Recently in Wildlife - Snakes Category

Hey, fellow earthlings and others...happy Thursday. Today is National Pumpkin Cheesecake Day, but it's also National Reptile Awareness Day, and wouldn't you know it -- there are a couple of snake photos at the bottom of this post (following the grapefruit-looking mushroom pictures). So, here's your mashed-up warning sign (aren't I clever?):

Graphic: Warning -- Photos of snakes follow


I do have a few non-serpenty photos to share with you, but let's get some other pressing matters out of the way first.



Screen capture of a tweet from an A&M studentAs some of you know, I'm a proud Texas A&M graduate -- class of NOYB -- as is MLB. You might have heard that A&M's football team inexplicably beat the [at that time] #1 team in the nation, the University of Confusing Mascots of Alabama. Yeah, I know; this outcome was accompanied by reports of an ice storm in Hell and of Nancy Pelosi resigning in order to concentrate on training for the hammer throw in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Anyway, I have it on good authority that it actually happened. The football thing, that is, not the Hell thing. I don't know about Pelosi.

It's not like this doesn't happen regularly. Why, it was only nine years ago that we prevailed over [at that time] #1 Alabama on their home field. (What happened during the intervening years is irrelevant and unimportant.) Anyway, while we can certainly pretend like we've been there before, we're really not such skilled actors. There was great rejoicing in Aggieland, as evidenced by this thread of reactions to the Alabama win.



Besides being a fan of A&M, I'm also a big fan of opossums...which are not the same as possums, no matter how thick you lay on the Texas twang when you say it. If you're not also a big fan, it may be because you haven't read this short-but-extremely-enlightening introduction to them. Now's your chance.



OK, I promised photos and I'm occasionally a man of my word.

We went to the annual Main Street car show in downtown Marble Falls back at the beginning of October. We always enjoy viewing the scores of classic and not-so-classic autos lined up downtown. Most of the owners are more than happy to exposit at length about the details and history of their particular vehicle, occasionally even if you don't want to hear it. (You can ask Debbie about that.) 

You may fancy yourself an automotive aficionado, and if so, surely you can identify the vehicle from whence this photo was crafted.

Photo of the back windows of a ... yeah, you figure it out

Betcha wish you had one today. (If you do, I don't want to hear about it. Not that that will stop you from telling me.)

A week later, we traveled to outskirts of civilization, otherwise known as Fort Stockton, my hometown as well as that of my brother and his wife, whom we went to visit. When I say "outskirts of civilization," I mean that in a [mostly] good way. There's a great deal I like about that part of Texas resting west of the Pecos river, including views like this on a morning run from within the city limits. It may not look like much to you, but it's home to me.

Photo of the horizon from Fort Stockton, Texas

However, our new home in the Hill Country offers some pretty good views as well. (Does it still qualify as new after four years?)

Photo of Pecan Creek in Horseshoe Bay, Texas

Fall in the Texas Hill Country usually lasts for only a short time, but it can be achingly beautiful. This is a view of the section of Pecan Creek directly behind our house (you can just make out part of our roof on the left).

It hasn't been a particularly rainy fall in Central Texas, at least not in our part of the Hill Country. But it's been wet enough to bring out some unusual fungi. Debbie spotted this one in front of our house and initially wondered who had put a dried out grapefruit on our yard. Use your imagination.

Photo of a mushroom that resembles a grapefruit
Photo of a mushroom that resembles a grapefruit

See, the top photo is like the grapefruit rind, and the bottom one is like the inside...well, I hate it when I have to explain my citrus-themed fungi photos.

And now, we have arrived at the part of the program where...

Venomous snake photos follow

Since it's the aforementioned day to be aware of reptiles, I'll share a couple of pictures of a cottonmouth (aka "water moccasin" [I can never spell 'moccasin' correctly on the first try]) we encountered on the neighborhood low water crossing one night about a month ago.

Debbie and I were heading home on our golf cart after dark after a cruise around the neighborhood (visiting with neighbors kept us out later than usual), and found this small cottonmouth -- about 18" in length -- in the middle of the street that crosses the creek. This was the third or fourth snake we've encountered in this exact spot since summer, as they seem to like the warm pavement after sunset.

Photo - Cottonmouth snake in the road

The snake was not motivated to move out of the street, and I had nothing handy to convince it to do so. We eventually found a small stick and I managed to herd it back into the creek, but not before a car appeared and stopped beside our golf cart. The driver exited, and I was prepared to offer a defense of what I was doing. To my relief, he immediately recognized the species, and was equally interested in getting it off the street and out of danger.

Cottonmouths have a reputation for being aggressive, but I haven't found that to be true at all. This one was annoyed by the stick, but never struck at it or attempted to crawl toward me. They're very quick but also very awkward on land, and their erratic movements can startle you if you don't know what to expect. Anyway, the encounter ended peacefully and everyone went on their way without trauma.

It's sometimes difficult to distinguish a non-venomous water snake from a cottonmouth, so I cropped the following closeup to help. Note the black "mask" running horizontally across the eye; that's a sure sign of a cottonmouth and it won't be present on a water snake. You also won't see the pattern on the belly on a water snake (the most common species in our area is, in fact, the plain-bellied water snake).

Photo - closeup of a cottonmouth snake's head

This closeup also shows the vertical pupil of the snake's eye; non-venomous water snakes have round pupils. (But don't rely on this as the sole identifier, because in certain lighting conditions even the cottonmouth's pupil will appear rounded.)

Regardless, if you're not absolutely unsure of the snake's identity, just leave it alone -- admire it from a distance, or quote poetry to it, or shower it with verbal imprecations -- and it will return the favor.
Sorry; I don't know what the post title means either.

Howdy, buckaroos, and happy Thursday to you. Today is, of course, International Bow Day, so feel free to take a bow, look for a [rain]bow, grab a bow (arrows are optional), and hye thyself to the nearest boat bow. Oh, and today is also when we are scheduled to meet at our church to plan the upcoming semester of English As A Second Language (ESL) classes, and I think the preceding sentence shows why such classes are so challenging for the students. (But don't get me started on duplicative reflexive pronouns in Spanish.)

Say, did I mention that there's a photo of a snake in this post? It's actually a really cute, derpy-looking one, but still. 



Debbie and I have recently started watching the syndicated rebroadcasts -- OK, reruns -- of Reba on The Hallmark Channel. Now, before you revoke my Man Card, let me just say three words (or four, if you're -- you are -- not into contractions): it's freakin' hilarious. I don't know why we never watched it before (its six season run ended in 2007), although the fact that it aired first on The WB and later on The CW might explain it; we only watched networks with 3-letter abbreviations. That's a personal moral decision, but feel free to make your own call on this important issue.

Reba McEntire is a fantastic comedic actress (she also does serious, heart-rending drama; I refer you to her serious, heart-rending role in Tremors). And, of course, she's dabbled in a singing career, and sews clothes in her spare time to make ends meet [Ed. That's not remotely true.]. Speaking of singing, Reba is the only sitcom in history where the lead actor also sings the show's theme song. [Ed. That's also not remotely true.] Of course, most people don't realize that Jerry Seinfeld actually played the bass line in his eponymous series [Ed. That's not remotely true; stop it!], but that doesn't require nearly as much skill as singing.



You know, I spent quite a bit of time crafting what I think was a carefully worded and thoughtful assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan. But I've reconsidered posting it. I'm not sure why any of you invest your valuable time to stop by this blog, but I am fairly confident it's not for rants about political issues or world events.

OTOH, I'm not above linking to insightful and eloquent takes on the matter.



Debbie recently discovered why our lone tomato plant was underachieving: tomato horn worms.

Photo - Tomato horn worm on tomato plant
Photo - Tomato horn worm on tomato plant

These caterpillars eventually turn into five-spotted hawk moths, but before they do, they can wreak significant havoc on one's tomato crop. Debbie actually cut ours back to the ground. You might say the surgery was successful, but the patient died.

By the way, these tomato hornworms do have a natural enemy -- braconid wasps -- and the way they kill their prey almost makes you sympathetic to the caterpillars. Experts say that if you run across a caterpillar "infected" with the wasp's "virus," don't kill it...the next generation of wasps that will eventually hatch from the caterpillar's body will provide that much more protection against the next generation of hornworms. Nature can be cool even when she kills.



[Here's where the snake photo comes in...]

Last Sunday afternoon we got more than two inches of rain in less than twenty minutes. The creek rose quickly and the city sent someone out to close the low water crossing. After the rain let up, Debbie and I walked to the crossing down the block from our house to check out the torrent.

As we were turning to go home, something at the edge of the concrete apron caught my eye. It was a water snake, seemingly trying to make some sense out of the raging river that an hour earlier was a placid, slow-moving creek.

Photo - Plain-bellied water snake in the creek
 
This is a plain-bellied water snake, a non-venomous, relatively common creek- and lake-side dweller whose primary diet is fish, frogs, and salamanders. This one allowed me to get within a few feet before I violated its personal space and it disappeared into the swirling water.

I regret to inform you that on Tuesday of this week, we came across a flattened PBWS in the middle of that same low water crossing. I don't know why it felt the need to cross the road, but it lost the battle with traffic. Was it the same one that I photographed? No way of knowing, but it was a little sad, nonetheless.



In closing, I posted the following photo over on my Instagram feed, and folks seemed to like it, so I thought I'd add it here for those of you who haven't drunk the IG koolaid. It's just a picture of a morning here in the Texas Hill Country.

Peace and grace to you all!

Photo of sunrise through the trees in Horseshoe Bay, Texas
¬°Feliz jueves, amigos! Today is National IPA Day, National Work Like A Dog Day, and National Underwear Day, which means you have an excuse to drink a beer for breakfast and then go chase a frisbee in your underwear. [What a frisbee is doing in your underwear, I don't really want to know.] 

It's also National Oyster Day, so...well...I got nothing for that.



It occurs to me that I've never addressed the [lack of] reasoning behind the Random Thursday posts, and I'm certain that you've noticed that oversight but have had the grace not to mention it.

I first began the series in 2006, smack dab in the middle of the Golden Years of Blogging. My inspiration was the inestimable Blackie Sherrod, one of the greatest sportswriters ever to bang out a deadline-beating column on a vintage Corona whilst swigging a Schlitz and chewing a White Owl stogie. [OK, I made all that stuff up except the "greatest" part.] He worked for a number of Texas Metroplex newspapers over his career, and his Sunday column featured a section entitled "Scattershooting" in which he weighed in on -- you guessed it -- a series of random topics. 

When I first purloined borrowed the idea, I actually went so far as to use Sherrod's trademark intro: "Scattershooting while wondering..." After a while, I decided I wasn't doing his legacy any favors so I stopped using the phrase.
Oh, btw, don't go looking for those initial posts from 2006; they never made it into the redesigned version of the Gazette that you have before you today, following a temporary hiatus in which I questioned the very meaning of life and/or blogging. But, trust me...they were real and they were spectacular.
Sherrod died in 2016 (here's a good obit column), but his papers have a permanent archive in the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. You can still order a collection of his columns via Amazon in a book entitled, appropriately enough, Scattershooting.

Anyway, these Random Thursday columns are sort of a tribute to Blackie Sherrod, and in fact they closely resemble his offerings in all but a couple of ways: quality and brevity.



I think I may have noted this before, but during the summer months we have to check under the cushions of our deck chairs before sitting on them, lest we squish the little tree frogs who have claimed those spots for their daytime naps.

They're understandably annoyed on those occasions where we exercise our rights of eminent domain and rudely urge them to seek other quarters. Sometimes they flee the area completely, but occasionally they just reposition themselves and plot revenge.

I uploaded the following photo to Facebook a couple of days ago because I found it amusing. A tiny frog -- not much bigger than my thumbnail -- took umbrage at my intrusion, and while it moved out of the way, I caught it peeking up at me, no doubt memorizing my face for future mayhem.

Photo - tree frog hiding under a lounge chair



One of the local newspapers sponsors a "first bluebonnet of the year" photo contest, but as far as I know, no one has a "last bluebonnet of the year" competition. If they did, Debbie and I might win, as we spotted this one on July 27th, weeks after we thought the last of these wildflowers had gone to that Big Nursery In The Sky. This one was growing next to the cart path by the Ram Rock golf course #11 fairway. It lasted a couple of more days before it, too, crossed the Rainbow Bridge, or whatever the equivalent is for plants.

Seriously, though, it's just really unusual to spot a bluebonnet in these parts this late in the season.

Photo - Bluebonnet



We're fortunate to live in a very scenic part of Texas, and in a beautiful neighborhood called Pecan Creek, so-named not only because of the eponymous creek that runs through it, but also because of the huge heritage pecan trees that line much of the main street.

If you'd like to see some of what I'm talking about, I sent my new drone up about a hundred feet or so and took a photo from our backyard. The water in the distance -- about two miles as the crow flies -- is Lake LBJ. Our neighborhood is in the lower middle of the photo. If you know what you're looking at, you can spot four eighteen hole golf courses in this picture.

Of course, it's not always this green in August, but we've been blessed with abundant rainfall this summer. Believe me when I say we're not taking it for granted.

Click on the photo to see a much larger image (opens in a new tab or window).

Aerial photo of a portion of Horseshoe Bay, Texas



Last, but by no means least, if you're a dog or cat owner in Texas, or any other location where snakes are present, you should have a plan in place for dealing with the remote possibility of a venomous bite. Here's an excellent resource for that plan (PDF). Your go-to veterinarian should know the best practices for diagnosing and treating snake bites, but there's a lot to be said for being able to reality-test what they tell you to do.

If you're a Facebook user, I also highly recommend joining the National Veterinary Snakebite Support group, as you can quickly tap into the collective wisdom of veterinarians who are skilled in the treatment of pets that have been bitten...or even just are suspected of having been bitten (it's not always an obvious thing).
Howdy, buckaroos! Today is National Chocolate With Almonds Day, and I can't think of too many more magnificent combinations (although those chocolate-filled chocolate marshmallows come close, because too much chocolate is never enough). 

Today we're stumbling through a variety of topics, so let's not dawdle.



 I had a birthday recently and scored this sweet drone: a DJI Air 2s. Now you may be asking, why do you need another drone? Well, alert Gazette readers will no doubt recall that a year or so ago, an unfortunate series of events, starting with my thinking that I knew how to fly a drone, sent my old aircraft -- a DJI Spark -- crashing into one of the trees near our house. I managed to rescue it, but the rescue was even more damaging than the crash. (Note to self: Concrete is hard.) As a result, the camera has some issues. Also, the battery life on the Spark is only about 12 minutes or so, and one of its "smart" batteries devolved into a moron battery and is most useful as a paper weight.

Photo - DJI Air 2s droneAnyway, the new drone is a quantum leap ahead, and sports way more capabilities than I'll ever figure out or use. For example, it takes 5.4K video. What the heck is 5.4K video? I have no idea, but it sounds cool, and when you google "5.4K video" you mostly come up with links about the Air 2s drone, so it sounds like nobody else really knows either. But the drone also takes 20mp photos, and I DO know what that means, as do you.

The battery life is terrific -- 30+ minutes and I have three of them. The downside is that I'm accustomed to planning flights of 10 or 12 minutes and then landing. So now I have to figure out what to do with all the extra time. It's a good problem to have.

Here's an aerial photo I took of our house. It should provide a clue as to why our internet service is so sucky; we don't have access to cable and the trees block all the line-of-sight broadcast services. We're fortunate that we can point a dish at a satellite; otherwise, I'd be carving this post on a slab of stone with a chisel.

Photo - Our tree-surrounded house as seen from a drone hovering at around 75 feet

And, speaking of flying...and crashing...

As I was going out our sliding glass doors to put some cedar plank salmon on the grill, I a heard a soft *thump* about the same time I closed the door. I thought nothing of it until I started back in the house and only then noticed two little birds lying on the patio.

Photo - Two American goldfinches on the patio, one stunned and one deceased, after flying into the glass door
Two finches, one stunned and the other deceased, after flying into the glass door

I don't know if the birds (which we believe are American finches) were fighting or playing, but they apparently simultaneously flew into the glass door, a fatal collision for one of them.

The stunned bird remained in the position shown above for a disturbingly long time, and we began to worry that it was badly injured. After a few minutes of observation, I coaxed it into my hand and carried it to the back fence.

Photo - American goldfinch perched in my palm
This beautiful little bird seemed content to rest in my hand for a while.

I placed it on the metal fence top rail, where it struggled to keep its footing...but it suddenly took wing and flew away, apparently recovered from its collision. It's just unfortunate that both birds didn't survive.

OK, there's one more wildlife encounter to share...but first, a warning:

Snake-related text and photos below
Snake-related text and photos follow


So, in the last three days we've encountered three cottonmouths (aka water moccasins) either in our yard or within a half block of our house. This is highly unusual; we had seen only one of these snakes out of the water in the three preceding years we've lived here. I don't know if the heavy rains we've had during the past month has contributed to their appearances on land, but it's a bit spooky.

The most recent encounter occurred last evening. We had taken our golf cart into the neighborhood after dinner just to enjoy the non-rainy weather. We spent some time visiting with friends a few blocks away, and it was shortly after dusk when we headed back home. As we drove down the low water crossing, here's what our headlights illuminated:

Photo - Cottonmouth snake with gaping mouth

This one wasn't nearly as brightly colored as the previous two we had come in contact with, but it would be hard to find a more typical or representative photo of a cottonmouth. For example, you can easily see where it gets its name. That wide-mouthed stance, known as "gaping," is designed as a warning that it's not to be trifled with. You might even be able to make out the fangs in the photo.

The jagged edges of the patterns on its back are another identifier, as is the thick body that rapidly narrows to the tail. And here's another typical warning behavior:

Animated GIF showing cottonmouth vibrating its tail as a warning

That's right; a rattlesnake is not the only serpent that vibrates its tail when it feels threatened. In fact, this behavior is found in a number of snake species around the world. And contrary to the belief of some people, these other snakes haven't learned from rattlesnakes; rather, the rattlesnake evolved to maximize the effect of this behavior.

It's worth noting -- no, strike that (no pun intended) -- it's essential to note that I had to coax the snake into both the gaping and tail vibrating mode by waving my hand close to it (but not so close as to be in danger; I'm not that big an idiot!), and as soon as I stopped waving my hand, it closed its mouth and stopped the tail shaking.

I finally located a stick and gently nudged it back toward the creek. It never made an attempt to strike at me or at the stick, although it didn't immediately take the hint. But after a few such nudges, it finally wriggled its way down the culvert and disappeared into the rushing water on the low side of the crossing.

You're probably tired of reading about these encounters, and I'm getting a bit tired of running into these snakes. I hope that when the weather settles down, we'll get back to our old habits of avoiding each other.

Views of a Vibrant Visiting Viper
July 6, 2021 2:11 PM | Posted in:

Snake warning sign

Warning: This post is about venomous snakes and contains multiple photos of one of those said snakes. Proceed according to your comfort level.



Yesterday, we received almost three inches of rain in a very short period of time. The creek behind our house overflowed the low water crossing and shut down traffic for a few hours. It also apparently disturbed some of the resident wildlife.

Our house sits on a lot that slopes down toward said creek, and when we get copious quantities of precipitation, the runoff forms some pretty significant streams at the edge of our property. Debbie and I were looking out at them from one of our bathroom windows when I spotted a small snake sliding over a retaining wall into the lawn.

From a distance, it appeared to me to be a copperhead. That excited me, because even though I know they are found in this general area, I've never spotted one. I grabbed my phone, an umbrella, and a pair of boots, and went searching for the little guy while Debbie kept an eye on him through the window.

She was able to point me in the right direction, and I took a few photos...like this one:

Photo - Juvenile cottonmouth resting in our lawn

The snake was about 18" long, so it was easy to lose sight of him in the grass.

After a couple of minutes of me pointing my phone in his face (note: I'm referring to the snake as a "him," but I have no idea how to sex a snake and I'm not interested in learning if it involves getting any more personal), he made an about face and slithered into one of the streams rushing toward the creek. When we last saw him, he was caught up in the current going over the retaining wall. Adios, amigo!

Back inside, I was able to get a closer look at the details of the snake, and realized that it wasn't a copperhead after all, but a juvenile cottonmouth (aka water moccasin). I did post a photo on the Central Texas snake ID page to get confirmation, where the patient moderators explained for the hundredth time how to distinguish between the two species. Based on the comments on that Facebook post, brightly colored juvenile cottonmouths confuse a lot of folks, so the photo offered a good lesson on identification.

In any event, our excitement was over as we bid farewell to our visitor.

Or so we thought.

About an hour later, the rain had stopped and I asked Debbie if she wanted to walk down an look at the low water crossing. I went out through the front door ahead of her, and opened the gate to our courtyard...and almost stepped on the same snake (or an identical twin) that we had earlier seen swept down to the creek!

It was lethargic from the chilly rain, so I once again started taking pictures. (And yes, our walkway tends to get really muddy from heavy rainfall runoff; that's why it appears that the snake is resting in a quagmire.)

Photo - juvenile cottonmouth
Photo - juvenile cottonmouth
Photo - juvenile cottonmouth

Two key identifiers for cottonmouths are the jagged edges on the pattern on their back (copperheads generally-but-not-always have smooth-edged patterns that resemble Hershey's kisses) and the black horizontal stripe across the eyes (see the middle photo above; these stripes are absent from copperheads).

Neither of us were particularly thrilled with the prospect of having a resident cottonmouth in our courtyard (or anywhere in our yard, for that matter), so I asked Debbie to go into the garage and get my snake tongs so we could relocate him.

Photo - Juvenile cottonmouth held in tongs

The snake was unappreciative of my desire to relocate it to a more desirable (to us, anyway) location and it argued a bit with the tongs.

The preceding photo provides another lesson, this time regarding the often-misleading perspective of photos. If one didn't know better, one might think this is a much larger snake than it really is, and is perhaps closer to me than might be advisable. I assure you that I was never even close to the business end of this serpent.

I realize that some of you (OK, ALL of you) will think I'm weird for getting excited about this interaction, but whether we like it or realize it, we coexist with wildlife in many shapes, and to me, this is simply one pretty cool variation.
It's been a stressful week around here, for reasons that I won't go into. I tell you that simply as an excuse -- as if I really need one -- to not tax my brain by attempting to come up with with any of the witty, pithy, and wise words that I know you all come here to get. *cough*

Nope, I just want to show you some pictures.

So, is there a term for the time that occurs about an hour after sunrise, or about an hour before sunset? Early morning? Late afternoon? That seems too easy. Eh, whatever. Here are two photos taken along Texas State Highway 71 down the road from Horseshoe Bay, at almost the same spot but ten hours apart on Monday, September 28th. The first is the "after sunrise" scene; the second is the "before sunset" picture. God does good work.

Photo - Cloud formations in Central Texas
Photo - Cloud formations in Central Texas

I think we can all agree that praying mantises are cool. Well, except for those of us who think they're terrifying. It's not really their fault that they have those googly eyes that follow you and peer deep into your very soul while they plot your imminent demise. OTOH, maybe they're just curious. Anyway, most of them look like the gal (or guy; I have no idea) shown below, right? Very, very green. It makes for great camouflage on plants; maybe not so much on a downspout.

Photo - Green praying mantis

So, green isn't a great camo color for every setting. It appears that some mantids have figured that out and have adapted. Take this guy (or girl...I have no idea), for example. I noticed it crouching on the pavement in our cul-de-sac while I was using the leaf blower (an activity not unlike sweeping the beach, but that's another less photogenic story).

Photo - Gray praying mantis
Photo - Gray praying mantis
Photo - Gray praying mantis

Now that, my friend, is effective camouflage! Well, except for the glaring shadow, but transparency is not a strong suite of most living creatures. That coloring will work well on tree bark, which I assume is a more normal habitat than the middle of the street.

AFAIK, mantids can change colors only very slightly, so this is a different species than la campamocha verde shown above. Still got those weird googly eyes, though.

While we're on the subject of insects that sport different colors than usual, here's a cicada that was on our driveway. Most of these guys are also on the greenish end of the spectrum.

Photo - Brown cicada

I think this is a pretty great scheme, and evokes the colors of the Black Knights of West Point. Feel free to suggest to someone that they should change their name to the West Point Cicadas (and be sure to let us know how that turns out).

Last but not least, while rolling snake eyes can be a VBT (Very Bad Thing) in a game of craps -- although I know about as much about shooting dice as I do about playing cricket, i.e. less than nothing -- not all snake eyes are eeeeeevvvvviiiiiilllllll. In fact, the eyes on this six-inch-long DeKay's brownsnake are much less creepy than those on the praying mantises above. But, YMMV.

Photo - Closeup of the eye of a DeKay's brownsnake

Thanks for indulging me. I'm not as stressed as I was before. And I never drink while blogging, so lose that thought.
Editor's note: The Editorial Board here at the Gazette has grudgingly come to accept that rudimentary animations in the form of gifs -- pronounced with a soft "g" -- must be tolerated, much as one tolerates the annoying-but-inescapable social behavior of toddlers and politicians. That said, the Board has put strict limits on the use of these crude illustrations in order to maintain the journalistic credibility of this publication. Sadly, the author of the following post has chosen to blatently disregard these limits. Please accept our apologies, and know that we condemn such insolence in the strongest of terms.

Author's note: Ha!

Hey, you guys...there's really not very much interesting going on around here nowadays, so I've had to resort to manipulative creative approaches in order to transform the prosaic into the phenomenal.

Time-lapse photos of a plant wilting in the heatFor example, remember when I was telling you about how hot our courtyard gets during the day? Of course, you do. Well, just to reinforce that fascinating story, I've enlisted one of our resident plants -- whose name I've forgotten -- to reenact the deleterious effects of said heat. You can see the result via a mesmerizing time-lapse sequence, over to the right.

By the way, the creation of this gif took an embarrassingly large amount of time and effort; I trust you appreciate the lengths I go to in order to educate and entertain.

As long as we're in the courtyard, at least mentally, I want to talk with you about what goes on out there in the middle of the night. Well, almost nothing, to be honest. But the little that is happening is a bit creepy. 

I've got my trail camera set up to take a photo every five minutes, 24/7, whether anything moves or not (it's also simultaneously configured to capture video if something does move). Each morning, I review the pictures from the previous day and night, an exercise that takes less time than you might expect given that nothing generally happens.

However, I have noticed that at some point in the wee hours of the morning, something emerges from beneath the flagstones, something tiny but whose eyes reflect the infrared flash of the camera and appear as tiny pinpricks of light in the darkness. Take a look at what I'm talking about:

Animated gif of tiny frogs whose eyes shine in the dark

These creatures appear like clockwork every night, and I've concluded that they're tiny frogs. (They could also be spiders but I refuse to contemplate that possibility as it ratchets up the creepiness factor to unacceptable levels.)

Warning: Snakes Ahead

(The preceding is presented as a public service to those readers with a abnormal perfectly understandable aversion of our neighbors of the serpentine persuasion. If you fall into this category please seek therapy click here to jump to some squirrel-related stuff.)

A few days ago, Debbie was in the back yard testing the sprinklers in one of our flowerbeds, which actually doesn't have any flowers, but is filled with big liriopes. A movement caught her eye and she discovered a small snake threaded through the leaves of one of the plants, apparently enjoying the impromptu shower.

She texted me (I was in the house doing something important, like taking a nap) and I grabbed my DSLR with a macro lens and took a few photos. I couldn't identify the species but she had an educated guess (which turned out to be correct, of course). We posted one of the photos to the Central Texas Snake ID Facebook Group, which has become one of our daily references, and the experts that administer that group identified it as a western coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum testaceus).

Coachwhips are nonvenomous, beneficial snakes that prey upon other lizards, amphibians, and varmints such as rats and mice. They will also eat other snakes...including venomous varieties such as rattlesnakes. In other words, they're good neighbors.

Ours was only 18" in length, but coachwhips can grow to be six feet or longer. As their common name implies, they are extremely fast snakes. They are shy and will flee when approached, but if cornered and/or handled, they won't hesitate to bite. Again, they're not venomous, but nobody wants a snake bite, right?

Following are a couple of the photos I took of the water-beaded coachwhip.

Photo - Western coachwhip among the leaves of a liriope
Photo - Western coachwhip among the leaves of a liriope

The little guy posed patiently for photos and admiring comments from onlookers, then disappeared under the plants after the water turned off. Debbie spotted it the next morning in almost the same location. We assume that it's dining on the tiny frogs that inhabit the back yard (and, possibly, the front courtyard...as we've already discussed above).

Relax: No More Snakes

Now, onto to last matter, and we welcome back those of you who chose to skip the preceding fascinating content.

We've got about eleventy billion squirrels in our neighborhood. As I've mentioned before, despite being surrounded by pecan trees, and living in a neighborhood named after pecans, we never get any because the squirrels harvest them all. But that's not what I want to tell you about. 

If you have squirrels around you, you've probably heard them on occasion chattering in the trees in a state of apparent alarm or anger. Sometimes their diatribes are directed at other squirrels (hey, you &#%^$^, that was MY pecan!) but they also seem to raise a general alarm when something threatening is nearby.

I was in our front yard when I heard this kind of commotion coming from an oak tree. The squirrel making the noise was fairly quivering with disapproval of...something. My first thought was that it had spotted a snake in the lawn, or even in a tree, as rat snakes are fairly common around here and they are amazing climbers. So, I walking into the grass beneath the tree where the squirrel was still expressing its displeasure, but I saw nothing. 

I looked around, still seeing no threat, and was about to go back inside, chalking up the squirrel's theatrics to inscrutable squirrel behavior, when I glanced up in a tree about 25' away. Perched there in the fork of two big limbs was a rather good-sized hawk, and the raptor was the obvious target of the squirrel's alarm. 

I found the tableau amusing, as the hawk had its back turned to the distraught squirrel, as if to say "I know you are but what am I" or something equally childish.

Animated gif of a squirrel in one tree and a hawk in another

I created a short video to capture what I'm now referring to as the Early Squirrel Warning System. Be on the lookout; it's coming to your neighborhood if it's not already there. 




It's been an interesting week or two around Casa Fire Ant, as we've had the opportunity to observe some rather unique natural phenomena without getting very far from home. Or, without even getting out of the house.

Let's start with that last thing, how about? I was sitting in the office working on some complex differential equations watching cat videos when Debbie called to me from the living room in a rather excited voice...you need to come see this! "This" turned out to be this:

Photo - Western ribbonsnake on our living room floor
Hard to know who was more surprised, the snake or us

Well. We've had numerous uninvited guests in our house since we moved here three years ago, including a Texas spiny lizard (guest bathroom), a green tree frog (2nd master bathroom), a six-inch-long centipede (kitchen), and numerous geckos and scorpions (pretty much everywhere). We're accustomed to inspecting our floors every morning when we first get out of bed, a natural function of living on a creek in a wooded area. But this raised the intrusive varmint factor to a new level; the first time (that we know of) that a serpent has entered our happy home.

It's a western ribbonsnake (Thamnophis proximus), a nonvenomous species of garter snake. It's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo but it was about fifteen inches long. We think it might have come inside to escape the horrible heat of the day, but the joke was on him as our a/c was out at the time. (Compared to having no a/c in July in Texas, a snake in the house is almost a pleasant diversion. Almost.)

I kept an eye on the intruder while Debbie found a small box. She wielded a broom and coaxed the snake into the box, which sounds easier than it was, as it had its own ideas about where it wanted to go. But we eventually captured it and I took it into the vacant lot next door for release with a stern warning not to return.

Photo - Western ribbon snake on the ground
That white dot on the head is the distinguishing mark for this species.

Neither of us could identify the snake so Debbie posted the top photo to the Central Texas Snake ID group on Facebook, which is an absolutely invaluable resource for anyone wondering about what kind of snake is on their dining room floor (or anywhere else). It's a moderated group run by a collection of snake experts who not only identify snakes but also educate us about their habits.

That resource came in handy again just a few days later when Debbie once again sighted a snake...but this time it was properly wandering in our back yard and not inside our house. It was a quick little fellow, but I was quicker. He was an absolute beast but I managed to wrestle him into submission:

Photo - DeKay's brown snake
Yes, I'm absolutely fearless in the presence of a four inch long baby snake.

This pretty little guy is a juvenile DeKay's brown snake (Storer decay), another harmless species. They primarily eat slugs, snails, and earthworms. Again, we had to turn to the aforementioned Facebook group for an identification (and, incidentally, the photo elicited a number of "oooh, how cute!" comments from the many female snake lovers in the group). And, as before, I simply released it back into the grass after the photo session. We're more than happy for it to eat all the snails and slugs it can find.

Our third encounter with nature didn't involve snakes, but skunks rank right up there in a list of Things You Don't Want To Spend Much Time With. 

We have a lot of skunks in and around our neighborhood. Often, when we head out for a run around sunrise, we have to alter our pace or route to avoid a skunk (or two...or three) staggering back home after a night of wild partying. But it was an evening encounter that continues to fascinate and puzzle us.

We were driving back into the neighborhood around dusk when we spotted movement a few yards out in the vacant lot just inside the gate. We immediately pegged it as a skunk, but as we drew closer alongside of the subject, our conversation went something like this:

Animation of a group of four skunks moving together
A big chunk of spunky skunks
Oh, it's TWO skunks...

No, wait...there's THREE of them...

Uh, there's another one!

Are you kidding me?! FIVE skunks?!

What we were witnessing was something I can only describe as a tightly knit swirling group of skunks, two adults and three young ones. One of the adults eventually broke away from the group and headed into the pasture while the remaining group of four stayed packed together and followed its lead.

We assume that we were seeing a defensive maneuver designed to protect the youngsters, in reaction to the presence of our vehicle. I haven't been able to confirm this despite my extensive efforts at research, i.e. a couple of google searches, but I'm going with that explanation until someone tells me differently.

The light was fading fast and our iPhone cameras are notoriously inept in low light, but in spite of the poor quality, the above gif might give you a idea of what was going on. Trust me, there are four skunks in that group.

So, pretty exciting, huh? Our motto around here has now become, "what now?" 

Uh, I better go...I think I hear a howl coming from the hall closet...
Something in the half acre vacant lot next door to ours caught my eye a couple of days ago. lt turned out to be a really pretty and unusual mushroom...toadstool...ground-dwelling fungus. I'm not a mycologist and I have no skill whatsoever in identifying these organisms, but I do find them fascinating.

We've had a very mild and rainy spring, and the decaying leaves seem to provide an ideal breeding ground for the fungi. I took a few photos for your perusal, and converted the backgrounds to black and white to highlight the subjects.

Photo - Mushroom Photo - Mushroom Photo - Mushroom Photo - Mushroom Photo - Mushroom

The last one is my favorite, as I've never seen one like it before. If you can identify it, feel free to do so in the comments.

Sometimes your intended photographic subject takes second place to a surprise when you look closer at the photo...

Photo - Mushroom and tiny frog

These tiny frogs -- no bigger than my thumbnail -- have proliferated in our yard and the surrounding lots. I fully expect that they'll eventually attract certain types of predators (if they haven't already)...such as...

Photo - Shed snake skin

This remnant -- the result of a snake's ecdysis -- wasn't actually in the neighboring lot. We ran across it, literally, on a street just to the north of our neighborhood while out for a morning workout. There's no way of knowing the species of snake, but the most prevalent variety around here is a variation of the non-venomous rat snake.

Back to the neighborhood...an ongoing mystery is how a coil of barbed wire (or, as we say round here, "bob war") came to rest on the broken stub of an oak tree. The city of Horseshoe Bay was developed from ranch land, so I assume that this is a decades-old relic from that enterprise. In any case, I like seeing it there as a reminder of times when things weren't quite as civilized...and also of the importance of keeping one's tetanus vaccine current.

Photo - Coil of barbed wire on a tree

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't solicit your sympathy for our pollen plight. This time of year, I spend at least thirty minutes almost every day using the leaf blower to clean off our driveways, sidewalk, and patios. And, occasionally, when I don't go to that trouble, I still find it therapeutic to use a broom to clear a path (or landing strip) for our bicycle.

Photo - Pathway through the pollen from our garage to the street

I hope you're able to get out and do some urban/suburban exploration of your own during this time of enforced non-busyness. There are fascinating details in the world, both natural and manmade.
Spring in this part of Texas is not really a season. If the year was a play, spring in Central Texas would be intermission...a pause between the dead brownness of winter, and the oppressive heat and mosquito swarms of summer. But that pause is, as they say, refreshing, because a lot happens during that brief interval.

[Disclaimer: The preceding is a broad generalization and one should actually never do that about weather in Texas. In fact, this year is a good example of that, as the second day of spring was 20 degrees colder than the last day of winter.]

Spring can be really beautiful around here, but it all depends on one thing: rain. We've been fortunate this year. I've measured almost eight inches of rain at our house in the first three months, pretty evenly spaced through each month. The result is a massive crop of wildflowers, plus generally happy plants and animals overall.

Everything combines to make for some interesting photographic subjects. Here's a pictorial of some springtime scenes around Casa Fire Ant.

A fine spring in the Texas Hill Country starts and ends with bluebonnets, our state flower. We scattered a some handfuls of seed around the vacant lot next door a couple of years ago. Last year, a disappointingly few came up, but this year the number increased exponentially. They were confined to plot of about a hundred square feet immediately adjacent to our lawn.

Knowing that the neighborhood's lawn maintenance crew would eventually be around to mow the lot, I used my weedeater to carefully create a very discernible border around the stand of bluebonnets. I even spent a half hour with hand clippers removing the weeds and grass around each flower so there was no chance of not observing them. Here's the result of that painstaking care:

Photo - small stand of bluebonnets
The halcyon days of our personal bluebonnet crop

It was a happy, placid scene. It brought a smile to our lips and a spring to our step and a boost to our spirits. Then the mowers arrived. You know what's coming, right?

Photo - small stand bereft of bluebonnets
The aftermath of the Great Bluebonnet Blitzkrieg

The heartless drivers of the mechanized monsters tore through our pastoral scene like Nazis through Poland a hot noisy knife through blue butter. (And to add injury to injury, they returned today in an apparent attempt to execute those few who managed to escape the initial onslaught.)

OK, it's not as though there aren't eleventy zillion other bluebonnets blanketing the landscape around here, but these were OUR BLUEBONNETS, DANGIT! *sigh* Life does go on, though.

So, let's not leave the subject of bluebonnets on such a depressing note. As the following photo demonstrates, we're all about diversity, even when it comes to the state flower:

Photo - white bluebonnets amongst the blue onesUm...whitebonnets...?

Because of genetic mutations, it's not uncommon to find white or pink variations of bluebonnets. For local readers of the Gazette, this small stand is at the corner of Bay West Blvd and Blister Gold (assuming those philistine mowers haven't gotten to them!). It's likely that these flowers will not be here next year, as their recessive genes will eventually be overrun by the dominant blues.

Another springtime phenomenon that Hill Country residents are accustomed to is pollen, and we're now entering the peak live oak pollen season where the stuff will fall like rain.

Photo - pollen-filled live oak tree
If you thought those are leaves on the live oak, you would be sadly mistaken.

The preceding photo is a good example of how the pollen manages to crowd out even the leaves on a live oak. That would be okay (well, okayer) if it stayed on the tree, although I guess that sorta defeats the purpose of pollen. Anyway, it doesn't, and you can see the results everywhere. Like, literally, EVERYWHERE.

Take our lovely Pecan Creek, after which our lovely little neighborhood is named. Here's how parts of it look now:

Photo - pollen covering the surface of the creek
Photo - pollen covering the surface of the creek

I've never seen quicksand except in the movies (Blazing Saddles comes to mind), but this is exactly what I imagine it looks like. However, I was surprised to see ducks swimming around in the middle of this goop, apparently unbothered, so it's either benign or ducks are as oblivious as they look.

The streets are not immune to the effects of the falling pollen. Here's what our bike tire looked like at the conclusion of our Sunday afternoon ride.

Photo - pollen covering the tread of our bicycle tire
When a bicycle doubles as a pollinator

The rain also brings out strange beauty, like this tree fungus attached to a long-dead stump that I spotted during a walk around the trail that circles our neighborhood.

Photo - golden tree fungus

Of course, spring doesn't bring only new flora; it's also the stimulus for the appearance of fauna, and around here, a lot of that fauna is of the slithery persuasion. The local Nextdoor message boards are filled with people posting photos of snakes around their abodes and asking for advice (most of which unfortunately falls into the general category of "kill 'em dead until they live no more, and then apply additional killing").

We've had a couple of visitors in our yard. In fact, a couple of days ago MLB was pulling weeds in our front yard when, as she puts it, one pulled back. Instead of grabbing a weed, she grabbed the tail of a small grass snake hidden among the ground cover. Neither were amused; fortunately, neither were harmed.

Photo - small snake in our courtyard
An eight foot long constrictor next to the world's largest acorn

While I do love myself some vernal flora and fauna, one of my favorite things about spring in these parts is the weather, which is often cool and misty and foggy. It makes for great running weather, and dramatic photos. I'll leave you with a few recent examples. Happy spring, y'all!

Photo - misty sunrise behind oak tree
Photo - sunrise behind misty creek
Photo - heavily photoshopped sunrise
Late last month we were confronted with the sad sight of three nestlings that had apparently fallen from their nest attached to a stone column about ten feet above our back porch. Two of the baby birds were already deceased and the third would soon be. 

There was no sign of a disturbance in the nest, and the parents continued to fly to and from the nest. We were at a loss to explain why the nestlings would have fallen from their well-protected home. But, such is life (and death) in the natural world.

A few days later, early on a crisp April morning, we heard a commotion from some upset birds in the vicinity of the back porch. We went out to investigate and were greeted by a small snake, perhaps eighteen inches in length.

Photo - Juvenile rat snake

The snake was somewhat lethargic until I got close to it, when it became more animated. While it didn't seem particularly aggressive, I noticed one behavior that alarmed me just a bit. Animated gif of Rat snake vibrating its tail Pay close attention to the tail in the gif on the right (which I've slowed down by 50% and converted to black and white to save bandwidth). That vibrating tail is an easily recognized characteristic of a rattlesnake -- and this obviously was no rattler -- but it's also a behavior of some other species, including the copperhead, another venomous pit viper, and a species not uncommon in the Texas Hill Country. 

I'm not very familiar with copperheads, as they aren't normally found in the parts of West Texas where I spent most of my life, and my frame of reference for them was limited to the aforementioned tail-shaking behavior (they're thought to do this in the dry leaves where they're often found as a warning to would-be predators). Given that, I made the decision to dispatch the serpent, not wanting to take a chance on having a poisonous snake lurking around our back porch.

Later, after spending some time googling images of copperheads and other tail-shaking snakes, I came to the conclusion that I had misidentified the recently departed; it was, in fact, a juvenile rat snake.

I confess that I felt a bit of guilt about killing a non-poisonous snake. Rat snakes are useful for controlling the rodent population (although this one was probably too small to be much of a threat to anything but the tiniest of mice). I've never subscribed to the philosophy that the only good snake is a dead snake.

However...

MLB and I got to thinking about the agitated birds that brought the snake to our attention, and from there it was an easy mental leap to those unfortunate baby birds I mentioned at the top. And, unlike with copperheads, I do know a few things about rat snakes, including the facts that (1) they are skilled climbers, and (b) they've been known to raid bird nests.

Armed with this knowledge, and insight gained from year's of watching CSI, I deduced that those nestlings hadn't just accidentally fallen out of their nest, but were in fact panicked by the presence of something -- well, let's just say it: a snake -- and in their frantic state fell to their demise.

Now, I can't prove that the snake I killed was the same one that raided that nest, but I suspect it had climbed up the rock column to the nest seeking eggs...and further, that it had returned to the scene of the original crime. As I said, I can't prove any of this, but neither can I disprove it, and the facts seem to fit better than OJ's glove did.

Having reached that conclusion, I also conclude that karma was visited upon that snake in the form of a hoe wielded by yours truly. Justice was served.

Photo - Bird roosting in a nestThat's not the end of the story, however. The non-descript birds* have nested on that column for a couple of years, returning each spring to raise their young. I don't know their species, but I do know they're not barn swallows. Anyway, after losing that first set of younguns, I thought they might move on to more hospitable environs, but they're persistent little guys. We've noticed that one of them is often on the nest while the other keeps watch from a nearby rooftop or hummingbird feeder hanger. The photo at right was taken through the blinds of our bedroom window, hence the weird composition.
*Update (4/24/19): My pal Sam, amateur birdwatcher and all-around renaissance man par excellence, has identified the nesting birds as black phoebes.
Curiosity got the best of me this evening, and I affixed my phone to a tripod, fired up a video recording, and hoisted it up to where I hoped I would get some images of the contents of the nest. Sure enough, there are five eggs in the nest, and we can thus expect to see another batch of hatchlings in the near future. I hope their existence unfolds in a much happier manner.

Photo - Eggs in a nest
Alert Gazette readers will recall our encounter with a cottonmouth (aka water moccasin) last fall. Then, a couple of months ago we discovered a four-foot-long blotched water snake in our courtyard. The latter encounter taught me that distinguishing between the poisonous cottonmouth and the non-venomous water snake wasn't as easy as I had initially assumed.

If you google "cottonmouth vs water snake," you'll see that I'm not the only one who needs some help with this subject. There are many articles and videos that attempt to teach you how to correctly distinguish these species, something that could literally be a life-and-death skill. Unfortunately, in the real world, snakes don't carry ID cards, and making an absolute identification is hit or miss.

Case in point: a few days ago MLB and I were walking on the trail that encircles our neighborhood, and which roughly parallels Pecan Creek for about half its length. Something in the creek caught my eye and I scurried over to investigate. I'll save you a few thousand words, and substitute the following video instead.



According to "the experts," there are several factors to consider when trying to decide if the snake you're confronting will deliver a potentially fatal bite or just a very painful one (yeah, they pretty much all bite). But I think there are drawbacks to each of those factors.

Distinguishing Trait Why It Won't Work
Unique body pattern/coloring Ha. Good luck with that. They all look alike.
Cottonmouths float when they swim. Water snakes swim with only their heads above water. The truth of this is debatable. Plus, they're not always IN the water.
Cottonmouths have thicker, heavier bodies than water snakes. A common defensive measure of a water snake is to flatten itself to appear thicker and heavier.
Cottonmouths have triangular heads and thin necks. A common defensive measure of a water snake is to flatten its head so that it appears, well, triangular.
Cottonmouths have heat-sensing "pits" between their nostrils and their eyes. Those pits aren't readily discernible unless you're really, really close.
Cottonmouth eyes have vertical pupils. Water snakes have round pupils. This is probably the best differentiator, but you still have to get close enough to discern the shape.

So, while I lean toward identifying "our" snake as a cottonmouth, I wouldn't bet the farm on it. In any event, we're stepping more cautiously when we're out in the yard, even though the likelihood of one coming that far from the creek is pretty small. I'd hate for either of us to make a positive identification of a cottonmouth in the worst possible fashion.

Photo - snake in creek
You decide.
WoodpeckerEarlier this spring, an oak tree across the street from our house attracted the attention of a pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers*. The tree's trunk has a hollowed-out place about twenty feet off the ground and the opening faces our front windows; I can see it from my usual seat in the living room.

Since April, MLB and I have watched as the woodpeckers made a home in the hollow trunk. They diligently climbed in and out of the hole in the tree, bringing out mouthfuls of dust and debris to clean out the space, presumably in preparation for a nest and young. They were constantly flying in and out and around the tree and we grew accustomed to them as neighbors.

Then, a week or so ago, I noticed an exceptionally busy flurry of activity. The birds were even more active in flying up to the hole in the trunk, stopping for a moment, then flying away. I noticed movement in the hole, and theorized that the adults were feeding a batch of newly hatched progeny in the nest.

I set up a video camera on a tripod behind a tree in our front yard, zoomed in on the hole, and started recording at around 6:00 p.m. I left it running while I went in for supper. The battery on the camera was good for only about an hour or so of recording, but I hoped that it would pick up something interesting in that short time.

Boy, did it ever!

Instead of piling several thousand words on you to describe what we viewed, here's a semi-short video (~13 minutes) distilling a couple of months' worth of action, leading to a completely unexpected climax.There are really three different storylines in the video; I hope you find it enlightening, if not entertaining.



So, if you're in the TL:DW mode, here's a quick summary:

  • Woodpeckers occupy hollow tree
  • They create a happy home
  • Said home is invaded by a rat snake
  • Outcome is negative for occupants of bird home
  • Turns out, there are actually TWO snakes in that tree
As I note in the video, we think the snakes are Texas rat snakes; their behavior and appearance are consistent with what we've been able to glean online. These snakes are non-venomous and non-aggressive. They are excellent climbers (duh) and seek out birds' nests for food. They will also eat rodents, including squirrels. As serpent neighbors go, we could do a lot worse.

The woodpeckers have relocated somewhere else in the neighborhood. I still hear their calls, but haven't seen them again. We enjoyed watching them, but also recognize that they are somewhat destructive birds so their absence is not personally devastating. We do hope, however, that what the snake dined on was eggs and not live young.

The snakes remained in the tree for a couple of days after the final video. We have additional footage of them climbing up and down the tree in search of more prey, much to the chagrin of a small bevy of tiny birds who were obviously disturbed by one of the snake's presence. However, we never spotted their nest(s) so we have no idea of the outcome of that confrontation.

For our timid neighbor's information -- that would be you, Kristi -- the snakes are now gone as well.

*For the longest time, I thought they were ladder-backed woodpeckers. But while researching the species for this article, I realized that the coloring and especially the call were wrong. So much for my career as an ornithologist.

Snake Mistake
May 2, 2018 8:33 PM | Posted in: ,

"Eric...come quick!"

I was sitting in the office late yesterday afternoon when I heard MLB's overly excited summons from somewhere in the middle of the house. I ran out to find her staring out the living room windows at something in the front courtyard. 

"Oh, man. That's a water moccasin. Keep an eye on him while I grab a hoe!" 

I scurried into the garage, found the hoe, and hurried to the courtyard where MLB was keeping an eye on the snake...albeit still through the window. It was still and stretched out in front of the window, not at all exercised about my presence.

Blotched Water Snake (in our courtyard)

I started to behead the serpent when I noticed my neighbor across the street visiting with a man who was working on the new house next door. I yelled at them to come over. "Wanna see a water moccasin?!" They hurried over.

The neighbor stayed behind the fence to observe the proceedings, but the other man rushed into the courtyard with an obvious expression of interest on his face. 

"That's a water moccasin, alright, but it's not a cottonmouth," he asserted. I was immediately confused and mentally docked points from his herpetological knowledge score. But the more he talked, the more it sounded like he did, indeed, know his snakes.

"It's not poisonous, and I wouldn't kill it," he said. I was still skeptical, but he began to lay out his supporting argument. It sounded logical, although as the snake continued to strike aggressively at the business end of the hoe blocking its path, I wasn't completely convinced. He continued, "if you won't kill it, I'll take it away."

"Uh...OK. But first...where, exactly, do you live?" I wanted to make sure he wasn't going to drive a block or two and let it go. It turns out that he lives 20+ miles down the highway, has a neighbor who works for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, and the two of them often collaborate on wildlife issues.

Having established his sincerity, I agreed to try to herd the snake into a moving box that MLB had brought from inside the house. The reptile wasn't initially keen to go where we wanted it to go, but we finally managed to persuade it to crawl into the cardboard box, and the gentleman happily hauled it over to his pickup.

He was working at the new house this morning when we returned after a run, and he flagged us down. I asked him how the snake release went, and he said that it slithered into the Pedernales River and immediately vanished. He said they measured the snake at more than three feet in length. "I also identified the species," he said as he opened his pickup door and pulled out a guide to Texas snakes. "It's a blotched water snake." It took him a while to rifle through the pages (Texas is home to a LOT of snakes) but when he finally found it, it did indeed seem to be "our" snake.

In reading more about the blotched water snake -- which, by the way, seems to be a highly uncomplimentary name, but I suppose the snake has no objections -- I learned that it is often mistaken for a cottonmouth. But the latter's eyes has elliptical pupils, while the harmless water snakes all have round pupils (see photo below). I'll leave it to you to decide how close you need to get to make that distinction. There are a few other physical and behavioral differences between the "good" and "bad" snakes, and they're worth learning if you live in an area where the latter are found, AND you don't subscribe to a philosophy that the only good snake is a dead one.

Comparison of eyes of non-venomous and venomous snakes

We all agreed that there was no good reason to kill non-venomous snakes, and several good ones for having them around (rodent control being at the top of the list). Nevertheless, I still wasn't willing to concede that venomous snakes found in a neighborhood were worthy of the same consideration, a position he advocates.

Now, having said that, we're still not keen on the idea of having even the good ones lurking around in our flowerbeds and lawns. Heart attacks are generally even more fatal than snake bites!
[Part 1] [Part 2]



Trigger Warning: Here there be dragons. Or, at least, serpents. Elizabeth, you've been warned.


Having survived the Great Coax Caper and the Putrid Possum Pestilence, we were looking forward to a relaxing hike on the newly-christened Horseshoe Creek Trail with The Nephew, his wife, and their dog Sophie. (I briefly introduced the Trail in this novel-length post from last December.) So, at mid-morning on Saturday we caravanned up to the south trailhead, which is at the end of the winsomely-named Mausoleum Road.

You get to the trailhead by way of Mountain Dew Road, a steep and winding street that meanders through neighborhoods interspersed with the typical Texas Hill Country scrub woods. As we neared the Mausoleum Road turnoff, we encountered this lovely beast stretched out across the pavement:

Photo - Big honkin' rattlesnake

I jumped out of the truck and cautiously (an understatement) approached the snake, and snapped a few photos. Photo of rattlesnake rattleI estimate it was about 3-3 1/2' in length, but what was most striking (pun intended) was the thickness of its body. Rattlers tend to be this way, but some who have seen this photo suggest that this one was either pregnant or had just eaten a large meal. In any event, this was not only the first rattlesnake we've seen in the four years we've been coming to Horseshoe Bay, but also one of the largest we've encountered, period. A closeup of the non-business end of the snake clearly shows nine rattles plus a button...not a record by any means, but still a pretty good noisemaker. (By the way, contrary to popular belief, you can't judge the age of a rattlesnake by the number of rattles; they add one each time they shed their skin, but they might shed multiple times in a year.)

The snake paid us no mind, and didn't move until we got back in the truck. At that point, I had to make a decision regarding its fate. Had it been in an absolute wilderness with no homes or public trails around, I probably would have let it go, but in this case it was (1) moving toward the trail we were about to hike, and (2) fairly close to a number of houses. So, I chose to inflict Death by Michelin on the serpent. I'm never happy about having to kill an animal, but this one had the obvious potential to do serious harm to humans and their pets.

We proceeded to the trailhead, determined to do the planned hike, but you can bet that the thought of encountering more of these rattlers was at the forefront of all our minds. Horseshoe Creek Trail is not particularly challenging, but at this time of the year, it's covered with leaves and it passes over and through rocky terrain that provides perfect camouflage for snakes. I led the hike and didn't really see much on the first leg other than the ground immediately in front of me, trying to make sure we weren't stepping on anything hazardous to our health. Relaxing? Well, not really.

Fortunately, we didn't come across another snake, but my singleminded attention to the ground almost resulted in an even worse encounter.

We came to a rise in the trail, a section that required stepping onto some rocks, and at the last second, I looked up just in time to see a Big. Honkin'. Spider (!) drop down at eye-level. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a classic case study in arachnophobia, and this freaked me out way more than that rattlesnake. 

The spider had stretched its web completely across the trail, a distance of at least four feet, from a tree on one side to a bush on the other. Had I not seen it in time, I not only would have had a spider on my face, but I would have been wrapped in a web, and I think we all know what that leads to. 

Webbed Frodo
In my mind, every spider is named Shelob.

I may have screamed like a little girl, just the tiniest bit, but we did find an easy detour around this horror, and the rest of the hike was pleasantly uneventful. Here are a handful of photos take along the trail; click on the photos to see larger uncropped versions.

Horseshoe Creek - Not quite a stream in the desert, but close Horseshoe Creek Trail The trail winds through some semi-rugged terrain In places, you can catch a brief view of Lake LBJ The trail passes some serious boulders. Horseshoe Creek Sophie leading the rest of the intrepid band


OK, there was one stretch of dry creek bed that contained a startling reminder that perhaps the snake we encountered earlier was just an infant, a mere worm compared to what might inhabit that rough terrain through which we were traipsing:

Photo - animal skeleton

Is this the skeleton of a harmless deer...or is it more likely the remains of a prehistoric dinoserpent whose descendants still inhabit these hills? You'll have to decide for yourself; I'm still on spider watch.

Nocturnal Neighborhood Visitor
June 23, 2013 2:59 AM | Posted in:

Debbie went outside just before 10:00 p.m. last night to look at the "Supermoon" and came back to report that two women were in the street in front of our house watching what they feared might be a "baby rattlesnake."

I grabbed a flashlight - which proved unnecessary because the reptile was directly under our street lamp, and also because the moon was living up to its advanced billing - and immediately recognized that it was not a dangerous species (other than possibly causing a heart attack in the unwary night time dog walker). The snake was only about 12" long, and wasn't happy to be in our company, as it did its best to get away.

Photo - Young snake

However, I confess that I don't know for sure what kind of snake it was. My first guess was a juvenile bull snake, simply because we have so many of them in this area. The head is not as thick as I would have expected, but I really haven't seen enough young ones to know for sure. After googling it, I think it also bears a close resemblance to a king snake, but I don't know if they range into our part of the state.

Update: Our resident habitat expert, Burr Williams, says that this is a long-nosed snake. It will eat lizards, but not, unfortunately, rats.

Photo - Young snake

I took a few photos and allowed the youngster to slither down the gutter toward the park. With any luck, he'll get big enough to take care of some of the cotton rats that are coming into the neighborhood in search of water.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Wildlife - Snakes category.

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