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.)