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Andrew D. Hughes Blog

Dallas Night Prowl

When you think of Dallas night life, you probably don’t picture snakes, coyotes, bobcats, and insects. But this metropolitan area is surprisingly alive at night, with nocturnal creatures coming out of their day-time hiding spots to hunt and mate. Here’s a small sampling of creatures we commonly encounter on the trails around Dallas.

IMG_1687You can’t throw a stick around here without hitting a copperhead. They’re everywhere, and a warm night’s walk will almost guarantee a few sightings. Although they are venomous, they are thankfully even-tempered and usually quite reluctant to strike. We’ve even kicked/stepped on them by mistake and they simply slither away or recoil without a bite. Still, you should always be careful walking in copperhead territory, especially with your pets.

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Another adorable resident of the metroplex is the American Green Treefrog. This species is common throughout the south, and central Texas is the westernmost edge of its range. They’re more often heard than seen, but we’ve had a few encounters with these little guys when they hop across our flashlight beams.

 

 

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        Crayfish at Joppa Preserve            

 

Crayfish, like this one we found at Joppa Preserve, are found throughout wet fields and meadows, as well as vernal pools and swampland in the Dallas area. Although they spend most of the time in their underground burrows, they occasionally emerge and walk around like alien invaders. We’ve seen hundreds of them slowly crawl out of the ground at once, which is a fascinating sight!

IMG_1391One of the most bizarre creatures we frequently encounter on night walks is the Two-striped Walkingstick. During mating season, the trails fill up with pairs of these insects. The large one on the bottom is the female, almost always seen carrying around her freeloading husband. He just sits there and cruises around smoking pot all day. Oh, and this is another species to watch out for. If you disturb them too much, they will shoot acid out of their thorax and aim for the eyes, which I’ve heard can be quite painful and even cause temporary blindness!

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It’s a wild world out there; grab a flashlight and share your findings!

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Joppa Preserve- October Walk

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The weather was cool (for Texas) yesterday, so Stephanie and I walked about six miles of the Trinity Forest Trail at the Joppa Preserve in southeastern Dallas. Out of all of Dallas’ pockets of natural space, we visit this one the most.

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The 710-mile Trinity River begins high up in Northern Texas before flowing down through Dallas and eventually to Galveston Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico.

 

 

 

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A Viceroy Butterfly blending in with the local Monarchs

It’s prime time for the Monarch Butterfly migrations. This phenomenon continues to stun me every year. Back in New Jersey, we would watch Monarchs grow from caterpillars on milkweed plants, cluster in the hundreds as they funneled through Cape May, and then dispatch on this journey to Mexico, where they’ll spend the winter. Here in Dallas, we see a southern leg of their journey; I wonder how many of these insects come from the far northern states?

But it wasn’t until examining our walk’s photos at home that I noticed the black horizontal streak on the hind wings of this individual butterfly, making it a Viceroy rather than a Monarch! The edible Viceroys escape predation by looking like their bitter-tasting cousins, the Monarchs.

 

 

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Of course, what nature walk is complete without a spider encounter? This beautiful Carolina wolf spider was very cooperative for photos. They grow ’em big around here. This is also the time of year that Wolf Spiders begin to crawl into warm homes to avoid winter temperatures, so check your covers before you fall asleep tonight. Sweet dreams! 🙂

 

 

 

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Another cool find was this Snowberry Clearwing (hummingbird moth!) caterpillar. This was a first for us. I’m used to hornworms being green, so this purple-y critter was an interesting find.

 

And the highlight of the walk….

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Since we’ve been in Texas, we’ve seen Scorpionflies only in the fall. I documented one specimen last October 18th (almost exactly a year apart). These intriguing creatures feed on decaying matter, and are used by forensic entomologists to ascertain time of death. (Scorpionflies are the first insects to arrive at a corpse and don’t stick around for very long). Along the trail, we encountered them feeding on dead grasshoppers, spiders, and other dead scorpionflies.

Look at that proboscis! They remind me of those masks that plague doctors sometimes wore during the seventeenth-nineteenth centuries. Creepy.

Oh, and they’re called scorpionflies because the male’s abdomen curls around its body like a scorpion tail. They don’t sting or bite though, so you’re safe… just so long as you’re alive! 😉

 

 

 

Spring is Here!

We made a quick run to Joppa Preserve over the weekend, which was refreshing. Not too much going on just yet, but we did find this beautiful Graham’s Crayfish snake.

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And a feisty one at that.

Then there was this cool jumping spider chowing down on his greens like a good little boy.

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Look at those fangs! I believe this species is Phidippus audax, in which case this is the first time I’ve seen blue fangs in this species (They’re usually bright green!)

What’s your favorite thing about spring? Hope you’re finding time to enjoy it.

Goat Island Preserve–Dallas, TX

We took advantage of an unexpectedly warm February weekend by camping out at Goat Island Preserve in southeast Dallas County. This is an area I’ve explored a couple of times before and always find it a rewarding spot for nature.

Nighttime brings the preserve to life. We heard the sounds of coyotes, feral hogs, a raccoon, a duo of courting Great Horned Owls, and a handful of obnoxious roosters calling from nearby farms.

During the night, a warm front blew in, stirring up heavy winds that rattled the tent. In the moments before dawn, we were startled awake by an illegal hunter shooting off several rounds just yards away from our tent. He quietly disappeared as the sky lightened up.

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There are two main trails at the preserve– a higher levee road (where we camped), and a low road that floods seasonally but that runs south along the Trinity River for several miles and ends up at Belt Line Road.

We followed the low road at dawn–taking in the towering silhouettes of pecan trees, and appreciating the fact that this lower option was much more dry than it often becomes.

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Animal-wise, the woods were quiet after dawn. I did spot what appeared to be a black morph of a fox as it shot across the path, but it predictably vanished. The usual dawn chorus of birds sang from the forest– good numbers of kinglets, wrens, and sparrows working the trail edges, with occasional outbursts from feisty woodpeckers or the trilling of a gray treefrog.

The trail affords pleasant views of the Trinity.

Three miles down river, we reached the old lock and dam that was long abandoned here.

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Construction began around 1910. Apparently someone’s  pipe dream was to make Dallas a major port city, which necessitated damming the Trinity to make it accessible to barges. The US Corps of Engineers established several similar structures on the river but World War I interrupted the project. Eventually technology surpasses the best laid plans of mice and men, and improvements in rail capacity eliminated the need for this project to continue. The concrete foundation now stands forever abandoned.

I’ve heard that the water roars here when the levels are higher. I’m looking forward to coming back soon.

Rivers hold some of the most interesting stories. Have you explored long stretches of waterway? Let me know what you’re seeing out there!

Currently Reading…

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Behind the Burqa: Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom by”Sulima” and “Hala” as told to Batya Swift Yasgur (2002)

An inspiring story of two women who escaped a tragic and unfortunately common lifestyle in Afghanistan and who fled to the United States. An engaging read that includes a brief section on resources for helping the current refugee situation, as well as insight into just how difficult it can be to enter the United States even after one has landed here with the promise of freedom.

5/5

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Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele (2011)

The title of the book was taken from the story of a black man who realized he could dissuade white people’s fear by whistling classical music. Steele, a social psychologist, reveals how stereotypes perpetuate themselves and how the fear of being stereotyped affects human behavior. An interesting read, though a bit too reliant on controlled research experiments at the expense of offering the everyday examples and practical steps that I was hoping to find here.                                                                                                                                               4/5

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His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis (2005)

      A thorough look into both the political and personal life of our first president. This book does a notable job at humanizing the man who is often sequestered to the extreme of sainthood. Follows his journeys as an upstanding military figure to his days as a reluctant but successful national leader. Occasionally bogged in details, but a rewarding read nonetheless.

4/5

Stone’s Steakhouse–Luxembourg

My carnivorous instincts are kicking in strong today. If only we were 5,000 miles away in the beautiful country of Luxembourg!

Back in 2008, I toured Western Europe with a school group. Unfortunately, my memory cannot resolve whether this restaurant was in Ettelbruck or Vianden. I want to believe that it was Ettelbruck, but my hippocampus is tying this memory to our hike up to the Vianden castle–or was that just a different day? I hope someone out there can help me out.

Anyway, this place was fantastic. Feast your eyes on this slab of perfection:

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The waitstaff brings you a sizzling block of stone, and you yourself cook this mooing chunk of glory to your desired preference (medium rare, of course). And the sauces: OH LAWDY! Like the lotus flower of Greek mythology, they make you forget everything except the need to eat more. I’m confident that Maslow would’ve added a bottom level to his hierarchy just to accommodate the base instinct to shove this nonsense down your throat.

Is there anything like this in the states? I kinda think there would be an FDA violation or something here, but I would give up my right earlobe to eat at a place like this again.

Lemmon Lake- Dallas, TX

Lemmon Lake, tucked deep within the Joppa Preserve in southwest Dallas,  is a constantly fluctuating landscape. It fills and dries frequently based on cycles of rain and drought. When we visited last August, the lake was quickly drying but still maintained some large, shallow pools:

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Lemmon Lake, August 2016

Today provided a different scene, as most of the water had dried completely, providing for opportunities to locate some cool finds.

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Lemmon Lake, February 2017

My main target today was the bones of alligator gar, some fierce-looking fish that are common in this area but not always easy to find.

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On our way in, I spotted some type of mistletoe clumped high in the tree canopy. Thankfully my wife was there to sneak in a moment! 😉

Mistletoe is spread by perching birds that deposit its seeds either through their droppings or by wiping their bills on these host trees while they feed.

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Croix,the Italian greyhound, was not so enamored, and hurried us off to the lake bed, where he eagerly sniffed for treasure…

…And sure enough, he was the first to find our target species!

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This alligator gar did not survive the drought season, but made for a cool find.

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Look at those rows of teeth!

Another interesting discovery was the several large crayfish sprinkled around in the dirt. The metroplex also hosts many  terrestrial crayfish, which construct fascinating homes. I’ll have to show them to you soon.

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On the way out, we stumbled across a large and beautiful ribbon snake sunning in the path. A beautiful day for Dallas wildlife!

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 Also seen:

 Clouded Sulphur Butterfly

Jadera Beetle

Full Bird List:

Wood Duck, Mallard, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Killdeer, Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Ring-billed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Anerican Pipit, Cedar Waxwing, Common Yellowthroat, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Harris’s Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle, Great-tailed Grackle, House Finch

Ever explored a dried lake bed? Let me know what you’re seeing out there!

MAN vs.BEAR!!!

There are two types of animals in this world: ordinary animals, and bears. Ordinary animals are things like puppies and raccoons and Five-lined Skinks– critters that people generally needn’t fear or even consider. If you’re a puppy, your thoughts involve chasing butterflies in the cutest, dizziest circles. Raccoons are preoccupied with garbage cans and defying natural selection by carelessly pacing the freeway. Five-lined skinks, like all lizards, are busy philosophizing about the corruption of global oil companies and the inevitable collapse of an economy whose only measure of success, they insist, is a decline in the cost of fuel.

Indeed, most animals are, by and large, cut from the stock of peace and virtue, but the bear? The bear has only one thing on his mind: he wants to tear you to pieces, feast on your innards, and slurp up your soul for dessert.

That’s why Daniel and I were a bit…well, apprehensive…when we came face to face with one of these bloodthirsty killing machines in the mountains of Virginia. Shenandoah National Park, a land as beautiful as its name (“daughter of the stars,” is one interpretation),is a  roughly 200,000 acre jar of fresh air, and is the center hub of America’s black bear population.

Upon arrival, we met a friendly blonde park ranger who lived in a tiny wooden box between traffic lanes, from where she dispensed tickets that allowed cars to freely enter her domain. She told us there were three- or four-hundred bears roaming the area. This was thrilling to us.

But as night fell, the hope of seeing one became dangerously possible, and the old proverb about being careful what one wishes, rang its truest tone in our ears.

Daniel and I were on a quiet back road, lying in the bed of my little Nissan pickup. The skies threatened us with rain, so we had rigged an oversized tarp to drape across the length of the truck. This waterproofing mechanism also doubled as a mosquito net, and we were feeling completely secure beneath our plastic makeshift canopy–until it happened.

I was half asleep when the tarp began to rustle. It was soft at first, and then it began to pick up.

“Stop,” I scolded Daniel. Such a childish prank. I was almost asleep, too!

“That wasn’t me,” he responded with a gentle calm that embarrassed my defensive tone.

A weighty silence followed.

Years of knowing a person produces a natural discretion for the level of honesty present in voice tone.

I’ve known Daniel for over a decade, but this moment presented a lapse in discernment.  I waited for him to crack a chuckle.

Nothing.

“Are you serious?” I asked, fearing the worst.

“I thought it was you,” he replied.

“I promise you, it’s not me,” came my answer.

He took my word for it, proving again who is the better friend.

A lump formed in my throat as he confirmed his innocence:

“Well, it’s definitely not me.”

The tarp shook again, sharply, and then settled down.

I believed him this time. This was no prank.

Images of fiercely jagged claws came ripping into our imagination. That bear wanted something, and we were caught in the middle of its craving rampage.

“Ok,” we thought aloud, trying to remain calm, “Did we forget to put anything in the cab?”

No. After we had eaten our chicken teriyaki, we’d thoroughly washed the pot and bowls and locked them inside the truck.

The tarp jerked again, in a burst of sweeping fury, and then relaxed.

“Ok, I have the key,” I said. “We have one shot to jump out of here, rip the door open and get in the cab.”

“No way,” Daniel reasoned. “Time is no factor against an angry bear!”

“Then we’re dead.”

Hearts beating wildly, we threw off the tarp and prepared to meet our fate.

The rim of the covering rolled down and our eyes locked  into the foggy haze around us.

But everything was calm.

“That’s weird,” Daniel observed, his eyes studying the blackness.

No rustling, no retreating footsteps, and certainly no bear.

No, the night was as gentle as a wedding day.

We stared into space, trying to make sense of our situation.

Then a gust of the freshest mountain air scooped up the drooping edge of the tarp, rustled it fiercely, and quietly set it back down in place.

“Wow,” I said. “Quite a bear.”

The silence of humiliation followed, and we settled back down into place.

“What do you say we don’t tell anyone about this?” Daniel suggested.

“I think that’s a great idea,” I said. “Mum’s the word.”

But a good story’s a good story, and I never claimed to be the loyal friend.

A Tale of Two Squirrels

It didn’t take me long to realize that something was awry.

My first clue was the absence of songbirds at my backyard bird feeding station.

The second clue?

A long, limp bush-tail draped over the side of one of my feeders.

A chubby gray squirrel, in his lustful frenzy for black-oil sunflower seeds, had unscrewed the cap and gotten himself lodged inside the near-empty steel cylinder.

“Oh holy night,” I muttered as I unhooked the feeder from the branch of its accommodating red oak. “Look what you’ve gotten yourself into!”

The squirrel, unable to see, protested my arrival with a series of stirs and stutters that, if translated into English, would make your grandmother blush.

I began my rescue efforts by turning the tube upside down.

The rodent didn’t budge, so I shook it a little.

Nothing.

Then I noticed his silvery claws latched securely around the feeder ports–the small holes designed for bird bills to slip in for a seed.

I pinched the claws and pushed them back into the feeder.

The squirrel, sensing gravity’s threat, rebutted with a growling sputter of consonants that promised certain death if I were to try my little circus act again.

I didn’t.

In fact, no sooner had he finished calling down curses from heaven, than I came out of my house with a tub of Crisco and no shortage of drinking straws.

(You didn’t think I’d give up that soon, did you?)

I dunked the straws in the shortening, squeezed them into the edges of the tube and slathered every bit of fur that I could find.

I kid you not; I buttered a squirrel!

Behold, my clever mind at work! [See footnote #1]

Again, I turned the feeder and shook it.

The squirrel began to slip, his rump emerged from the tube, then quickly retracted.

I was making progress!

The squirrel was terrified. What manner of horrors would he have to face next?

Seeing that rescue was imminent, I grabbed the tail and gave it a tug. For a moment, the squirrel followed my lead, but in a sudden burst of panic, he darted deeper into the feeder.

I gave an extra pull, and the squirrel did just the same until, at one point, the force of pressure on both ends outweighed the tensile strength of the poor beast’s posterior limb, and half of his tail ripped clean off!

I froze for a moment, surprised at my cruelty, and pondered its implications that this poor animal would have to carry until the day that he passes on to meet his heavenly reward.

I considered every possible means of making amends–the best admittedly being duct-taping the extension to the existing stub–but, realizing that my negligence had resulted in permanent damage, I gently apologized to the animal, and promised never to do it again, in the event that the tail should regenerate or be replaced by a prosthetic.

I’m still not sure if he has found it in his heart to forgive me.

But if a squirrel is one to hold a grudge, then he isn’t the only one in town harboring a personal vendetta.

About a year later, Daniel and I were driving across a stretch of country road, thoroughly engaged in planning emergency procedures for a zombie apocalypse.  It is useful to know, for example, that zombies are capable of climbing stairs, but are powerless against ladders. Ladders! They may be your lifeline someday. You can thank me then.

While in the heat of debate, a squirrel launched from the adjacent woodlands and bolted beneath Daniel’s car. We cringed, and heard the distinct “BAH-BOOM” of two tires cruising over the animal’s body. I hung my head in shame: I was, once again, a participant in bringing harm to one of these creatures.

But then, much to our shock and horror, the squirrel continued running, charged across a yard, and scurried up a tree. Unbelievable!

They may be fuzzy and cute, but squirrels are capable of withstanding some serious trials and tribulations. It makes me wonder how terrifying a squirrel uprising could be. If nature ever decides to release its sharp-toothed minions into society, then our human race is sure to perish.

If you were wondering, I did finally manage to wriggle the first squirrel  out of the feeder. He plopped onto the ground, a buttered mess, glared at me with fire in his eyes, and then hurried away.

That’s at least two candidates carrying a bitterness against mankind.

It only takes one to start a catastrophe, so please, be kind to squirrels.

I hear they have no problem with ladders.

 

 

 

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[Footnote #1] Actually, my subconscious memory retrieved the Crisco idea from an episode of Full House, where DJ and Kimmy had to babysit a bratty little boy whose head got stuck between two banister posts. DJ buttered the boy’s head, which made it slick enough to save the day. I thought Crisco would be more slippery than butter, so I have merely made an improvement on the resourcefulness of one DJ Tanner. You never know when those TV sitcoms come in handy.Wait until I tell you about the time Bill Cosby saved me from being trampled by cows.

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