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.

Back to the Thicket

For some time I have been focused on travel and writing for the planned book on mindfulness in Texas nature. Part of those plans involved visiting the Big Thicket, and that was a highlight on my calendar. Meghan and I spent a weekend in late April wandering through some of the forests, wetlands, and pine savannas of that incredible place. I have visited the Thicket on and off for nearly twenty years, and each visit is a treasure.

On a map of southeast Texas, if you drew a triangle between Livingston, Jasper, and Beaumont you would capture much of the region traditionally known as the Big Thicket. Originally it was a big, wild place with old growth forest and a tangle of vines and understory plants that could be nearly inaccessible. There were also open savannas with ferns and pitcher plants growing in the spaces between pine trees, as well as ponds and sloughs. The settlers came, and later the timber industry cut down big swaths of forest. Then the discovery of large deposits of oil in 1901, with the Spindletop gusher near Beaumont, initiated the oil boom. The Big Thicket could easily have disappeared, but environmentalists and a few politicians fought to save as much of it as they could. The Big Thicket National Preserve was established in 1974 and in 1993 additional land was added to it. The “units” of the Preserve are scattered patches of forest, wetland, and other habitat with protected corridors along creeks, bayous, and the Neches River connecting many of the larger units.

We arrived following a big rainstorm, and treefrogs and a few other frog species were calling. It is otherworldly to stand in the darkness next to a thicket full of chorusing frogs, listening to a wall of amphibian voices competing to attract females. The first night was dominated by gray treefrogs with fluttering, fairly musical trills loudly filling the dripping woodlands and seeming to come from everywhere. It is nearly disorienting, but in a good way!

A gray treefrog – a member of that big chorus we heard the first night

After about six hours’ sleep, we were ready to walk the Kirby Nature Trail. The trailhead is near the visitor’s center at the south end of the Turkey Creek Unit, an ecologically very diverse area between Kountze and Woodville. When I think of the American beech-southern magnolia-loblolly pine ecosystem that I associate with the Big Thicket, I picture this unit (although it contains multiple ecosystems, not just this one). We walked among tall trees and thick understory, with bird song echoing through the forest. Leaves were still wet with the previous night’s rain, making the woodland bright and fragrant.

A southern magnolia along the Kirby Nature Trail
Trunk of an American Beech, like a banded work of art

I sat on a bench looking around at the trees, including the occasional fallen tree whose trunk can stretch for a considerable distance through the forest. I listened to the breezes in the crowns of those trees and the birds calling back and forth. Sometimes I could empty my head and focus mindfully on these experiences, noticing them almost as if for the first time, without commentary or comparison with other years. At other times I did reflect on the span of time during which I’ve been able to come here, and how fortunate we all are that this place persists over the decades and will not be cut and cleared for a store or to plant a monoculture of slash pine for harvesting.

Fishing spider (Dolomedes sp.) on a tree trunk

Meghan and I also wandered along the trail, taking in everything around us from big trees to invertebrates like a fishing spider who remained motionless, tucked back into the bark, lichen, and tiny mosses growing on a tree trunk. It is best to go slow, give yourself plenty of time to discover these things by wandering a little and then stopping. I agree with Meghan’s assessment: it’s good to really see what’s in front of you, “and if it takes all day, it takes all day.”

We came to a bridge that crossed a slough, a sort of swampy little wetland flowing toward Village Creek. Sitting on the edge of the bridge, we could take photos from between the rails or just lean on them and imagine floating on this lazy stream through the forest. We spent a while lost in the sights and sounds of the slough. Much of the surface reflected the tree trunks and leaves like a mirror. I focused on an area of this reflection and was completely absorbed in how the occasional dropping of a leaf or small insect would set up ripples through the beautiful reflected image of the woodland. After a time, I decided to lie on the bridge between the water and the sky. Clouds passed overhead, and there was a sense of floating, a sort of suspension between the slow current of water below and a flowing stream of air above.

In the afternoon we visited the Hickory Creek Savannah Unit so that we could walk the Sundew Trail. This is a short trail through ecosystems such as the Pine Savannah Wetlands where scattered pine trees tower over several species of ferns as well as pale pitcher plants and sundews. In other areas, water seeps through thickets of azalea and other shrubs. The sundews are miniature ground-hugging plants with flat, reddish leaves covered in sticky hairs. When a small insect touches those hairs, each of which ends in a dab of glistening, dew-like goo, it is stuck and ultimately digested.

Sundew
The tubes of pitcher plants rising up from among the ferns

We walked along the boardwalk and stopped for a while in one of the more open areas to sit quietly and watch the floating, darting flight of dragonflies among the scattered pine trees. There was barely any noise from nearby roads, and so we enjoyed the quiet space within which bird song and breezes in pines sound so incredibly sweet.


At the end of the day we wanted to see what reptiles and amphibians might venture out. Right away we found a young ribbonsnake, a common and beautiful species. Despite the cool night and nearly full moon, it was going to be a good night.

Western ribbonsnake (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Frogs were calling again as we made our way along the sandy and muddy back road, east of the Preserve. We could have mapped the wetlands in the dark just by noticing where we found big choruses of frogs. Some of them were dominated by gray treefrogs, but in other places the dominant voice was that of the green treefrog. While the former is a slightly flute-like trill, the latter is a sort of repeated quacking. It seemed to me that it resembled a big, intense gathering of space alien ducks whose quacking was a little too metallic and nasal to come from a real duck. Never mind all that, it was once again mesmerizing to stand in the dark and let all that amphibian energy surround you.

An alien quacker (the green treefrog on Meghan’s hand, that is!)

Roadside ditches were filled with water from the previous night’s rain, and in places the water contained juvenile bowfin from nearby flooded creeks. These little fishes may have been part of the reason that snakes were out hunting the ditches. We found a young broad-banded watersnake and a juvenile plain-bellied watersnake swimming in the narrow waterway at the edge of the road. Then Meghan found a baby cottonmouth, reddish and banded in its juvenile coloration. They are often confused with copperheads (to which they are related) because of those wavy bands. Meghan aptly described the young cottonmouth’s bands as looking more “pixelated” than those of the copperhead, and they are somewhat more ragged-looking.

Juvenile cottonmouth (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

The last snake of the evening was a beautiful DeKay’s brownsnake, paler than we usually see in north Texas. This one was another reminder of how the more common snakes, even those without bright patterns, can be interesting and attractive.

DeKay’s brownsnake

Next morning, we re-visited the road to release animals we had held overnight for photos. We did not see more herps on the road, but did get to see some of the wetlands where frog choruses had been focused.

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!