Take a Ride on the Great Rattlesnake Highway

This site has been around for a number of years, but it’s time to consolidate it with the blog and website, “The Great Rattlesnake Highway” (GRH). I recently added a few features to this site, thinking of building a more introductory and teaching-oriented site. It seems like a better idea to diversify the pages and content of GRH.

So, if you have hung with me here through trips and photos as well as long periods of dormancy (during which Clint and I were finishing our book and writing for GRH), thanks! Hope you’ll click the link and take a ride. (The name, by the way, is a figure of speech – it’s not mostly about rattlesnakes, though we do love ’em!)

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Discovering a Little Creek

Trail-FWNCRIt was time for a walk in the woods – past time, actually – and the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge seemed like just the place for it. Summer hung tenaciously on, unaware that it had been displaced by fall, and it was warm and sunny. However, fall made its presence known through that slanting angle of the sunlight that gives everything a different sort of highlight and makes the woods look like the year is drawing to a close.

The woods were dry. The marsh had dried up completely. I passed a little depression in the woods that should have held a tiny pond, but even the grass that had grown in the mud in the center was drying. Nevertheless, walking through the forest felt good, with patches of shade and dappled sunlight in the path ahead.

Red-Eared Slider

Red-Eared Slider

Then, wandering down a hillside, the shimmer of sun on water became visible through the branches and leaves. At the bottom was a small stream with shallow water stretching across twenty feet or so, with emergent plants reaching up out of the water with small white flowers. And on a smooth fallen log stretching partly across the water, a big turtle was sunning itself. The patch of red on the side of its head showed it to be a red-eared slider, and its larger size meant it was a female. She was basking on the log, vigilant to her surroundings and ready to drop into the water to escape danger. I crept out from behind some vegetation and took a couple of photos, but when I pushed it to the next step and got closer, she disappeared into the shallow water.

Looking around, there was movement in the water in several places. Over near another fallen log, a ripple started and the fin of a carp broke the water. In other places, the ripples appeared to have been from fish activity as well, although I watched carefully for turtles coming up for a breath or frogs jumping in. While there was little fall color, some of the trees were becoming more yellow, and in the slanting sunlight the yellows and greens were beautiful.Creek-FWNCR

These little discoveries are magical. Finding a place like this, tucked away in the woods and unseen, inspires a sense of wonder even when the animals are common. It is hard to find anything more common than a red-eared slider and a carp, but being common should not rob these encounters of the sense of stumbling into something beautiful.


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Salamanders at the San Gabriel River

Two forks of the San Gabriel River meet in Georgetown, Texas (a little ways north of Austin) and the resulting river flows northeast and then eastward. Back in 2010, Clint King wrote about taking his young son to see slimy salamanders along the banks of the San Gabriel, and we had talked for some time about visiting this spot and turning up a few more. This weekend we did just that.

Texas Cooters

Texas cooters

In Georgetown, the two forks cut through hill country limestone and in places there are boulders and smaller rocks embedded in the steep riverbank below limestone shelves. It is under some of these stones that Clint had found this salamander several years ago.  This species, the western slimy salamander (Plethodon albagula) is found in Missouri, Arkansas, and eastern Oklahoma, with disjunct (isolated) populations in central Texas. It lives in damp ravines and wooded hillsides such as the areas we visited along the San Gabriel. All the plethodontid salamanders have no lungs and obtain oxygen directly through the skin and lining of the mouth. They are called “slimy” salamanders because when disturbed they exude a slimy substance that sticks like glue and may distract predators or interfere with attempts to grab them.

As we walked along the greenbelt on the banks of the river, we spotted several Texas cooters basking on a log. We managed to get a couple of photos before they slipped into the water. It may be that they were somewhat used to the presence of people jogging or walking nearby, because they were less shy than other cooters often are and only slipped off the log after we continued to watch them for 30 seconds or so.

Although we are still in the final weeks of winter, signs of emerging plant life were flowereverywhere. Trees and shrubs were putting out new leaves everywhere, and soon the path will be covered in new bright green growth. Earlier light rain faded to sprinkles and then just cloud cover, and it felt a lot like spring.

In one section of the river we spotted a great blue heron in the river, standing watchful and attentive to our movement. As I focused for a photo, the bird decided to move to a more undisturbed area and took flight. I managed to capture the bird in the first moments in the air. Great blue herons are the largest herons in North American and can be found over much of the U.S. and Canada.  These majestic birds feed on smaller fish that they stalk while standing in the water, but they are willing to eat a wide variety of small animals that they encounter.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron


We also saw Texas spiny lizards, green anoles, little brown skinks, and Clint came across some earth snakes sheltering under cover. And ultimately, under rocks on a fairly steep hillside, we found two small slimy salamanders – juveniles a little over two inches long. We took a few photos and released them, hopefully to grow into adults that we may see some other time.

Western slimy salamander (juvenile)

Western slimy salamander (juvenile)

For a late winter walk, this had been a very productive afternoon, filled with delightful animals and with the promise of the spring season that is just around the corner.

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