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.
(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!)
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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!