The Road and the Refuge

The road meanders ahead, 
Slips easily through trees and dappled light. 
Twin tracks through soil and grass 
Disappear at the edge of sight. 

Today I followed some trails and roads at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I needed some time to sit at “my” bench, located in a little patch of live oak and bluestem savannah. Under a live oak, the bench faces a little patch of little bluestem and a nice community of other plants.

The first thing I noticed were a few scattered slightly purple-pink flowers on slender stalks; Texas skeleton plant, according to iNaturalist. Each of these flowers had several small beetles rummaging around within it. They appear to be a species of metallic wood-boring beetle (the larvae may be wood-boring but the adults seem to love flowers). This place is very familiar from my winter visits but it was delightful to find out how spring changes it. There were other plants – tall wooly whites with their clusters of flowers and a plant with clusters of long, oval leaves with red stems extending up into the central leaf vein.

I also found a new grasshopper, identified by iNaturalist as a post oak grasshopper (and there were certainly post oaks nearby). Green and black striped bodies with orange and yellow back legs – wow, what a beautiful insect!

Birds were calling all around. There were northern cardinals singing, “cheer! cheer! cheer!” and one that sounded like “cheater-cheater-cheater!” I liked the first version best.

This road might bring us 
To some new place full of mystery, 
Or perhaps to a familiar spot 
With bees and songbirds for company. 

I followed the trail to the edge of the marsh, past a twenty foot tall dead tree whose bark had the appearance of being twisted, as though earlier in its life something grabbed it and gradually twisted it as it grew. There was also a hole, very much suggesting a woodpecker’s cavity nest, but it was only about seven feet off the ground. At the water’s edge there were dragonflies and a handsome brown duskywing skipper to see.

There was another road to walk, the familiar old path down into the bottomlands. The giant cottonwoods and other trees were like the pillars of a giant cathedral, and the place was full of life. One of the things I noticed was a bowl-and-doily spider, a small woodland spider whose web looks like a bowl suspended over a flat, old-fashioned doily.

I’m glad for this place – these trees – and all the other living things here. Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge lives up to that part of its name, “refuge,” as we can escape deeply enough into the woods and prairies to reach a place of sanctuary and safety.

The road continues on and on 
To quiet places where, with feathers and trust, 
We soar above grief and fracture 
And continue the journey as we must. 

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. 

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

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.

Christmas Eve, at Home In the Woods

Everyone should have a home, a place where we feel like we belong. Ideally, home is a place where mostly good things happen over a long time, so that it feels comfortable and familiar. Americans move around a lot, so that long-term familiarity might not happen within the structure of one house. In my case, my family moved frequently until my middle teenage years, and after that there was college and other moves. But starting when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I visited the Greer Island Nature Center, which later expanded to become the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I have now been visiting that place for roughly 57 years, walking the trails alone or with friends and leading interpretive walks talking about reptiles and amphibians. I’ve had a lot of changes of houses, but a long and intimate familiarity with the oak woodlands, prairies, bottomland forest, marsh, and lake shore at the nature center. When I visit there, I’m where I belong. When it comes to people, I belong with my family; but if we’re talking about places, the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge is home.

Woodland near the marsh
Inland Sea Oats, within that woodland

I went home yesterday, for Christmas Eve. I took advantage of another unusually warm day with clear skies and bright sunshine. The high temperature near the nature center was 71ºF, not a record high but definitely warmer than usual. So I needed no jacket as I walked down the Wild Plum Trail to Forked Tail Creek Trail, starting in relatively open woodlands with oak, honey locust, and patches of grassland and gradually dropping as it wound its way toward the marsh.

Fork Tailed Creek

The trees got taller, and I walked over a wooden bridge crossing Fork Tailed Creek. A little further, and the trail suddenly opened onto a lovely savanna. Between the scattered trees were the dried and dormant leaves and stalks of prairie grasses, including the light rusty color of Little Bluestem. I stood for a while, taking in all the textures and colors, the pale rusty color of bluestem and the shades of straw where other grasses or plants were dominant. There were different textures: taller vertical brushstrokes, shorter grasses, curled leaves of the forbs mixed in among the grasses, and then there were the scattered trees with barren branches. Some branched out near the ground while a few sent straight, pale trunks upward before dividing to form a crown. So much detail to take in!

The trail led back through woodland and crossed a little patch with scattered Live Oaks among prairie grasses.  Under one of the Live Oaks was a wooden bench with a patch of bluestem in front of it. The perfect destination for this walk, a place to sit and take in the tall grasses in the foreground and, further back, the line of Post Oaks with their gnarled branches dividing into thinner, more intricate fingers reaching into the clear, blue sky. A couple of Turkey Vultures soared above me, riding the air currents gracefully and searching for a meal. Often one would pass by low enough for me to see its head turn from side to side, scanning the ground. Others sailed through the sky far above, wheeling and flying on broad, strong wings. The sunlight was warm in its low angle, casting shadows as if it were late afternoon. I could hear the breeze gently stirring the trees, and despite the background highway noise it really seemed quiet and peaceful. It was a great moment to stop doing. Not even writing or putting thoughts together, just being still and surrendering to this place. I put away my field notes and just sat there, letting the warm sunlight and the beautiful woods wash over me.

The bench

Of course, some thoughts continued to occur to me, and I tried to let them come and then pass by, returning my attention to the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the place. Periodically I would get restless, as if ready to go on down the trail, but then I would settle again. I could have moved on, but was I done here? Was there something else I needed? Actually, no, it was just the habit that I think most of us have of keeping on the move, doing, thinking, talking, and so on. But what I really wanted was for these moments – this sunlight, these trees, the grass and the breeze – to continue. And so they did, for a while.

The view from the bench