The Undertaker’s Community Picnic

It was Monday afternoon, February 8th. The hours of broken clouds and sunshine were ticking away, and I made it to Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge around 3:00pm. Faced with an array of good spots to choose from, I decided to walk the Cross Timbers Trail, which initially tracks the Trinity River before breaking away back into the woodland. I crossed the little bridge where the marsh reaches the river and kept going north. 

Bottomland at the refuge

Along this stretch of river, the trail is at the top of a small levee, with some bottomland habitat to the west. Some of the huge Cottonwood and other trees are wrapped in climbing vines as big as your arm, crisscrossing the trunk and reaching high into the tree canopy to claim their share of sunlight. On the other side of the trail is the river, with forest beyond it. 

The east bank of the river was the site of a community picnic. Some of the participants watched from up in the trees while others shared the bounty on the ground. All were arrayed in black, a solemn picnic resembling a funeral gathering. Two of the black figures on the ground were focused on a small patch of two-toned fur that might have been the last earthly remains of a raccoon. This was a gathering in which the undertakers eat the dead. 

Black Vulture, warming its wings in the sun

These were Black Vultures, and they almost completely live up to their name. Even their bare heads are black, unlike the red heads of the slightly larger Turkey Vultures. A couple of the birds in today’s gathering stretched their wings to their full three- or four-foot reach, gathering the sun’s warmth. Those outstretched wings revealed six slightly dark-edged white feathers at the end of each wing, those first primary feathers like pale fingertips on a black bird. You can see them in flight, like a vague white spot on each black wing.

These are said to be very social birds, staying with mates for years and taking care of young for months after they fledge. They roost in community groups and those who have not found food can follow roost mates back to carrion. To quote Bruce Springsteen, “We take care of our own.” It’s family values with an aggressive tribal streak, as groups of Black Vultures are said to descend on a carcass and drive the Turkey Vultures back while they eat their fill. 

I walked on down the trail, seeing plenty of other birds. American Robins were searching for food on the woodland floor and flying up to low perches as I walked through. I could hear calls of Northern Cardinals periodically as males gear up for the coming spring. 

More bottomland

As the trail turned away from the river, it bordered a low area where water can drain toward the river, although at present it is all but dry. On the other side the land rises into Cross Timbers woodland. At the edge of the trail, two trees grew together in what looked like an embrace, one a Hackberry and the other a different kind of tree. They were entwined and seemed to be physically connected, two joined into one. 

The trees’ embrace

I soon had to turn around in order to get back before the refuge closed, and the clouds seemed a little heavier. Along the river, the late afternoon sun was shining so as to light up the bigger trees from a low angle. At one magical point, the sunlight made the top branches of the tallest trees glow, and against the darker blue-gray of the clouds behind them, those small curving branches were like silver filigree against the sky. The clouds shifted, obscuring the sun and the moment was gone. The experience stuck with me, one of thousands of such moments at this wonderful place.

A moment of sunshine

As I passed the site of the picnic, a few of the undertakers remained. I suppose virtually all of the banquet was gone, or at least I could see little of it. The vultures had done their job well, helping to return the dead back to the soil from which they came. 

the Acrobatic Flight of “Butter-Butts”

Yellow-rumped Warbler in Dallas County (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Yesterday was sunny and clear, and Southwest Nature Preserve was the right place to take a walk. Its 52 acres are hemmed in by a major freeway and suburban development, and many visitors walk its trails and drop fishing lines into its waters. Despite all that, it’s a pretty resilient little remainder of the oak woodlands and sandstone that are the calling cards of the Eastern Cross Timbers.

There’s something about winter-bare oak woodlands, with the sun shining through branches and lighting up the layer of leaves on the ground. And ponds, with clear water shading into a deeper gloom with aquatic plants and the waterlogged wood of fallen branches, hidden in the dark. Depending on where you stand, the pond’s surface may be a sapphire reflection of sunlight, and the surface may have shifting rough patches where cold winter breezes blow across it. Southwest Nature Preserve has those things. 

The north pond

It also has birds, and this winter there have been a lot of them. I have paid better attention, or this has been a season with good bird numbers and diversity, or both. And as a result, I’ve learned more about them this year, although I’m no expert. I’m also better able to put aside the old herpetologist’s habit of active searching. Instead of staying on the move, I can sit and blend in with the habitat for a while. Mindfulness and advancing age have helped with that.

I visited the smallest pond, expecting a little dried mud bowl because of the very dry conditions. Instead, it had several inches of clear water. As I watched, several small nondescript birds took turns flying out over the water. Often one of them would fly into the breeze and momentarily be held there, fifteen feet above the water, until it turned and in a ball of wind-splayed feathers it was pushed back to a nearby tree. 

I sat on the banks of the pond for a while, watching these birds and listening to their calls back and forth: a single “cheet” repeated frequently. In my binoculars I would see gray-brown on the head and wings, with white and dark wing bars, and then that little patch of yellow on the side of the body. When one perched on a nearby twig, the binoculars showed a highlighter-yellow patch of feathers on the rump, more than justifying the name “butter-butt” that some birders give them. More properly, they are Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Yellow-rumped Warbler half-hidden in vegetation

As I watched, my naturalist’s reasoning suspected that they were catching insects too small for me to see. I imagined them to be having fun, as if their forays out over the water might start with a call to their neighbor to “watch this!” Sometimes they found a place to perch very close to the surface of the pond, but mostly they flew out above the water and returned to the winter-dry stalks of vegetation or up into the branches of an oak. A later check with some birding sources, including Cornell’s All About Birds site, seemed to confirm that their flight would have been in pursuit of insects. I don’t think this negates my suspicion that they were enjoying themselves.

Red-eared Slider, basking at one of the ponds

There were other things to see on this sunny afternoon. In an adjacent pond, a male Red-eared Slider was basking on a log at the water’s edge, across from the fishing pier that extends out over part of the pond. He was unconcerned about my photographing him. In warmer circumstances, these turtles are shy and quick to drop into the water, but this guy was unwilling to give up the bright sunshine of a cool winter day.

Mallards

Nearby, a couple of pairs of Mallards were cruising across the surface of a small pool, periodically going “tail-up” to dabble through the material along the bottom and extract whatever was good to eat. In contrast, there was no activity on the surface of the north pond, which often has its share of ducks and turtles. Today not even the cricket frogs were out, despite plenty of sunshine along the northeast banks of the pond.

It was a good day to wander along the ponds of the preserve and up over the ridge and through the woods. I learned more about its birds today and got to visit with the willows and oaks and pay my respects to the boulders and grasses. 

Late afternoon on the trail

Winter at the Refuge, with Birds

A savannah along the Canyon Ridge Trail

On a beautiful December 24th last year, I sat on a bench in a little pocket of prairie at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, and wrote about it in this blog. This year the refuge seemed the perfect place to spend part of the winter solstice. With Barbara and her kids, I spent the afternoon up on the ridge overlooking the lake, and then at the marsh boardwalk just before sunset. Today, the day after Christmas, was a clear and warm day and I had to go back to that same bench that charmed me last year. And so, here are some notes and some photos of the refuge and some of the birds we saw there.

On the 21st, the first thing I saw was a group of vultures, apparently riding rising thermal air currents. My field notes included the following: 11:55am – There were numerous black vultures flying low through the area (the lake shore) and they converged over the water, were joined by a few turkey vultures – and 20 became 30 as they flew in a tight circle and gained altitude, working their way past Greer Island, high in the sky.

Black vulture

When the others arrived, we started our visit at Lone Point, the stone shell of a shelter built long ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It overlooks Lake Worth, and on this day it was a popular vantage point for more vultures. Below us on the water, and above us in the sky, there were American white pelicans with their black-edged wings and big pouched bills.

American white pelican
A nest from earlier this year, at the marsh boardwalk

At the end of the day, the boardwalk and surrounding marsh were alive with many bird species. On the water there were American coots, mallards, American wigeons, great egrets, and a belted kingfisher that soared over the marsh and landed not far off, then flew further away before I could get a photo.

The marsh
A belted kingfisher in the distance

Closer to us, at the muddy margins of the marsh, we were amazed at the birds that kept popping up in front of us or down below the boardwalk. One species entirely new to Barbara and me was a sora, a secretive marsh bird that tends to stay among grasses and reeds looking for seeds and aquatic invertebrates to eat. There was also a swamp sparrow hopping around the water’s edge, and a common yellowthroat.

A sora
Swamp sparrow

Higher up in the Phragmites stems was a handsome song sparrow, although the photo I was able to get hardly did it justice. And higher up, flitting among tree branches and the tops of the reeds, was a ruby-crowned kinglet. These are gorgeous little birds who don’t sit still long, although they’ll spend long enough at my suet feeder for me to get a good look, sometimes even seeing the little red patch of feathers on the crown of the head that gives them their name.

Song sparrow in the reeds
Ruby-crowned kinglet

When I returned after Christmas and four days into winter, once again it was clear and warm. I walked the trail up through woodlands to that spot where a live oak overhangs a bench that looks over a little patch of little bluestem grasses. It is one of several places I am strongly drawn to at the refuge. I got there a little after 2:00pm, and my field notes included these entries: It is breezy – even windy enough to shake the treetops in a sort of slow motion way. The bare tops of oaks and other trees stiffly swayed as if nodding greetings all around.

From the bench, looking north

It was still and the sun at my back warmed my shirt. And then the breeze would come, slightly cool, and making a rushing sound especially through the live oaks with their leaves intact. I could hear the breeze rolling through this part of the woods like a wave of moving air. It was otherwise as peaceful and quiet as I have found it to be before.

I walked back through some woodland to get a look at a favorite patch of savannah. As I walked through the woods, I saw the only substantial bird life of this day – birds that mostly included the American Robin, moving from place to place eating berries from vines and mistletoe.

American robin

The savannah was beautiful, with waist-high prairie grasses such as little bluestem and split-beard bluestem.

Savannah

Wading a Winter Creek

On a day when the temperatures reached the upper 70s, under bright sunshine, we took a walk and a wade through a cold creek, ten days into winter (using the December 1st meteorological beginning). It was delightful.

It probably seemed ridiculous to Barbara’s kids when we arrived at the creek bed and found much more water flowing than I had predicted. They followed me upstream a short distance until I reached a broad pool that would require serious wading. I volunteered to go ahead and see how deep it would be, and when it became thigh deep, frigid and numbing, I glanced back toward them. Barbara was gamely ready to give it a shot; Nicholas stood with his infectious grin as if to say, “you gotta be crazy.” Dani looked like she was figuring out how she could quietly slip back to the car. 

“OK, well how about downstream?” I asked, and everyone quickly assented. By the time we got back to our entry point, I could not feel my feet. Above the water was a different story. There could hardly be a more comfortable, sunny day as we made our way downstream over dry limestone rock and water only an inch or two deep. 

Fragments of ammonite (the piece on the right is a cast, not a piece of the ammonite itself)

I talked about finding fossils in this white Cretaceous limestone, including echinoids (like sea urchins), conical snails, and ammonites. The most dramatic fossils are the ammonites with their ribbed, coiled shells resembling today’s nautilus and related to the squid or octopus. I rarely find intact ammonites but it is exciting to find even a portion of one. We soon found a fragment or two, along with some fossil oysters and other bivalves. Nicholas soon found a living modern bivalve, that is, a freshwater clam that a friend identified as a species originally brought here from Asia. 

The water got deeper, and that give me a chance to net up some fish for us to examine. What I netted were mosquitofish, a sort of minnow that often swims in groups searching for something edible on the surface of the water. I showed the others the little ones among the wet leaves in the net and mentioned one of the things that charms me about these fish. While they are basically colorless, when seen in the right light a blue color is evident. It might be a sort of iridescence, though it seems to come from within the fish. I noticed it when I first caught and kept them as a teenager – mosquitofish and I go back a long way – and it is still one of the first things I think of when I see them.

Throughout autumn the leaves fall, spinning and sailing down to the water’s surface where they become saturated and sink to the bottom. Bur oaks, beeches, red oaks and sycamores all contribute to a beautiful collection resting under the clear water. The pale silt from limestone and shale lightly dusts these leaves, making them the creek equivalent of a sepia-toned photo.

We found a place where the creek has cut straight down through sand and shale, forming a sort of wall. Some layers and spots erode more easily, so during floods the current has carved a shallow pocket into the wall, leaving a bench of gravelly soil that we sat on for a while. I wrote notes while Barbara sketched sections of ammonite and leaves. Dani found a comfortable place in the sun. 

As Dani enjoyed the sunshine, the rest of us waded further downstream. Because it was sunny, the cricket frogs were sitting at the water’s edge, waiting to ambush tiny invertebrates to eat. These thumbnail-sized frogs may seek shelter when it’s truly cold and when it’s overcast or raining, but otherwise they are active year-round in our area. In summer they seem impossibly fast, jumping into the water and swimming to some place of concealment almost faster than your eyes can follow. Today their “cold-blooded” metabolisms could not generate that kind of energy. 

A Blanchard’s cricket frog floating in the water

Nicholas caught a couple of cricket frogs by hand, a pretty cool trick in summer but much easier today. When one slipped away and jumped into the creek, it hung in that clear, numbing cold water and floated over the rocks and leaves of the creek bottom. A few minutes later it would be sunning on the creek bank and hoping for a little hunting success.

Further down the creek, Nicholas spotted a small bird getting a drink at the water’s edge. It dipped it’s slender beak into the water a couple of times and soon flew away. I got a good photo but struggled to know this bird’s identity, but with the help if iNaturalist I found that it was a yellow-rumped warbler. The narrow beak, a bit of a white ring around the eye, and the wing bars helped, but there was only a suggestion of a yellow patch on its breast. It turns out that in its winter plumage, there’s not a lot of yellow to be seen, and this bird’s position obscured whatever yellow may have been evident on its rump. 

Yellow-rumped warbler

There were no clouds in the sky, and in shallow riffles the sun and water created the most beautiful patterns of light. Each ripple in the water focused sunlight onto the pale limestone creek bottom in a shimmering, dancing line. Sometimes they moved in the direction of the current and they swirled when the water was disturbed as it passed through troughs and over stones. At times through some trick of the light they seemed to move back against the current. It might be a small and ordinary thing to watch what the bright sunlight creates in clear, moving water, but it was a wonderful gift today.

And then it was time to head back. This creek has been such a treasure over the fifty-plus years that I have visited it, and I look forward to seeing another spring there when the new green growth and spring rains transform it into one more wonderful version of itself. 

Embracing the Cold, Looking for Solitude

Today was cold and cloudy. Not bitterly cold, but there was a sort of damp chill underneath the deck of gray clouds that made you pull your jacket close around you. I wanted to get out for a while to somewhere pretty close by and so I chose Oliver Nature Park in Mansfield. It is 80 acres situated alongside Walnut Creek a little distance upstream from Joe Pool Lake, much of it oak and juniper woodland, a little island of nature within the city of Mansfield. And Mansfield is just one of several varieties of sprawl; Arlington, Kennedale, Grand Prairie, and Cedar Hill, spreading southward from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. There are a few islands of nature embedded within those cities, all of them much needed and all of them too small.

From the observation platform

I climbed up the hill to an observation platform overlooking Walnut Creek, passing a jogger or two along the way. Once on the platform, you look down through oaks, cedar elm and other trees to the creek as it winds along past a few slabs of rock. It could be a good birding overlook or just a peaceful place to sit as if perched in the tree canopy, but it also places you within mostly unobstructed earshot of a nearby street. On that street, someone was doing their best to get noticed, loud and powerful. A motorcycle engine wound up higher and louder, speeding in one direction and then coming back. It was time to move on. 

I waited for a family to pass by before starting down the path, and was approached by a very nice woman who told me I looked like I might be a birder. I did my best to speculate about what kind of bird she may have seen, and told her about iNaturalist, which will be much more helpful than I was able to be. I was awfully glad she talked with me. Isn’t that the sort of community that I believe is ideal, people interacting face to face to share and learn about the natural world? But everywhere I turned, there were people. I stepped around a photographer taking a photo of a girl on the boardwalk, and hurried along to stay ahead of a group of people headed my way. Solitude was definitely escaping me today. 

Honey locust

Further along the boardwalk, there was the roar of a big plane on approach to DFW airport to our north. Right, I remembered, we are just about due south of the airport, on the southern approach to the runways. It’s just the way it is. There is no quiet place in the metroplex. But there were still treasures to see, like a big honey locust tree whose curled and twisted seed pods had mostly fallen. The trunk with those clusters of spikes, and dark reddish-brown spiral pods still clinging here and there, attracted me. And in places there were clusters of oak leaves turning beautiful bright red.

The farthest section of the park had the fewest visitors. Near a couple of bird blinds a group of sparrows was flitting from ground to low branches in a tangle of vines and understory. That woman who approached me earlier was right – today I was a birder. No self-respecting spiny lizard or ratsnake would be prowling around on this chilly 50-degree day, but crows had been calling to each other and now these little sparrows where challenging my naturalist skills. I got the best photo that I could of what turned out to be white-throated sparrows.

White-throated sparrow

This group appears to have behaved quite typically, foraging near the ground in a brushy area, with one positioned higher in a tree sounding the alarm as I walked up on them. They eat seeds as well as small fruits and insects. According to the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds site, white-throated sparrows are abundant but have declined over the past fifty years or so. 

My walk continued, among the many others using the park. At one point as I was engrossed with a group of doves in a nearby tree, about to take flight, I was startled by crunching on the trail and turned to see a jogger pass me. I had to hurry to stay ahead of a family group in which a child was repeatedly screaming (in annoyance rather than distress, apparently). The situation in the park today is one likely to trigger in me a good bit of cognitive dissonance. I write, give talks, and lead interpretive walks with the goal of sparking a love of the natural world. Most of these people were presumably there out of some sort of love of nature, not in my nerdy and introverted manner perhaps, but they wanted to get outside at a nature park on this cold autumn day. That ought to be worth celebrating.

A tributary stream within the woodland

We need more and bigger places. Urban preserves and parks are full, especially during this past year of pandemic, to the point where it can be hard to stay socially-distanced. People blaze networks of unauthorized trails, contributing to erosion and leaving hardly any refuge in which wildlife can feel safe. What if this park and other small urban preserves were at least twice as big? Visitors would not be bumping into each other and the birding and wildlife watching would surely be better. And for people like me, who want to get lost somewhere with no one else to be seen or heard, to experience solitude and quiet, it would be heaven.

Autumn at Eagle Mountain Park

Today I walked a rolling patch of Cross Timbers woodland at Eagle Mountain Park, to the Ridge Loop Trail. The numerous other walkers and joggers reminded me that this was no unusual accomplishment, but the 3.8 miles I walked and climbed today is a sort of extension of my cardiac rehabilitation. In fact, I went to rehab this morning, doing exercise that was much less demanding than the afternoon’s walk. A month ago I was grateful to take a short walk at Southwest Nature Preserve, so today is progress.

Some of my motivation was provided by my companions, Barbara and her kids, Dani and Nicky (see Orb Weavers and Quiet Conversation). When the two of them took a short cut up a steep hillside, I figured it was do-able and charged up after them. I needed to catch my breath at the top, but did OK. And they’re bright and curious, giving me a chance to pass along some of what I know about nature. Both found some red fruit on a prickly pear cactus and wanted to try eating them. Nicky managed to pick up one of these tunas, and I told him how I’ve wanted to skin one and eat it, but instead I always manage to get those glochids, the tiny spines, stuck in my skin and feel them for days afterward. Maybe I helped him avoid that experience.

Yucca and prickly pear in a prairie opening in the woods

We also compared notes about eating juniper berries, and then we discussed how the berries are really modified cones. Noticing that only some trees had berries, I said that these junipers exist separately as male trees (their pollen making them look like they’ve been dusted in gold this time of year) and female trees.

Trying not to subject them to too much natural history and just have fun, I still could not resist pointing out how the tiny tufted seeds on little bluestem grass shine in the sunlight. I have an unnatural attraction to native prairie grasses, even though I have only modest knowledge of them. Regardless, walking through a patch of these grasses is powerful medicine, and it’s medicine that I’m always eager to take.

We found mistletoe, and we did talk a little about how this plant is a parasite, although most of the trees we see do not appear to be harmed much unless the tree is covered with many of the plants. The woods were beautiful, with the signature post oak and blackjack, and at least one species of the red oak group. In some places, especially in spots with more limestone emerging from the soil, there were live oaks.

Mistletoe

We reached a point where we emerged at the shore of Eagle Mountain Lake, and stood watching a few gulls flying and a group of American coots paddling on the lake surface. Nicky found a branch with a pretty fair resemblance to Gandalf’s staff in the Lord of the Rings movies, and he traced a number of runes into the trail surface. “Ash nazg gimbatul!” There’s much fun to be found on a walk like this.

The shore of Eagle Mountain Lake

It seems to me that the Cross Timbers is not usually a place with spectacular fall foliage on a grand scale. Most years, you appreciate the more subtle loveliness of the woods, and you find small patches of colorful leaves. That is what we found today. The woods were beautiful in shades of brown, rust, and straw, and in places the leaves were bright red and green.

I’m grateful to have been in the company of these socially-distanced friends today, and grateful to have been able to walk and climb through these woods. May everyone have a safe and healthy Thanksgiving tomorrow.

Grateful for an Autumn Walk

Today’s walk at Southwest Nature Preserve was especially rewarding for me. A week ago last Sunday, I got prompt, excellent medical care for a heart attack and I seem to be recovering well. As a result, I had the chance to take a very routine short hike today, and even though it was routine, it was one that I felt very privileged to take. It could have been very different.

Sumac leaves changing color

The past few days have been cold and wet, and today started out cold – by north Texas standards – and cloudy. It has been autumn for a month now, but today it really felt like autumn. Leaves are dropping and you can see further through the woods as a result. The carpet of leaves is an intricate study in shapes and earthy colors which always captures my imagination. 

The path up the hillside opens onto a shelf of sandstone that falls off toward the northwest, forming a ridge. Lately it has been so dry that you wondered how the clumps of little bluestem grasses didn’t dry up and blow away, but a little rain over the past few days left the thin soil a little muddy and the colors a little brighter. Or perhaps it was my frame of mind that was brighter, being able to walk along this ridge again. 

Some tiny yellow flowers mixed in with a patch of native grasses pulled my attention toward a little path around the crown of the hill. I paused at a juniper to chew a couple of the small “berries” to get that little bit of sweetness along with the delightful botanical aroma. By the time I returned to the ridge, the clouds were finally breaking up and the sun lit up the preserve in a bright, beautiful afternoon that seemed especially lovely today.

Juniper berries
Maximilian sunflower, at the end of the walk

Summer’s Snakey End

It was September12, with ten days of summer left to us before the autumn equinox, and so we decided that the last outing of summer ought to be spent at the LBJ National Grasslands, in Wise County. It was some combination of work on this book I’m writing about spending time in nature, and just enjoying one more day of summer.

Meghan, Paul and I started at one of the pine groves, those patches of ponderosa pine brought in by the Forest Service long ago and planted here in the Cross Timbers. The series of ponds beneath this grove support huge numbers of cricket frogs, leopard frogs, and a couple of other species. In turn, the frogs help support a community of snakes, both the harmless watersnake and the venomous cottonmouth. We walked along, hearing frogs plunk into the water and seeing a few frogs that did not disappear fast enough.

A juvenile leopard frog

Beyond the pine grove is a gently rolling landscape of prairie patches and oak woodland dotted with small ponds. Among my prairie favorites are little bluestem and Indiangrass, creating a fine vertical texture of straight stems reaching waist-high or even head-high. The flowering tops and seed heads of Indiangrass remind me of candle flames on impossibly skinny candles. And while the Cross Timbers is dominated by oak trees, there are plenty of junipers scattered through the clumps and belts of woodland. Late summer flowers – goldenrod and various asters – add beautiful colors to the mix.

A green layer of mostly western ragweed beneath layers of little bluestem and Indiangrass

Something scaley was spotted – a snake of some kind – around a big fallen tree branch. We searched intensively for a few minutes, but the tall grasses and the tangle of other plants and tree branches concealed the serpent well. My guess is that it found a deeper place of concealment such as a burrow underneath the vegetation, or else made a quick unseen getaway while we were looking elsewhere.

On the walk back, I spotted something stretched across the damp sandy trail. It could have been a stick or an irregular ripple of soil, but that didn’t look right to me. As I approached, twenty feet away or so, it seemed to draw up into some kinks. I walked up on a fairly dark spotted snake that turned out to be a prairie kingsnake.

A prairie kingsnake

I gently picked it up, anticipating some thrashing or even a bite, which would have been briefly uncomfortable but of no consequence. Our nonvenomous snakes mostly have small, very sharp needle-like teeth that make small punctures or scratches but need no special treatment. This kingsnake, however, never thrashed, just moved her body as if trying to crawl away. She never offered to bite. We spent several minutes admiring her (judged to be a “her” because the tail tapered fairly quickly, as opposed to the thicker and longer tails of male snakes, whose reproductive organs are kept inverted inside the first part of the tail), and then released her.

When placed on the trail, she immediately moved to the edge of the leaf litter, nosed down just beneath the thin layer of leaves and vines, and began to disappear under it. The amazing thing was how she gradually disappeared under the leaves without moving them in the slightest or making any sounds. The snake simply dissolved into the prairie!

A little further down the trail, Meghan was determined to find another snake, and her attention was drawn to an area beside the trail with some old fallen branches that offered some cover. Sure enough, she spotted a small snake, fast and agile and therefore hard to get a good look at to verify that it was harmless. I hurried to where she was, and she wanted me to identify whether it was safe for her to pick up. I got a glimpse of scales and said “yes.” Together we lifted a piece of wood and as the snake took off in her direction, she restrained it and picked it up.

A baby western coachwhip

This was a baby western coachwhip, a snake that can grow to around six feet in length, although most are not quite that long. Babies are born in late summer and measure a little over a foot long. Based on time of year and length, this little snake had not been out of the egg very long. A coachwhip’s big, piercing eyes hint at its daytime hunting strategy, visually locating lizards or even big grasshoppers and chasing them down. It is hard to imagine winning a race with a determined coachwhip, not because they are so fast in miles per hour but because of their agility in weaving through branches and around rocks.

On the final part of our walk, back through the pine grove, we spotted a watersnake slipping over the banks of one of the ponds and into the water. I got enough of a look at its body shape and especially its movement to know that it was a harmless watersnake. While cottonmouths can move quickly, they never seem to have the grace and speed of a watersnake. While this one immediately slipped beneath the water, a cottonmouth would typically (not always!) ride along the water’s surface, more focused on looking around it or simply sitting still. A watersnake fleeing danger usually swims at high speed, along the bottom, until it finds a place of concealment where it can wait for danger to pass.

Eryngo

We visited other places and stayed until sunset, admiring things like eryngo, that beautiful, prickly purple plant found at the end of the summer. Sunset was subtle but beautiful, offering a wonderful way to say goodbye to summer.

Guiding Another Group of “Rangers”

Yesterday, on a slightly muggy early September day, I walked the bottomlands at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge with this year’s class of Cross Timbers Master Naturalists. We “met” last week via Zoom as I conducted the class covering reptiles and amphibians, mostly looking at Powerpoint slides in which I tried to convey as much as possible about what these animals are, how they live, and how to find them. As usual, they are a great group of people who bring a lot of intelligence and curiosity to the class.

From the marsh boardwalk on a sunny Saturday morning

Last year, I wrote about Master Naturalists as the “rangers” of north Texas’ wild places, a reference to the Dunedain of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. These rangers were solitary folk who lived in wild places and knew the languages and ways of animals and the lore and uses of plants. They were watchers and protectors of the land. I admit that it is a nerdy reference, but I believe it fits well enough. People who devote themselves to the study and protection of nature are all too scarce, and they protect places and species by preserving the knowledge of them and passing that knowledge along to anyone who wants to know.

On this day I would join these rangers and go into the field to learn more about the herps that live here. The bottomland forest near the marsh is a good spot for finding a variety of reptiles and amphibians. The seasonal floods create fertile soil and create stacks and piles of downed branches that offer shelter for small animals, which in turn serve as prey for larger ones.

The bottomland forest

Not all of the herps to be found in the bottomlands are big and charismatic – as a matter of fact most of them are small creatures with a small-scale repertoire of traits and skills with which they go through life. One of them is DeKay’s Brownsnake, previously known as the Texas Brown Snake. It is a fairly nondescript brown-colored snake that grows to about a foot long, with a faded brown stripe down the middle of the back and a suggestion of little dark spots down the back on either side of the stripe. Babies are live-born, and unlike the adults they have a light collar of cream-colored scales just back of the head. August appeared to have been the due dates for these snakes throughout the bottomland, because we found several of the roughly four-inch babies.

Although small and humble, these snakes are well-adapted to find food in the soil and leaf litter of the forest floor. Along with worms, slugs, and soft-bodied insects, Brownsnakes eat snails, but they do not consume the shell. The account of these snakes in Werler & Dixon (2000) tells of research by Rossman and colleagues in Louisiana on snail-eating in Brownsnakes and the related Red-bellied Snakes. They noted that the snakes had teeth that were long and slender, perfect for grasping the soft parts of snails. After biting the snail, the snake pushes its prey until the shell becomes braced against some object. Next, the snake twists its head and neck, holding the position for ten minutes or more, until the exhausted snail relaxes the muscle holding it to its shell. At that point the snake can pull the snail’s body out and swallow it.

Baby DeKay’s Brownsnake

In every respect except size, this snake is an impressive predator with a fascinating adaptation of structure and behavior, allowing it to tackle an animal whose shell should keep it safe from predation. One of them I caught to show students wanted to disregard even its small size in demanding my respect. It flattened its little head and body and struck at me several times, despite its inability (at about 3-and-a-half inches) to harm me in any way, even with those extra-long teeth. After everyone had a look, I released it to find refuge below the branches and leaves on the forest floor.

The really common amphibian was the Coastal Plains (aka Gulf Coast) Toad. We found many of these, ranging from very small metamorphs – just recently transformed from tadpoles – to young toads that were not fully grown. Dustin McBride, a Nature Center staff member who was with us, could make out the tiny identifying marks such as the shapes of parotoid glands better than I could. As they grow, these little toads develop a characteristic dark pattern with a light stripe down the back and dark bands down the sides, with very prominent cranial crests (bony ridges on the head) and raised parotoid glands behind the eye and eardrum that are fairly triangular in shape.

A Coastal Plains or Gulf Coast Toad

We lifted or turned large branches or pieces of bark to see what was beneath, always careful to return these pieces like they were. We picked those pieces because they looked like good refuges for an animal to use, and we didn’t want to mess up those qualities of size, placement, and humidity underneath that makes a log or branch a useful refuge. Under one of them was a beautiful little Western Ribbonsnake.

I love Ribbonsnakes and all the other members, like the Gartersnakes, of the genus Thamnophis. The Ribbonsnakes are slender and graceful swimmers and wanderers through creeks and marshes, and they particularly like to eat frogs. I suspect this one was taking a few of those little toadlets for meals, and it will gladly chase the Cricket Frogs that will show up in the bottomlands now that we have had some rain.

The Western Ribbonsnake

There were also Leopard Frogs and a Little Brown Skink that managed to get away from us before everyone got to see it. The bottomland forest had once again been a good place to learn about some reptiles and amphibians and how to find them. I hope the Master Naturalists, those rangers of the Cross Timbers, will remember this day and the stories and life histories of little things like the DeKay’s Brownsnake.


Werler, J.E., & J.R. Dixon, 2000. Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution, and Natural History. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Skinks, Turtles and Birds on a Summer Morning

8/13/20

Two Jims

I knew that having Jim Frisinger join us would be a harbinger of good birding. Jim teaches birding at Southwest Nature Preserve and is the first one we think of when we think about birds at the preserve. And sure enough, even though this morning’s walk was part of a survey of reptiles and amphibians, it turned into a pretty good birding walk as well.

We got started just after 7:00am, meaning that I had to get up before sunrise, but that’s OK, we needed to get there before the day heated up. It is now mid-August, with serious summer heat, and it climbed to 102°F later in the day, with the heat index feeling like 107°F. The survey plan is to walk in one of three habitats, either in the morning, mid-day, or evening, and we rotate among those options. Last week, Jim Domke and I did a mid-day walk, trying to avoid heat exhaustion and clearly demonstrating what Jim figured any idiot would know – the blistering mid-day heat of an August day is not the best time to see wildlife. This morning was much better.

What remained of the smallest middle pond

One of our destinations, the smallest pond at the preserve, was a casualty of summer. The water had completely evaporated, leaving concentric rings – an outer one of drying Water Primrose, surrounding an area of cracked, dry mud, with a bulls-eye center of wet mud. The temperature was 74°F and the humidity a steamy 89%. I walked through some of the vegetation and around the circle of dried mud, scaring up grasshoppers but no Blanchard’s Cricket Frogs. The two Jim’s (Domke and Frisinger) and I talked about where the frogs and turtles would have gone. Maybe the frogs dug under the mud, expecting to estivate during a period of drought. In a pond this small, I said I thought that the turtles may have migrated the short distance to the nearest pond with water. I did notice that several seed pods of Halberd-leaf Rosemallow (see the July 18 entry) had dried and cracked open.

Halberd-leaf Rosemallow

Next, we walked to the north pond, whose water level has dropped but not by much. A group of about six young anglers were fishing, and Jim Domke extracted a promise that they would clean up before leaving. Domke carries a bag in each visit and picks up the litter left by visitors to the preserve. He is an unsung hero for this and deserves appreciation from all of us, because people leave a surprising amount of trash around the preserve. The kids did indeed pick up their stuff!

On the trail a few feet from the water, we saw two Little Brown Skinks. They were roughly two-inch juveniles, little even as Little Brown Skinks go. These lizards did not slow down for photographs, and quickly disappeared into leaf litter and cracks in the mud. And as always, there were Blanchard’s Cricket Frogs hopping around at the water’s edge, and at least one amorous boy was calling, trying to attract females. His episodic “grick-grick-grick” calls were a Call Index of one in frog monitoring jargon, an isolated call not overlapping with other Cricket Frog calls.

Various turtle heads popped up in the water and using binoculars I could see on many of them the tell-tale red patch behind the eye that defines the Red-eared Slider. River Cooters are sometimes seen at the preserve, so it is important to try to observe the head pattern.

At this point the tops of the trees were bright from the rising sun, though the ground was still in shadow. The temperature was 79°F and the relative humidity 76%. Walking back, at the same spot where we saw skinks a few minutes before, we saw a large Little Brown Skink and a couple of juveniles. As before, they spotted us and were in frantic flight back across the trail to the trees by the time we saw them. I tried to capture one of them for a photo, but as soon as I tried to gently pin one down with my hand, it slipped into the cracks in the mud and was gone. These little lizards have very smooth, glossy scales and small legs, so that they shimmy across the ground almost like little snakes.

We wondered why we were seeing skinks in groups, and Jim Domke raised the possibility of a mama herding her babies to safety. I am less quick than I used to be to dismiss such ideas, though I doubt this is what we were seeing here. Researchers are increasingly documenting maternal care among pit-vipers (a group of venomous snakes that are pretty advanced among reptiles, in terms of their evolutionary status). Rattlesnake mothers have been documented to keep their young with her after they are born for a brief time until they shed their skin the first time. They may gather in rookeries to give birth and seem to have some ability to recognize kin. Clearly, some reptiles are capable of much more advanced social behavior than we typically expect. Were we seeing a family group of skinks on the trail? A possibility that seems more likely to me is that as the woodland floor becomes quite dry, these lizards come to the pond’s edge to drink and/or hunt the tiny invertebrates that congregate there. However, there is not much cover at the pond’s edge and when confronted with a predator (or lumbering human observers) they run for the cover of the leaf litter and cracks down into the soil. This is just speculation. My best answer is: “I don’t know.”

Turtle heads in the big pond

Our final destination was the north shore of the biggest pond, where the preserve has the north and west shores and residential housing has the east and south shores. As we arrived, a Great Egret took off with slow, powerful strokes of its snow-white wings. Turtle heads emerged from the water and looked around, a group of eight or so curious reptiles that watched the egret fly off as the humans arrived.

Western Mosquitofish

Along the water’s edge, a group of small fish foraged along the surface and among the submerged stems of Water Primrose. These were surely Western Mosquitofish, though I did not net any to confirm it. Their size, shape, and movements all indicated that they were mosquitofish, those surface-feeding fish that feed voraciously on zooplankton and invertebrates, including mosquito larvae. Females grow much larger and bulkier than males and may have a black spot at the back of the body cavity where the ovaries are located. They are not particularly colorful, though there is a bluish iridescence you can see in the right light.

A glimpse at a Spiny Softshell

Further along the shore, a turtle in the water just offshore caught my eye. It was that round shell and a curious head shape that grabbed my attention, and it did not hang around for a photo. It must have been a softshell! I was sure I’d seen a snorkel nose and a pancake-shaped shell – and then it returned to the surface to breathe, staying just long enough for me to take a quick and rather poor photo. It was fairly small, either immature or a young male (females grow quite a bit larger). There is only one other iNaturalist record of the Spiny Softshell at the preserve, and this was another!

Great Egret
On his way to the concert?

That observation made this a really successful survey walk – what could be better? Well, a really fine bird observation would not make it better, but it would sure round out our walk in a beautiful way. On the walk back, we saw a couple of Great Egrets again, standing in their tall, bright white elegance along the shore. And then, after they had flown, a smaller bird flew in to take the place of the one who had been standing on a log in the water. His crest of feathers suggested a young man with a Mohawk on his way to see Green Day perform Jesus of Suburbia, as he landed on his log and eyed us with suspicion. His Mohawk flattened and he began to look at the water around him, periodically glancing up at us just to make sure he wasn’t going to have any trouble from us. He (or she) was a Green Heron, maybe a young bird whose brown and white streaked chest had not filled in from the sides with the reddish-chestnut brown of an adult.

Green Heron

This heron was surprisingly tolerant of three old guys hanging around, two of them taking photos. While we watched, he hopped down as low as he could get on the log and watched the water intently. We waited – he waited, and then there was a quick stab of his long bill into the water, bringing back a juvenile sunfish. Was there a hint of a self-satisfied smile on that long beak, and a glint in his eye as he looked up at us? Probably not, but his skillfulness was impressive. In fact, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells us that these birds sometimes even drop bits of bread or insects on the water to lure a fish in close enough to be caught.

A talented fisherman

The temperature had risen to 84°F and 74% humidity and it was time to leave before it became really hot. This had been a great walk, with the thought-provoking observations of Little Brown Skinks, finding a Spiny Softshell, and then the chance to share a few minutes with the Green Heron. I knew Jim Frisinger would be some kind of good luck charm!