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!