Developing Observation Skills

by Sue Ann Kendall

I see some pretty cool things on my walks around my ranch. I think part of my poor posture comes from looking down all the time, in case I see something. But that’s a small price to pay. I’ve been doing a lot more aural observation lately, and that’s come in really handy when I’m looking for new species to add to my collection on iNaturalist. I have almost 600 species identified since I started, 62% of my 1600+ observations are research grade. I’m trying to get a good picture of what can be found in this little piece of the Earth.

Yesterday and today I’ve put my listening skills to a test. I can’t take a picture of something if I can’t find it, and sounds often lead me to something interesting. For example, I went to check the mail, which is a third of a mile walk from my house. I often stop to observe in the pond and arroyo I go by. That’s hard right now since the pond is being dug up to make it deeper if it ever rains, and our gate emits an annoying beep that I once accidentally identified as a South American bird via an app. But yesterday I was alarmed to hear what sounded like someone talking in the stream. It sort of sounded like, “Help, help!” So I put down my mail and went searching.

I followed the eerie sounds and got closer to where our “spring” starts. I didn’t want to get my feet wet, so I was careful. At one point it seemed like I was right on top of whatever it was, but I couldn’t see anything, so I stomped my feet. That caused something to move and gave me a focus for my eyes. Finally I saw something.

Is it a water hose?

Now I know why my friend’s orange and black water hose spooks the horses. That Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) sure looked like a garden hose. I was not inclined to grab it to get a better photo. But what was the sound?

I knew right away that it was a cricket frog, since that’s the kind of frogs I hear all the time from that location (I learned how they sound from one of our Chapter Meetings). I guess it’s now a former cricket frog, thanks to the circle of life. So, my aural observation skills clued me in without even having to see the frog. I was happy to learn from reading about these ribbon snakes that they hang out on the edges of wet areas (check) and primarily eat…of all things…cricket frogs! I also learned that the one we have here at the ranch is the orangestripe subspecies, T. proximus proximus, which is why it didn’t look like the one in the main photo on iNat, which had originally confused me.

Coachwhip

By the way, I am only seeing ribbon snakes and coachwhips lately. I haven’t seen a rattlesnake or a rat snake in a month or two (the hens are glad about that). The coachwhip in this picture climbed into my son’s cabin and was hanging out on the ceiling. Luckily, he’s had pet snakes before, so he just knocked it into a laundry basket and took it outside (then sealed the hole the snake came in).

Back to my observations. Today was the same story. I was putting mail in the box to be picked up, this time. I kept hearing a sharp chirp, and it wasn’t the broken gate. It was coming from the black willow trees on our dam, which no, I’m not cutting down, because they are native and feed lots of things. I looked and looked, trying to home in on where the chirps were coming from. To the bird’s credit, it didn’t stop chirping until it began making tapping sounds. Aha. Now I knew to stop looking in the branches and look at the trunks of the trees instead.

Sure enough, there was a perky little ladder-backed woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris), pecking away and chirping during rests. There are a lot of woodpeckers around here (they like the grapevines to hide in and are especially fond of the telephone pole across the road), but I mostly see larger ones. Neither I nor the bulldozer grinding away behind this bird deterred it one bit from its mission.

I’m glad I keep listening when I go outside. I might have missed both of these interesting observations and new species!

What’s in the Hole?

by Donna Lewis

Early in the morning on Saturday, August 14, I was looking for my friend the Gulf Coast Toad that I say hi to on most mornings.  She is a big girl that lives under the faucet where I had put a flat rock for her to hollow out her house. It is always damp so she likes it there.

I like frogs and toads. They are gentle and sweet. I didn’t see her pop her head out to see me this morning. Instead another head with a yellow mouth outline looked up at me. Oh no, I think something got my friend, I thought. 

I could only see about an inch of its head. It looked like a lizard of some kind. Well, I am not afraid of lizards so I decided to take a photo of it.  You can see the first photo I took, before anyone poked their head out.

The hole under discussion

So I tossed a little rock in the hole to encourage it to come out for me so I could take a photo.  I leaned down pretty close to the hole. Woo boy!!! Something came out alright, but it wasn’t a lizard. 

You don’t see any second photo because I jumped back as fast as I could. It was a black snake with a yellow mouth and belly. It shot out that hole and came at me really fast!! 

Donna asked Suna to find a picture for her, so here’s one from iNaturalist, © tom spinker, used with permission.

I must admit it scared me.  I am surprised I could move that fast. After looking through my snake guide I learned that it was a Yellowbelly (or plain belly), a non venomous water snake.  The guide also said it was a vigorous biter. I am glad I didn’t find out how vigorous.

So, I am sad about my toad friend…life outside.

Sightings at the Hermits’ Rest Ranch

by Sue Ann Kendall

Becoming a Master Naturalist has truly changed my life for the better. One thing that’s enriched my life is using iNaturalist. I’ve learned so much about the world around me, in particular right where I live. Our property is north of Cameron and has woods, pastures, a creek, springs, and an arroyo. That means there’s lots to see! I thought I’d share some of the summer life from this year.

First off, I’ve learned to look down and look for anything on a leaf that doesn’t look like a leaf. However, this beetle wasn’t hard to spot. It’s teeny tiny, but was so shiny it caught my eye. I think I now have a favorite beetle, and have plenty here for it to eat!

A beautiful jewel

The Mottled Tortoise Beetle is a member of the Leaf Beetle family. It is found on morning glory flowers, leaves, and vines as well as milkweed plants. Their spiny, flat larvae look more like little dark centipedes and they eat these plants while they grow and develop into rounder, shiny adults. Though they may punch holes into the leaves of the plants, they rarely cause enough harm to damage or kill the plant unless it is young or a seedling. They are not considered an agricultural pest or threat.

https://www.insectidentification.org/insect-description.php?identification=Mottled-Tortoise-Beetle

This week, I’m supposed to have been looking for moths, for this year’s National Moth Week collection. However, I’ve only located two. One is bright and cheery, plus it was on my car, which made it easy to see, while the other is one of those common brown ones that will soon be legion if the chickens don’t eat more of the armyworm moth caterpillars. I spotted it, because it was something that didn’t look like a leaf, but was on one of our tomatoes (which got damaged thanks to herbicide drift from the cotton across the road, grr.)

I’m always on the lookout for things that are blooming, because one of my goals when I retire is to compare when I have uploaded flowers over different years to see if they change. That’s why I keep recording observations on the ranch, even though it doesn’t count for Master Naturalist hours unless it’s part of an approved project (so, the beetle doesn’t count, but the moths do). I’m just curious about my local ecosystem and don’t need awards to motivate me at this point!

Most of the flowers I’ve been finding are in the pink to purple family, except those snake apples. I just learned they can also be called globeberries. Huh.

Of course, there are lots and lots of insects, particularly the differential grasshoppers who are dominating every moment of my outdoor life. Chickens like them a lot, though. The spiders have been interesting this year, though, and I’ve seen some new ones. I’ll also share the deep black beetle and one of the snakes that has been eating the eggs my hens produce. They seem to have gotten smarter and stopped hanging around in the hen house, which makes them easier to find and dispose of.

So, what’s thriving over where you live? Have you seen any of these species? We love it when you share your experiences on our blog! Contact me at ecrmnpresident at gmail.

Encountering Coachwhips

by Pamela Neeley and Phyllis Shuffield

Pamela: Remember the snake encounter I had right after the storm?

I was walking out of house to meet the mail carrier and something ran between and over my feet and ankles. When I turned to chide the cat, it was a snake.

Sue Ann says: Pamela may have forgotten the one she found in her toilet on March 19, 2020.

Watched snake long enough to see it was about 2′ long, light green/slight tan mixed in, no spots, no stripes, non-venomous head, fat middle, slim tail and fast. When it ran away from me, at the steps of the porch it turned and looked at me – and then went on into the flower bed. The light/medium green color blended into the grey of the porch – same value! perfect camouflage.

I searched all photos of non-venomous snakes I could find on internet. Thanks to Donna Lewis, I got the contact information of Dr. Crump at Texas Parks and Wildlife. I received a call back from him and he identified it – with all the disclaimers that come with an ID – as a coachwhip.

Why? Because: they vary in color from pink in the west to black in the east; they are fast; they are fat; AND they are curious. Dr. Crump described coachwhip behavior as “curious, and looking back to check is typical.” That was the final clue to the ID. So the valuable identification clue is that it paused long enough to turn itself around and look at me before continuing on.

Yea! I have a coachwhip here! Good mousers, etc. One of the good guys. I wanted to post a photo of the pink variant, but could not locate one that would copy.

Thank you, Dr. Paul Crump.

Suna says: Here’s a photo of a pink one by Jake Scott from iNaturalist. Used with permission.

Phyllis: Coach whips are really neat to watch. They will stop, raise up out of the grass as if to ask, “What are you looking at?” They will also come up from behind you and slither through you legs. And if you run, they will chase you and whip their tail at you…yep had all this happen several times.

I had some in the puppy pen area. Once they moved into Club Med for puppies and mice, I didn’t have a bad problem with the mice. However, I had help quit once because he got chased by one.

Don’t Tread on Me

by Donna Lewis

I decided to go look at our pond to see if the water level had come up. I took my camera in case I saw something interesting. And lo and behold, there was a gorgeous Red Admiral butterfly nectaring on an elm tree just off the pond area. 

So I very slowly worked my way around the tree near a ravine and stopped in front of a pile of limbs.  Just as I looked down at my footing I just about had a stroke!!!  Probably 24 inches from my hands holding the camera was a large snake lying on top of the limbs. It was fat, oily, and waiting for a meal… 

Large, oily, and waiting for a meal, says Donna.

I am not scared of most snakes, but when you are not expecting one, it can be scary! Luckily I was able to get a photo before I slowly backed away and went on my way.

As soon as I got back to the house I started trying to identify this snake. I had not seen this particular one before. I find it hard to look at a guide book to correctly identify a snake. So, I sent the photo off to Dr. Crump ( TPWD Herpetologist ) and our own Linda Jo Conn(the celebrated iNaturalist expert) to find out what it was.

Dr. Crump responded really fast and informed me that it is a diamondback water snake. Its scientific name is Nerodia rhombifera rhombifera.  Gotta love these long names.

So this baby is a water snake and has an extraordinary ability to stink! They call that a musking ability, but you know what I mean. Thank goodness it is a non-venomous snake, but it will bite if threatened. It likes to eat frogs and carrion. Oh my.

I won’t be trying to pick it up anytime soon. It’s hard to say who would be more frightened, the snake or the human? Live and let live, I always say! All creatures have their place in nature.

As the sun set later on, I said goodbye to my new friend, and hoped he went to visit someone else.