. Either one of them is a lichen-gray frog about 1.5 inches long. To add to the confusion, they can change color so that the gray has a little green in it, or the upper part of the frog may change to completely green.
We heard the frog, but finding it was something else entirely. Ruthann looked in nearby branches – it is a treefrog after all, and we usually find them hugging a branch or the trunk of a mid-story tree. The frog called again and Ruthann resumed her search, but these treefrogs are masters of ventriloquism. It seemed to be close and everywhere at once. Finally she found the frog, a little lump on a branch about eight feet above the ground.
We moved on, imagining that at nightfall, when frog breeding really ramps up, the choruses of frog calls might be pretty impressive. And within a couple of minutes, Ruthann spotted a green anole. Another critter capable of shifting color and blending in beautifully with the green palmetto fronds. At the moment he was mostly green, with what Ruthann aptly described as a little “blue mascara.” The anole’s eyes are partly covered with a little turret of powder-blue skin that shifts position with the lizard’s line of sight.
We saw dozens of green treefrogs hugging the palmetto fronds, trying to get a little rest before night fell. These were not gray treefrogs that had shifted to green, they were a different species, a little less toad-like in form and with the most beautiful lime-green skin. A dark-bordered white stripe begins on the upper jaw and extends down the side of the body. Their beautiful golden Kermit-like eyes have pupils in a horizontally-flattened shape, like those of most frogs and toads.
There was plenty of bird life above us. Ruthann was hearing parula warblers in the treetops, and we saw a red-shouldered hawk and at least one crested caracara. Wrens, northern cardinals and other birds were calling from within the forest above and the expanse of dwarf palmetto that stretched out around us.
As we walked along one of the trails, a couple of park staff approached on a Gator. They stopped ahead of us, intently focused on something at the edge of the trail, a sure sign of something Ruthann and I would want to see. It was a young cottonmouth, no doubt surprised to be surrounded by admiring humans. We were happy to see that the park guys were very protective of the little snake, and we took a few photos while explaining that we would never harm the cottonmouth. We watched the pretty little reptile turn back and slip under the palmetto fronds.
We talked with the park staff for a while about the local ecosystem and wildlife, and they said that they do sometimes see timber (aka “canebrake”) rattlesnakes in the park. That would be a wonderful thing to see, though we did not forget that we were already privileged to see some beautiful and fascinating species.
As the afternoon progressed, our discoveries included a Texas ironclad beetle. It looks like a cream-colored beetle that was splattered with black paint, and its claim to fame is that its exoskeleton is really, really hard, justifying the name “ironclad.” Internet sources such as the Field Station of the University of Wisconsin say that you would not kill it by stepping on it. Please don’t try that out in the field – this is a harmless, attractive beetle that just wants to go on its way munching on lichens as it roams around tree trunks or fallen branches.
After a break, we returned to the trails as evening approached. One small squiggle caught our eyes, motionless on the crushed granite trail. A baby plain-bellied watersnake, born just last year, hoped that we would not notice a squiggly “twig” lying on the ground, even though the twig had scales and a somewhat banded pattern. I took a photo or two of this “twig” and then Ruthann scooped him up, now a fully animated snakeling struggling to get away. Nothing doing! Ruthann had to examine and talk to the scaly bundle of cuteness before releasing him to go on his way.
Along the Palmetto Interpretive Trail there is a water tower built nearly 100 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corp; its pump still pulls water out of the ground to help supply the swampland. A little after 7:00pm we found a luna moth sheltering under the stones at the base of the water tower. I can remember a time or two when I have found luna moths, and each time the beauty and form of this large moth have been irresistible.
Most of the luna moth’s life is spent as a green caterpillar. When it emerges from the pupal stage as a mature moth, it will complete its life in a very short time, so short that it does not even have a functioning mouth to eat. Females release a pheromone to attract males; they take flight in the darkness and some time after midnight they find each other and mate. During flight, the long trailing hindwings are said to interfere with bats’ ability to find them by echolocation.
This might be a difficult night for flying. As sunset approached, the breezes became strong winds, making the tops of the trees sway drunkenly back and forth. Gusts sometimes carried dust and grit through the woodland, and it occurred to me that we might wind up dodging falling branches. The sky became rosy and golden, giving this palmetto swamp a magical sort of glow.
As the swamp was enveloped in darkness, we put our headlamps on and continued walking. The winds subsided for a time, and then periodically swept through the woods again. When the trees and palmettos quieted, the frogs began calling.
Frog calls represent males advertising themselves to females for breeding. When a female approaches a male, he gets on her back in a piggy-back sort of position known as amplexus. Then, as the female lays eggs, the male fertilizes them. Different frog and toad species have different calls, so that often the call allows us to identify the amphibian, much as bird calls help us identify birds.
Against a background of the accelerating “grick-grick-grick-grick” of cricket frogs, the gray treefrogs began to call. I mentioned that it is hard to locate the frog (though it must be easier for female frogs, since that’s the point of the call). Their voices seemed loud in the close darkness.
Then the green treefrogs began to call, with overlapping sounds a little like the honking of ducks. Sometimes it was almost as if they took turns, a few minutes for gray treefrogs and then some time for green treefrogs to be heard. Sometimes they overlapped.
I usually describe it as “magical” to stand in the midst of these frog choruses in the darkness. Sometimes it comes near to being overwhelming if you are right in the middle of it, or at least the word “immersive” would apply. If you get the chance, give it a try, and although you may want to search for the frogs, you owe it to yourself to try turning off flashlights and headlamps and simply letting all that frog communication wash over you.
As it turned out, Ruthann was right. Palmetto State Park had been a wonderful place to visit, a beautiful and unique pocket of wetlands next to the San Marcos River. The reptiles and amphibians we saw were species that we can easily see in other places, but if you look and listen as if doing so for the first time, they are amazing. And experiencing them in this palmetto swamp made it even better.