Orb-Weavers and Quiet Conversation

Spotted Orb-weaver, trying to hide under a leaf

In August, mornings are the best times to take a walk, although that advantage begins to disappear not long after 9:00am as the bright burning sun rises to a nice, hot angle overhead. Add a little overnight rain and it’s like wearing a hot, wet sweater in the sunshine. But what’s a little sweat and discomfort when there are woods and wildlife to see? My friend Barbara, her two kids, and I hit a trail through part of the LBJ Grasslands Saturday morning with no regrets. Or only a couple of regrets, maybe!

This trail threads its way through oak woodlands and small openings that people call “pocket prairies” because the Little Bluestem and other native grasses make miniature prairies tucked away among the trees. A wild profusion of flowers hung on this year until the Fourth of July (when Jo and I visited – see the earlier blog post). Some are still tucked away in these pocket prairies, including lots of bitterweed, the beautiful little scarlet pea growing at ground level, and other flowers. On the way out, we saw a few Snow-On-the-Prairie, a favorite of mine.

Snow-On-the Prairie, a lovely plant with an irritating milky sap

However, if you walk along the trail looking for flowers, you’re apt to run smack into the web of one of the Spotted Orb-weavers that spin silk into concentric rings suspended between nearby tree branches. These chunky spiders are extremely common here, so bumping a web is pretty much unavoidable. Most of the time we saw the silken orbs and could dodge around it or duck under it, but not always.

Nick, who is eleven, is the shortest of the group right now (just you wait until he hits a growth spurt!) and so he had the easiest time. He’s also got good eyes for such things, and often warned us when we were about to face-palm into one of the webs. Nick’s keen vision also got us our only reptile sighting, a very small lizard skittering through the leaf litter. He described it as gray and said it did not look like the Little Brown Skink we saw on our last trip here, so perhaps it was a hatchling Texas Spiny Lizard. Nick also came up with an earthstar (a “False Earthstar” to distinguish it from a related fungus), which I always think of as a magical sort of thing to find. False Earthstars are fungi with an outer cover that splits into rays and opens in response to humidity, exposing a sac rather like a puffball, full of spores. Great find, Nick!

An Earthstar, this one seen at the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area early last year

Dani liked to walk ahead of the rest of us. She’s a friendly, smart thirteen-year-old who said she tends to either go ahead or lag behind, even when she enjoys the group she is with. However, walking ahead down spider web alley means you’re going to plow through the webs – and she did, numerous times. She would smack into it, hands desperately clawing at her hair and face to clear the silk away, and run back to have her mom check her for stray spiders. After a moment’s recovery, off she would go to risk further entanglement! I share that same reaction when running into a web, and so I responded with empathy the first time – “Oh, no, I hate when that happens.” But after a time or two when she took the lead again, I had to chuckle when the inevitable happened. No harm done; like her brother, she said she enjoyed the walk (except for the part about the hot, muggy, sweaty morning … and the getting up early to come here). And, I’m pretty sure the kids would want you to know that I had my own freaked-out, sputtering moment when I ran into a web.

A Spotted Orb-weaver holding a prey item caught in its web

We stopped at a pond and looked for Red-eared Sliders poking their heads above the water’s surface, but this time did not see any. We did see plenty of Cricket Frogs, and a young American Bullfrog that ducked under the water before I could get a photo. Compared to the crowds of leopard frogs we saw on our walk on July 28, this pond was nearly frog-less.

The pond where we saw Cricket Frogs and an American Bullfrog

As we walked, Barbara and I talked about old times. She’s the founder of the DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club and we’re both veterans of the DFW Herpetological Society. However, going out into the field with her is a recent thing, and part of her motivation is seeing Nick and Dani spend more time in wild (or semi-wild) places. We both see time spent in nature as physically, psychologically, and spiritually nurturing. I don’t mean “spiritually” in anything more than what happens when the “built” world is stripped away and we have the chance to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, something grand and beyond our comprehension. Of course, the various parts of the natural world are comprehensible through the science of biology, and we have some understanding of how the parts work together through the science of ecology. But without picking it apart into food webs, species, and ecosystems, on one level the whole thing seems bigger than our scientific understanding. And being wrapped in it, walking through it, feels good!

After a while, the kids declared that maybe we had walked enough, and so we sat in the shade on the cool, sandy trail, drinking water and talking quietly. We talked a little about what we were seeing, but we also talked about other things: how “paying attention” works and the things that can interfere with it, what it’s like to navigate different peer groups and how we can have different styles to match different groups, and such things. Sitting in the shade of the Post Oaks after a walk is the best way to have such conversations. The woods quiet the mind, relax the spirit, and invite calm reflection.

Nick, Dani, and Barbara

The walk back was warmer and went more quickly. Before long the car came into view, but for me there’s always a little bit of reluctance to leave. There were still so many kinds of flowers tucked away in the grasses, and in a little bare patch of wet, sandy soil a group of small yellow butterflies was fluttering around, looking for the best place to land and pull a little moisture from the damp sand. So much to see and experience!

War and Redemption in an East Texas Forest

In honor of my wonderful friend Kelby Dupriest’s birthday today, I’m reprinting the following post that first appeared on “The Great Rattlesnake Highway.”

Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost, That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world. — Walt Whitman

Caddo Lake, 2016

Caddo Lake is a big, relatively shallow body of water on the Texas-Louisiana border. Its backwaters are a maze of waterways tracing through big stands of cypress and water tupelo, trees whose trunks broaden at the base and are draped in the bromeliad that is referred to as “Spanish moss.” Just south of the lake, on the Texas side, is a mixed pine and hardwood forest that is set aside as the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. But its history involves much more than a quiet pine forest with the calls of birds in the tree tops. It is a place where the forest is gradually recovering from a time when a workshop of war was built among the trees.

Caddo Lake in the drought year of 2011
Backwaters of the lake, in 2016, with an egret hunting among the trees

In the war years of the last century, the Army acquired 8,493 acres south of the lake, and in 1942, the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant began making the explosive TNT. During the 1950’s the plant made rocket motors and incendiary bombs, and this continued during the Viet Nam war. In 1988 it was the site where some U.S. missiles were destroyed as part of the INS treaty, beginning to de-escalate the arms race with Russia. Finally, in 1997 the Army indicated that the plant was no longer needed, and the land was transferred to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the next year. Some places where the worst pollution had occurred were designated Superfund sites by EPA, and efforts were made to remove toxic chemicals. And so, we are really only about twenty years out from the time when concrete buildings scattered through the woods gave birth to bombs and rocket propellant.

Concrete pillars march through the woods, 2016

Clint King and I first visited the refuge in 2011, during a terrible drought. It was very surreal to walk along the partially overgrown paved lanes through the forest, running across a big open expanse of concrete where some building appeared to have been razed, and then find a small concrete shell of a building, or maybe a series of upright walls. Walking through beautiful pines and sweetgum trees, we would emerge on yet another tombstone from the war effort – sometimes they were concrete pillars that would have held some tank full of who knows what, or a hollow bunker where a couple of bats roosted. And some areas had a vague pesticide smell, places behind a fence with a sign that said, “restricted area.”

March 2, 2019

Yesterday, Kelby Dupriest and I visited the place again, a road trip for a restorative walk in the woods. Caddo was the best of our regional options, with less chance of rain and more moderate temperatures, and the wildlife refuge is certainly an interesting place. I have seen it as a place struggling to hold on to its integrity as a beautiful upland forest and stately cypress wetland. It seemed to me to be a place out of the Twilight Zone: “Picture, if you will, a quiet southern forest, but a forest that hides secrets.” The wind sighing through pine trees, the soft carpet of pine needles, and the ferns and mosses, all make the sudden appearance of concrete skeletons from a bomb factory all the more jarring. These structures do not look like they housed the precise and efficient mechanisms of 20th century technology; they look crude and rough, like something shamefully hidden away in the woods.

The forest that surrounds the ruins

Walking through the winter woods with Kelby, I also remembered that the scars from the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant should not blind me to the beauty of the place. There were signs that spring will soon return to this forest. Trees are starting to bud, and in places there were clusters of white blossoms. On the thick branches of a big oak, mosses and ferns grew in a little garden where rain and fog and humidity make it possible for them to survive, their roots digging into the tree bark. Life goes on, and because of it, things begin to heal. Despite the things that we may do, this earth is determined to create and sustain life, and to return things to the way they work best, as soil and water, lichens, plants, and animals. Maybe this time the walk was a little more hopeful. The damage was done, and the place isn’t yet healed, but the forest is gradually reclaiming the concrete and the fallen apparatus of war production. Mosses and plants take hold and begin to break it down, and even the poisons might one day be converted and filtered away. A garden is growing where the work of war was once done. Think of it as a place where, year by year and inch by inch, life has the last word. I don’t know how long the forest’s full redemption will require, but someday it will come.

Cedar waxwings, eating the berries of (non-native) privet

High Summer at Southwest Nature Preserve

After the long reprieve from Texas heat, with the rains of spring and early summer, we’re back to a more typical August. With temperatures climbing and the sun beating down, I decided it was time to take a walk at Southwest Nature Preserve. I was there from about 1:45-3:15pm.

The North Pond

Cricket frogs and turtles were busy at the North Pond, and dragonflies busily and silently did their dance, swooping and hovering. The Common Whitetail more than justified its name as the commonest of the dragonflies I saw.

A Common Whitetail, perched on a branch

I watched all this for a while, but the sun was merciless and I wanted a shadier place to roost. Up the red sandy trail and under some oaks, I turned to see a Texas Spiny Lizard on a Post Oak trunk, her body making an arc as she hung upside-down there, head pulled up to look at me and tail drooping a little away from the tree trunk. Like all such lizards who survive to adulthood, she was wary, and disappeared around the trunk as I moved in to ask for a photo.

Texas Spiny Lizards have had a heck of a year, with rain and runaway plant growth supporting a bumper crop of bugs. I hope they persist (as they always do, in some numbers) during the dry periods that may come. I never get tired of seeing these cute little reptiles that sometimes tolerate you coming close but always at some point scamper away, up and around the trunk, too fast for your eyes to follow.

I followed the trail at the back of the preserve and climbed up to the ridge where there could be more breeze. Around the little loop trail at the crown of the preserve, there is an old concrete pad left over from when it was a working farm, and I sat there for a while, enjoying the quiet. There is almost always some airplane noise, but the spot is on the other side of the ridge from most traffic and so you can escape much of the mechanized soundtrack of modern life, for a little bit.

A Sumac seed head

Sumac is common in places at the preserve, and their seed heads can be a bright, velvety red before drying and darkening into the color of dried blood. Rob Denkhaus tells me I could make a tea out of it, and I’d like to find some growing somewhere that I could harvest a seed head or two and try it!

Looking down from the ridge onto the trail below

On the walk back to the trailhead, I saw one more of a kind of butterfly that seemed familiar – was it a Hackberry Butterfly like one I’d seen on a previous walk? I got a photo, and it appears that I was right. (Thanks, iNaturalist!)

A Hackberry Butterfly, according to iNaturalist

At the end, Weather Underground was reporting that the temperature in Arlington was 101ºF, with a heat index making feel like 117ºF. So it got pretty hot today, though the lizards and insects didn’t seem to care. It’s a little more troublesome for those of us whose bodies only operate in a narrow range around 98.6ºF, but a little shade and a little breeze got me through.

At the Grasslands, With Bug Nerds

I’m seeing more of the LBJ National Grasslands this summer than I have in a while, and it’s been wonderful. The rainfall over the past eight or nine months have resulted in a bonanza of plant life, which leads to a bonanza of bug life, and so on down the food chain. Yesterday, I visited again with a couple of “bug nerd” friends (shorthand for “people who know a lot about invertebrates and other stuff I don’t know”).

Prairies and oak woodlands of the Western Cross Timbers

Actually, Meghan and Paul are all-around fans of the entire natural world, which is just my kind of folks. We talked about the Post Oaks and Blackjack Oaks which are the signature trees for this ecoregion, and Little Bluestem grass and Partridge Pea and what the difference might be between Meadow Pink and Prairie Gentian, and bent over to look at a hundred different plants. Meghan suggested it would be fun to come back and try to inventory all the diversity of grasses and forbs in a one-meter space, which we all agreed would be a long list.

Ironweed

But just as I am first and foremost a “herp nerd,” these guys are “bug nerds” and more specifically, Meghan specializes in spiders. It’s an interesting and probably helpful collaboration, as I still have enough residual arachnophobia that I won’t handle spiders (though I can examine and photograph them with no problem). As the sun neared the horizon after 7:00pm, we started noticing lots of the orb-weaving spiders that cast their nets between branches and across the trail. I admire the concentric lines in their webs, but hate running into them.

Gray Treefrog

Then, as we talked about the three-lobed leaves of Blackjack Oak with the little spine at the end of the lobes, I spotted a favorite amphibian, resting quietly on one of those Blackjack leaves and waiting for night to fall. It was a Gray Treefrog, currently showing the mottled green color that they can assume when they are not mottled shades of gray. There was no telling which species of Gray Treefrog we were looking at, as Hyla versicolor (sometimes called the “Eastern Gray Treefrog”) and Hyla chrysoscelis (Cope’s Gray Treefrog) are just about indistinguishable except by their calls and their DNA. H. versicolor has a second set of chromosomes, so that they have twice the number of chromosomes as Cope’s Gray Treefrog. Cope’s also has a more rasping and less musical trill than the Eastern Gray Treefrog.

Little Bluestem in the lengthening shadows of evening

I’ve noticed that I didn’t take photos of the spiders we saw, but I did take a couple of photos of grassland insects. One was a stick insect we came across, and the other was one of the thousands of grasshoppers (and a few katydids) that scattered as we passed through.

Stick insect
Grasshopper, with an ant disappearing behind a leaf at lower left

The grasslands were beautiful as sunset approached and a nearly full moon took its place in the sky. We were privileged to be able to visit this place.

Sunset on the grasslands, near Alvord, TX

But we weren’t done yet. Some evening road-cruising failed to turn up the usual Broad-banded Copperheads, but we were treated to a couple of Western Ratsnakes. These snakes are harmless – or let’s just say that they are “non-venomous.” Completely mild-mannered when left alone, they are pugnacious when picked up. I picked up each one so we could examine these beautiful animals, and Meghan wanted to interact with them, too. Knowing they could not hurt her in any important way, she said that she was unconcerned about being bitten. The second one was more than willing to put that to the test, and promptly bit her. After we admired and then released the snake, we looked at the pattern of little punctures on her arm, and she was delighted to see how these snakes have two rows of palatine teeth (fixed to bones in the area where the palate would be in the upper part of the mouth) between the usual rows of maxillary teeth. Four rows of teeth! And being able to discuss and enjoy that little bit of natural history based on the bleeding evidence of your arm, that’s the sign of a real naturalist!

This Is Our Land

When the sun comes shining, then I was strolling

In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling

The voice come chanting as the fog was lifting

This land was made for you and me

– Woody Guthrie

Bang! It’s the Fourth of July.

A day when we might celebrate the founding of this country, and what that meant. We refused to live under a tyrant and were determined to go our own way. What amazing possibilities there were, as expressed in words like, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….” Many of our dreams are noble, even if we stumble sometimes.

 But Jo and I could not stay home and watch on TV as tanks rumbled through Washington, D.C., even if they were our tanks. We decided to celebrate what Woody Guthrie celebrated, that we share a beautiful and extraordinary landscape, some parts of which belong to all of us. It is our collective inheritance, unless we give it away or destroy it. 

We decided to visit the LBJ National Grasslands up above Decatur, mostly in Wise County. It is a patchwork of over twenty thousand acres scattered among small farms, ranches, or homes. Most of it is mixed oak woodlands with little pocket prairies or big open areas where native grasses like Little Bluestem and Indiangrass can flourish. The soil is mostly sand or clay, and in places the loose sand has eroded around the streams and ponds. The Grasslands is located within the Western Cross Timbers ecoregion and seems pretty typical of the Post Oak and Blackjack Oak forests and patches of prairie.

My visits to the Grasslands started in 2001, with an afternoon and evening spent finding reptiles and amphibians with Steve Campbell. Multiple kingsnakes, ratsnakes, watersnakes, greensnakes, copperheads, turtles, frogs and toads later (all in one day!) the place was a favorite. Over the years since that first trip, I have tried to educate myself about some of the other plants and animals there. It is a work in progress, and I have a lot still to learn – and what a pleasant task that is! “Which juniper is that? Is that a Gulf Fritillary butterfly? What is that flower?” The questions just keep coming, along with a few answers.

One trip to the Grasslands happened on a really hot day in late May last year when I led some members of the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge in search of herps. The first part, which we will call the “heat exhaustion” portion of the trip, failed to turn up the Texas Spiny Lizards and Western Coachwhips that Clint and I anticipated. However, at 7:30pm (with the sun low and late afternoon shading into evening) we spotted an Ornate Box Turtle, a species that is no longer seen nearly as often as it once was. Then, exploring around a small pond just after dark, we saw a couple of ribbonsnakes, a watersnake, and we watched a baby Northern Cottonmouth swim across the water to avoid us. My attempts to get a good photograph of it clearly demonstrated how nonaggressive these snakes usually are, as it kept trying to get away without ever attempting to bite. Finally, at the end of our visit, we were able to gather around a beautiful Broad-banded Copperhead on the road, another potentially dangerous snake that really just wants to be left alone.

Today there were no box turtles, although I did think about that possibility when we arrived early enough in the morning that the temperatures were very moderate. We didn’t see any snakes, either, but there were plenty of flowers, and the landscape was green and lush after all the rain we have had this spring and early summer. The season of basketflowers and thistles is winding down, though we did see some in places. A metallic green bee was visiting one of them.

We both love Little Bluestem, and today there were plenty of pocket prairies and fields with the blue-green clumps of this native grass among the other grasses. The little bunches of bluish leaves are gorgeous, but as they send up those straight, tall stalks they really stand out. 

White Rosinweed

In one of those bluestem prairies I spotted a few White Rosinweed, a species of compass-plant. This one is a Texas endemic – that is, found nowhere else but in the central part of Texas, in prairies from near the Red River down to Austin. Its leaves are big, with long and narrow lobes, with a stiff, sandpapery feel. The white flowers are beautiful.

We also saw lots of Spotted Horsemint (aka Spotted Beebalm).  Jo is a particular fan of this plant, which is taller and less colorful than Lemon Beebalm, but its whorls of tiny-spotted flowers (in layers alternating with leaf-like bracts that may be tinged purple) are beautiful when examined close up. 

Spotted Horsemint

There were also patches of what I imagine were Black-eyed Susan and Meadow Pink, making a beautiful carpet of yellow and pink in some open areas. We saw them at roadside and in open areas near stands of oak, and the flowers made a gorgeous tapestry.

Silverleaf Nightshade

We are also both big fans of Silverleaf Nightshade, a plant with beautiful violet flowers with yellow stamens. The stems and leaves are somewhat hairy, making them look rather pale. They are related to the tomato plant, but the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center describes Silverleaf Nightshade as an “aggressive, poisonous weed.” That doesn’t discourage us in the slightest in our appreciation of this plant. In one location, we found several beetles crawling on these plants, a sort of velvety-tan insect with little or no markings on the wing covers or elytra, but black antennae, legs, and black-bordered segments of the abdomen. Best I can tell, these may have been some sort of blister beetle in the genus Epicauta (thanks, Meghan Rose, for suggesting this identification).

Grasshoppers were everywhere, ranging from the slender, slant-faced grasshoppers to big lubbers. I took a photo of a beautiful katydid, which iNaturalist suggests was one of the round-headed katydids. 

In one little roadside puddle, I spotted a young bullfrog with his head angled up out of the water, but he retreated before I could get out of the car and I didn’t dig through the caliche mud to try to find where he was hiding. The same little spot had several cricket frogs. We weren’t sure where these frogs will go when the puddle dries, but I’m confident they will find their way. We were just grateful that they provided a few sightings of herpetofauna while we were out.

Blanchard’s Cricket Frog

And that was our Fourth of July celebration. No fireworks, no “blowing stuff up,” and no parades. Just an appreciation of one spot among the public lands shared by all of us. 

A Shortcut to Nowhere

I climbed up “Kennedale Mountain” today, an old-ish man with pulmonary disease scaling the summit easily. Kennedale Mountain is a ridge at the Southwest Nature Preserve. A primitive trail gently climbs to a sandstone ridge at the top via a series of switchbacks. On the lower slopes there is a section of plastic netting that urges people to stay on the trail and not climb straight up the hillside, where they would damage vegetation, churn up the sandy soil and make erosion likely.

Eastern Cross Timbers woodland at the preserve

I wish that unsightly barrier did not need to be there. Why would people take the short cut to the top? Is there a race? Frankly, I’d much rather take that slow, meandering path and see all the little wonders that can be seen on the way up. If you’re not in a hurry, there is a lot to see.

iNaturalist tells me that this is Bluejacket, a type of spiderwort

Even the plants that some would consider a nuisance can be pretty spectacular. It seems that sunny openings where there is adequate moisture and sandy soil are just great for Texas bull nettle, a plant that I carefully avoid brushing up against. Its hairy, spiny branches and leaves and the pure white blossoms are a real treat, though.

Texas bull nettle

The ridge at the top has a flat, open area where Little Bluestem grows between scattered Blackjack Oak, and the shelf of iron-rich sandstone looks great, if you avoid places where people have carved initials.

Clumps of Little Bluestem, in little vertical brush-strokes of blue-green.

Elsewhere within the oak woods, which are a remnant of the Eastern Cross Timbers ecoregion, lichen-covered boulders are scattered among Blackjack and Post Oak, Sumac, and a wide diversity of other plants. Dragonflies hover and swallowtail butterflies flutter among the trees. There is really a fine diversity of butterflies and skippers to be found there.

The understory is like a beautiful jungle under the oaks
A skipper

The beautiful dark skipper was resting on sumac, a shrub which can easily get out of control but is a beautiful plant. Today the seed heads where brilliant red; in the fall the leaves will be even redder.

Seeds maturing on a sumac bush

This season, horse mint is growing like crazy in places; in lower areas the purple Lemon Bee Balm is common, and in other areas the Spotted Horse Mint grows in profusion. It’s a nice-looking plant, but if you look closely, it’s a spectacular plant!

Spotted Horse Mint
A crab spider waiting in ambush on a Spotted Horse Mint

Speaking of looking closely, there was a gorgeous little bloom growing low to the ground here and there in the woods, and you have to stop and really look to appreciate it. Bend down, spend a little time, and notice that it grows on a sort of trailing vine and that some narrow green seed pods are developing. According to iNaturalist, it’s “Fuzzybean,” which sounds like a Sesame Street character but is actually a legume.

iNaturalist tells me that this is a Fuzzybean

Looking closely and taking your time pays off richly at the preserve. There are all kinds of flowers that you could lose yourself in. I stood in the steaming sunlight, admiring and trying not to drip on my camera. (Most of the close-ups were taken with an iPhone, and while I don’t claim that they’re anything special, I think that phone may be my best close-up camera.)

(I have no clue)
Butterfly Pea, according to iNaturalist

On the way back, there were more butterflies, including a beautiful Question Mark, a kind of butterfly that is utterly camouflaged with wings closed but is a beautiful study in orange and dark brown when it opens those strangely-curved wings. It was doing what butterflies do, sipping on a clump of scat. We don’t like to think about such beautiful insects getting nutrition from feces, but there you are.

Question Mark

On the way back, I passed the place where that rogue trail joins the “official” trail near the top. Stacks of tree branches were piled there to discourage the cut-through down the slope. I still cannot imagine why anyone would come to this amazing place and want to take the short cut. I hope that they at least stopped somewhere, took a good look at something, in their race to do whatever they were doing.

Branches piled along the trail, suggesting, “no short cut; take your time”

(You probably noticed a lot of references to iNaturalist. I use it pretty regularly and it’s a wonderful way to get suggested identification of what you’re seeing and also to share your observations with other naturalists and with the scientific community. I’m pretty well-versed in reptiles and amphibians and have learned as much as I can about the bigger picture, but there’s an incredible amount that I don’t know. The iNaturalist app helps a lot.)