A Walk in the November Woods

(I’m very fortunate to be able to use some photos by Meghan Cassidy in this post. The captions identify which ones are hers, but basically the way to tell is to look for the really good ones – they’re hers!)

A patch of prairie at the LBJ National Grasslands

On a visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands in Wise County, we walked a long trail through straw- and rust-colored grasses and through the stands of oak trees that are the signature of the Western Cross Timbers. Sunny days like this in autumn are perfect for walking in the woods and prairies. The slanting sunlight and the colors of grasses and leaves (even when they are mostly shades of straw and brown) result in the landscape having a kind of warm glow, which seems like a comfortable complement to cool or even cold temperatures.

It wasn’t cold, not even a little bit. The high temperatures reached the middle sixties out in the grasslands, and the bright sunshine felt wonderful as we hiked past post oaks and junipers. Juniper is no friend of the grasslands, because without a combination of grazing and periodic fire, these trees can spread and take over. Juniper is invasive, but here is the positive side: the junipers at LBJ Grasslands are beautiful trees and really come to the foreground in winter when they remain green amidst the bare branches of oaks. And the berries! Those little blue berries give a refreshing taste when you chew a couple of them – there is a little sweetness and that aromatic juniper flavor from camphor and other aromatic oils.

Juniper “berries”

The berries, we are told, are really modified seed cones and not true berries at all. Sort of a blue, tasty variation on the pine cone theme. But it’s only a little taste; much of what lies under that blue coating is a seed, so there is not much to eat. Some junipers produce berries while others produce pollen. In winter, some of those male junipers take on a golden cast from all the pollen just waiting to be lifted by the breeze and carried to the female plant.

Meghan Cassidy’s photo of the jumping spider

My companions made the walk that much more enjoyable. Meghan Cassidy and Paul Mendoza are good company and knowledgeable about the natural world, particularly insects and arachnids. And those little jointy-legged critters came out to greet them in numbers greater than we would have expected. They discovered a little jumping spider on the trail which Meghan took great pains to get lots of photos of. All of us enjoyed seeing harvester ants out, and we wondered about the ones emerging from holes without the bare circle that usually marks the entrance to a colony. Lots of harvestmen were on the move. These might look a little like spiders but are only cousins. Everyone is familiar with “daddy long-legs” – the little dot of a body surrounded by eight long, impossibly delicate legs. None of them can spin webs and none have a venomous bite.

Another of Meghan’s photos: this is one of the harvestmen we saw

Despite being mid-November, a couple of herps graced us with their presence. Cricket frogs were out at a pond and even in some small, scooped out pools where rainwater had collected. And along one trail, a young ribbonsnake slipped among the leaves, just long enough for me to see those beautiful stripes but not long enough to capture it for a closer look. Happy cricket frog hunting, my friend!

A cricket frog, hiding under the water (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Several times we heard a little commotion in the leaf litter and were able to see an armadillo digging for invertebrates. They stop and probe the leaves and soil, sometimes scratching a short, conical excavation into the soil as they look for insects, worms, and any other animal matter that they may expose. After a short, snuffling exploration of one spot, they move a short distance and try again. David Schmidly’s The Mammals of Texas (Revised Edition) reports that much of their diet is larval and adult scarab beetles, followed by termites and ants, and then caterpillars, earthworms, millipedes, and other invertebrates. A few reptiles and amphibians are taken occasionally, probably examples of small herps being in the wrong place at the wrong time. An armadillo snuffling through the leaf litter can’t be too particular about what they turn up.

Meghan’s photo of one of the armadillos

We enjoyed our opportunities for a little armadillo watching, and sometimes we were able to get quite close. They cannot see well, so if you are quiet and stay downwind so that they cannot detect you by smell, you might get very near to one. Once they do detect you, they may jump in surprise and then crash off through the underbrush, protected from thorns and branches by their bony armor.

We talked a good bit about Blackjack Oak and Post Oak and marveled at the variety of leaves that we saw. Some looked like hybrids and there were other oak species scattered here and there. I recalled that Blackjack acorns were said to be bitter, while those of the Post Oak were more tasty and sweet. We put this to the test, as Paul cracked a Post Oak acorn and Meghan trimmed the dark husk away. A little sample of the nut was delicious.

Near a limestone ridge at LBJ National Grasslands
A last blaze of grasses and oaks before sunset

At the end of the day, we visited a limestone ridge a few miles away but still within LBJ Grasslands. Instead of Little Bluestem, the grasses here were dominated by a shorter, uniformly straw-colored species surrounding the scattered oaks and junipers. Numerous Grooved Nipple Cacti were scattered on the ridge top, growing in small mounds in the thin soil barely covering the “walnut shell” limestone. Here, we sat and watched the sun set, looking out across an area of woodland and ranch land stretching into the distance. I sat on that limestone, a conglomerate of ancient oyster shells cemented together into gray slabs, and watched the sun make a nearby oak sapling glow red-orange and then darken as the sun was obscured by some bands of clouds. When the sun re-emerged, those beautiful oak leaves glowed brighter. Gradually nature turned down the lights, and those leaves dimmed to dull red. The horizon, however, was still a glowing ember, holding on for a time and painting the undersides of the clouds red and then pink, and then they all faded to blue-gray and closed a very beautiful day in the woods.

Sunset (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Orb-Weavers and Quiet Conversation

Spotted Orb-weaver, trying to hide under a leaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pond where we saw Cricket Frogs and an American Bullfrog

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

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

Nick, Dani, and Barbara

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

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.