Frogs (And More) Among the Palmettos

My friend Ruthann Panipinto was sure that Palmetto State Park, east of San Antonio in Gonzales County, would be a great place to visit. She really wanted to see if we could find a cottonmouth there, which involved neither bravado nor fear on her part. It was simple curiosity and love for those misunderstood pit-vipers. Ruthann has answered many snake relocation calls from fearful homeowners. She has captured and moved many venomous snakes and freed some that were stuck in glue traps, too. We both would welcome whatever reptiles and amphibians we might see. And so, we decided on March 29 as a good day for a road trip.

And if we didn’t see reptiles and amphibians (herps), Ruthann would be delighted with the plants that would now be flowering there. She remembered from a previous visit that there were lots of red buckeye with deep green compound leaves and upright clusters of red flowers. In addition to buckeyes, a couple of flowers – baby blue eyes and blue-eyed grasses – were blooming among the palmettos.

Blue-eyed grass

We started our walk at 2:30pm and within minutes we heard a gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) calling. That call is what allowed me to identify it, because the trill of one species (versicolor) is slower and musical, like a bird call. The other gray treefrog species (Cope’s gray treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis) has a faster raspy-sounding trill. If you see a gray treefrog without hearing the call, you won’t know which of those species you are looking at, because their appearance is nearly identical. Either one of them is a lichen-gray frog about 1.5 inches long. To add to the confusion, they can change color so that the gray has a little green in it, or the upper part of the frog may change to completely green.

We heard the frog, but finding it was something else entirely. Ruthann looked in nearby branches – it is a treefrog after all, and we usually find them hugging a branch or the trunk of a mid-story tree. The frog called again and Ruthann resumed her search, but these treefrogs are masters of ventriloquism. It seemed to be close and everywhere at once. Finally she found the frog, a little lump on a branch about eight feet above the ground.

Gray treefrog, hidden in the branches

We moved on, imagining that at nightfall, when frog breeding really ramps up, the choruses of frog calls might be pretty impressive. And within a couple of minutes, Ruthann spotted a green anole. Another critter capable of shifting color and blending in beautifully with the green palmetto fronds. At the moment he was mostly green, with what Ruthann aptly described as a little “blue mascara.” The anole’s eyes are partly covered with a little turret of powder-blue skin that shifts position with the lizard’s line of sight.

Green anole

We saw dozens of green treefrogs hugging the palmetto fronds, trying to get a little rest before night fell. These were not gray treefrogs that had shifted to green, they were a different species, a little less toad-like in form and with the most beautiful lime-green skin. A dark-bordered white stripe begins on the upper jaw and extends down the side of the body. Their beautiful golden Kermit-like eyes have pupils in a horizontally-flattened shape, like those of most frogs and toads.

Green treefrog

There was plenty of bird life above us. Ruthann was hearing parula warblers in the treetops, and we saw a red-shouldered hawk and at least one crested caracara. Wrens, northern cardinals and other birds were calling from within the forest above and the expanse of dwarf palmetto that stretched out around us.

As we walked along one of the trails, a couple of park staff approached on a Gator. They stopped ahead of us, intently focused on something at the edge of the trail, a sure sign of something Ruthann and I would want to see. It was a young cottonmouth, no doubt surprised to be surrounded by admiring humans. We were happy to see that the park guys were very protective of the little snake, and we took a few photos while explaining that we would never harm the cottonmouth. We watched the pretty little reptile turn back and slip under the palmetto fronds.

Juvenile northern cottonmouth

We talked with the park staff for a while about the local ecosystem and wildlife, and they said that they do sometimes see timber (aka “canebrake”) rattlesnakes in the park. That would be a wonderful thing to see, though we did not forget that we were already privileged to see some beautiful and fascinating species.

As the afternoon progressed, our discoveries included a Texas ironclad beetle. It looks like a cream-colored beetle that was splattered with black paint, and its claim to fame is that its exoskeleton is really, really hard, justifying the name “ironclad.” Internet sources such as the Field Station of the University of Wisconsin say that you would not kill it by stepping on it. Please don’t try that out in the field – this is a harmless, attractive beetle that just wants to go on its way munching on lichens as it roams around tree trunks or fallen branches.

Ironclad beetle

After a break, we returned to the trails as evening approached. One small squiggle caught our eyes, motionless on the crushed granite trail. A baby plain-bellied watersnake, born just last year, hoped that we would not notice a squiggly “twig” lying on the ground, even though the twig had scales and a somewhat banded pattern. I took a photo or two of this “twig” and then Ruthann scooped him up, now a fully animated snakeling struggling to get away. Nothing doing! Ruthann had to examine and talk to the scaly bundle of cuteness before releasing him to go on his way.

Along the Palmetto Interpretive Trail there is a water tower built nearly 100 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corp; its pump still pulls water out of the ground to help supply the swampland. A little after 7:00pm we found a luna moth sheltering under the stones at the base of the water tower. I can remember a time or two when I have found luna moths, and each time the beauty and form of this large moth have been irresistible.

Most of the luna moth’s life is spent as a green caterpillar. When it emerges from the pupal stage as a mature moth, it will complete its life in a very short time, so short that it does not even have a functioning mouth to eat. Females release a pheromone to attract males; they take flight in the darkness and some time after midnight they find each other and mate. During flight, the long trailing hindwings are said to interfere with bats’ ability to find them by echolocation.

Luna moth

This might be a difficult night for flying. As sunset approached, the breezes became strong winds, making the tops of the trees sway drunkenly back and forth. Gusts sometimes carried dust and grit through the woodland, and it occurred to me that we might wind up dodging falling branches. The sky became rosy and golden, giving this palmetto swamp a magical sort of glow.

The Palmetto Interpretive Trail at sunset

As the swamp was enveloped in darkness, we put our headlamps on and continued walking. The winds subsided for a time, and then periodically swept through the woods again. When the trees and palmettos quieted, the frogs began calling.

Frog calls represent males advertising themselves to females for breeding. When a female approaches a male, he gets on her back in a piggy-back sort of position known as amplexus. Then, as the female lays eggs, the male fertilizes them. Different frog and toad species have different calls, so that often the call allows us to identify the amphibian, much as bird calls help us identify birds.

Against a background of the accelerating “grick-grick-grick-grick” of cricket frogs, the gray treefrogs began to call. I mentioned that it is hard to locate the frog (though it must be easier for female frogs, since that’s the point of the call). Their voices seemed loud in the close darkness.

Cricket frogs and gray treefrogs

Then the green treefrogs began to call, with overlapping sounds a little like the honking of ducks. Sometimes it was almost as if they took turns, a few minutes for gray treefrogs and then some time for green treefrogs to be heard. Sometimes they overlapped.

Green treefrogs and cricket frogs, with the occasional gray treefrog

I usually describe it as “magical” to stand in the midst of these frog choruses in the darkness. Sometimes it comes near to being overwhelming if you are right in the middle of it, or at least the word “immersive” would apply. If you get the chance, give it a try, and although you may want to search for the frogs, you owe it to yourself to try turning off flashlights and headlamps and simply letting all that frog communication wash over you.

A gray treefrog located during the night chorus

As it turned out, Ruthann was right. Palmetto State Park had been a wonderful place to visit, a beautiful and unique pocket of wetlands next to the San Marcos River. The reptiles and amphibians we saw were species that we can easily see in other places, but if you look and listen as if doing so for the first time, they are amazing. And experiencing them in this palmetto swamp made it even better.

Our Venomous Snakes

Avoiding Encounters and Enjoying Them When They Do Occur

(I wrote this for The Post Oak, newsletter of the Arlington Conservation Council. It appeared in the June, 2021 issue.)

It is spring, and now we’ve had rain, and so the abundance of life is particularly evident. People are reporting wildlife sightings everywhere, including plenty of snake encounters posted to social media. Some reflect delight and appreciation, or even boasting about lucky finds in exactly the way a birder would report a new “lifer.” Others are nervous pleas to identify a photograph of a snake that is feared to be a threat to the lives of humans and pets. 

Venomous snake bite is an uncommon event in the U.S., although it is a potentially very serious medical emergency when it does occur. Cases of venomous snake bite from ten states were reported to the North American Snakebite Registry for three years from 2013 through 2015 (Ruha, et al., 2017). Most of the 450 cases were from Arizona and Texas, and 19% of the bites resulted from intentional interactions (with captive snakes, showing off, attempting to kill the snake, etc.). Almost all the bites came from pit-vipers – rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. Only three coralsnake bites were reported. There were no deaths among these 450 cases.

Western diamond-backed rattlesnake from near Austin

The small field guide by Andy Price, Venomous Snakes of Texas (Price, 2009), includes a table showing annual deaths in Texas from 1997 to 2005. Most years there were no deaths from snakebite, and only five deaths were reported for those nine years. Deaths from venomous arthropods (spiders, wasps, etc.) far outnumbered those from snakebite. If you are interested in, or worried about, Texas’ venomous snakes, get this guide. Price discusses how venom works, what to do in case of snakebite, and he provides information about where each one is found, what its habits are, and what it looks like. Alternately, you can download my pdf guide to venomous snakes in north Texas.

A Texas coralsnake seen in the Piney Woods

Coralsnakes are often thought of as among our more deadly snakes, but a 2009 article in Toxicon reported the first U.S. death from coralsnake bite in over 40 years (Norris, et al., 2009) It is also instructive to note that this death occurred when some men who had been drinking discovered the snake, captured it, and then tried to kill it. The person who died used a broken beer bottle to try to stab the snake, was bitten, and then did not pursue treatment. Unfortunately, carelessness, attempts to kill the snake, and failure to seek treatment were pivotal factors in this man’s death.

The point of all this is to say that venomous snakebite – especially the risk of dying from one – is low among the risks we face in daily life. The majority of snakes in Texas are nonvenomous, and all of them (venomous and nonvenomous) want nothing to do with us. Great care must be taken when we encounter a venomous snake, and that is the subject of the rest of this article. 

Someone whose position about snakes is generally “live and let live” may still believe that a snake near their house must be killed in order to prevent future encounters. It is hard to argue with someone who says “if I find a rattlesnake in my yard, I’m killing it.” Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt that argument, not because I value snakes over people, but because I think there’s a better solution. Let’s look at the points in my argument:

  1. If you live in an area where snakes show up from time to time, then killing that snake creates an opening for another snake to move in. If you live in an area that has recently been cleared for homes to be built, or if your house adjoins “wild” property, chances are that that will not be the last snake you see. What if you sprayed the snake with a garden hose from a safe distance, frightening it and running it off your property? Snakes learn about their surroundings, and that snake may learn that people and houses are scary and it’s best to stay away. 
  2. By the way, when threatened by a human, a snake experiences fear and agitation – it may look “mad” but it is really frightened; it will not hold a grudge and go on the offensive if it sees you again.
  3. Do you have loose items stacked outside your house, wood piles, or an old shed with a space underneath it? A wandering snake will think of these as shelter and a place to hunt a mouse or lizard to eat, and it may settle in and stay a while. You can minimize encounters with snakes by clearing out these items.
  4. The most dangerous encounter with a venomous snake is the one that you stumble into, unprepared and unaware. That happens when people walk barefoot at night in places where a snake might show up. It also happens when people reach down with bare hands to pick things up without being able to see what’s nearby. Better to use a stick or a tool to probe around the hidden nooks before putting your hand there. The same principle applies when you are hiking or camping – watch where you step or put your hands.
  5. Many snakebites occur when someone tries to kill the snake. You may be more careful and better organized than the guy who tried to kill the coralsnake with a beer bottle, but you are still going to have to get close to the snake. As you attack it, the snake will make frantic attempts to defend itself or get away, and this is a high-likelihood situation for you to be bitten.

You may or may not be convinced, but I think the best strategy is to prevent snake encounters around the house and to safely frighten away any unwanted snakes that you find. There’s one additional thing: snake “repellents” are not going to help. Wishful thinking and good salesmanship sells a lot of bags of stuff based on ingredients similar to mothballs or some other chemical scent-based substance. One snake control company in Arizona posts photos of rattlesnakes they find resting on top of the stuff or sheltering behind a bag of it. That speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the product.

What about the naturalists and wildlife-watchers among us? What if we find a snake and want to watch it or photograph it – can that safely be done? The answer is “yes,” and it depends on our dispelling the myth that venomous snakes chase people. I don’t mean to insult anyone who came across a rattlesnake that crawled toward them in a way that looked like it was chasing them. That has happened to a friend, actually, but a lifetime of experience and study tells me that he was just in the way of a snake trying to escape to safety. I describe this encounter in Herping Texas (Smith & King, 2018) and I will briefly re-tell it here.

A western massasauga like the one Steve and I saw

Steve and I found a massasauga rattlesnake one night years ago, and we crouched around the snake to admire it. The snake was still as a statue, probably confused by our lights and hoping we would pass on by. I wanted to see it in a different position and so I touched the snake with my snake hook. At that point, convinced that hiding had failed and it was now under attack, the little rattlesnake flew into action, coming straight at Steve. That caused Steve to fly into action as well, practically back-flipping out of the way. The snake kept on going, past us and into the roadside vegetation. That’s all it was – no attack, just a blind attempt to get away. However, when something like that happens, the natural assumption people make is that the snake was attacking or chasing. 

A northern cottonmouth, another venomous snake that will not chase you

With that in mind, let’s think about how you can safely observe a snake. When you first spot it, think about how close you are and what it is doing. If the snake is very close, check your footing and step away or to the side until you’re about ten feet away. If the snake is moving, don’t get in its way and remain still so that you can watch what it does. You may get a great opportunity to observe how the snake’s amazing body moves among rocks and branches, or see it swim (a beautiful display of graceful curves). From a safe distance, it doesn’t matter if you are able to identify it, because even if it is venomous it cannot hurt you from ten feet away. If the snake moves in your direction, just remember that this is just a navigation error on the snake’s part and move out of the way. 

A Broad-banded copperhead from Wise County

I do not mean to suggest to anyone that venomous snakes are no big deal. Just as these snakes are not “mean” or “bad,” they are also not “friendly” and they do not know if our intentions are benign. They are simply wildlife – fascinating, often beautiful, and potentially quite dangerous if we don’t keep our distance. What I have learned is to respect them without undue fear and to understand their habits well enough to watch them in the field without incident. 

Norris, R.L., Pfalzgraf, R.R., & G. Laing. 2009. Death following coral snake bite in the United States – First documented case (with ELISA confirmation of envenomation) in over 40 years. Toxicon, 53, 693-697.

Price, A.H. 2009. Venomous Snakes of Texas: A Field Guide. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ruha, A., Kleinschmidt, K.C., Greene, S., Spyres, M.B., Brent, J., Wax, P., Padilla-Jones, A., & S. Campleman. 2017. The Epidemiology, Clinical Course, and Management of Snakebites in the North American Snakebite Registry. Journal of Medical Toxicology, 13:309-320.

Smith, M.A. & C.R. King. 2018. Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles and Amphibians. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.