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Uncommon Commons and Other Things


You know you are with a bunch of naturalists when everyone in your group sighs in amazement at giant oak roots, gets down low to study and photograph tiny blooming flowers, and oohs and aahs over rattlesnakes, fungus, and scorpions. That was our day at the Commons Ford Ranch, a beautiful 215-acre former Hill Country ranch located in the outskirts of Austin. I can't resist sharing a few pictures.


When our CAMN group arrived at the ranch, we were mesmerized by the massive root system on this stunning live oak tree.


That's one giant and very old tree, so big that it needed a little bit of support. But if you think you are seeing the full size of this tree, think again.


I backed up as far as I could and still couldn't get the whole tree in the picture.

Though you can't see it, I'm standing next to the old Commons Ford ranch house, one of those old-timey houses filled with wooden ceilings and wooden floors. Inside, I rushed off to explore room after room, each of which has nifty little built-in closets and cabinets and bookshelves -- even a built-in ironing board that reminded me of my grandmother's house. I was so delighted that I took not a single picture -- shame on me.


Thanks to the work of dedicated staff and volunteers, Commons Ford is undergoing a massive prairie restoration in order to provide habitat for bird species that should be present but have long been missing. And so the field has been cleared of its invasive KR bluestem and Johnsongrass, as well as overabundant mesquite, and is ready to be seeded this week with a carefully selected variety of native seeds appropriate to the area and the soil type.


Down by the creek and elsewhere in the park, some 600 tree saplings have been planted by volunteers.


These little protectors will help people notice and hence avoid damaging the young trees.

camn02-04-12.jpgIn a field up at the house, we got up close and personal with nature, studying assorted winter annuals (which seemed to be mostly non-native Shepherd's Purse, Henbit, and Pin Clover in that particular area).

shelffungus02-04-12.jpgShelf Fungus.

shelffungusb02-04-12.jpgIt's appropriately named.

Of everything we saw, I'm fairly confident that the highlight for everyone that morning was this gorgeous creature:


Yes, it's a young rattlesnake, specifically a juvenile Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. We were amazed to see it on a chilly February morning, but there it was coiled up on a stone step of all places. Because it was cold, we were able to get a little closer than we would normally have done, and between all of us, I think hundreds of pictures were taken. The little snake was certainly watching us, but the only movement it made was the occasional flicking of its forked black tongue (eventually the snake did retreat to the safety of a crevice, and it was reported that the snake had one cute little rattle).

wdbrattlerb02-04-12.jpgLook closely, and you'll see what makes rattlesnakes so easily recognizable. Don't focus on the pattern -- aside from the fact that there are lots of variations among a single species, many other snakes share a somewhat similar coloration and pattern. This has led to perfectly harmless snakes being killed by people who just didn't care to take a better look. You also can't go just by the sound of a rattling tail -- many species of snakes rattle their tail as a warning sign, whether or not they even have an actual rattle. Your best bet is to study the head.

Remember that a rattlesnake is a pit viper. It has heat-sensing organs between its eyes and nostrils (look for the dark spot to the right of the snake's nostril above). It also has very cool vertical, elliptical pupils, and its head is spade-shaped. Compare it to corn/rat snakes and you'll notice a vast difference. wdbrattlerc02-04-12.jpg

I particularly like the angry look its supraocular scales (effectively eyebrows) give it -- the resulting expression is one that says, "Don't mess with me."

Inside the house's kitchen, we discovered another guardian against all things pest-like. 

scorpion02-04-12.jpgHow appropriate that this scorpion sits surrounded by the words "Texas...Wildlife" (it's sitting on a booklet from Texas Parks and Wildlife). Despite the alarm scorpions bring people, they are actually beneficial little creatures. Yes, they can sting (it's described as "moderate"). I've experienced it, as has my husband, and one of my sons did, too, when he was a toddler. For each of us the sting only lasted a few hours at most -- to me, fire-ant bites are far worse. Sensitivity varies with each person, of course, and there's always the risk of anaphylactic shock. But overall, scorpions are good guys and worth being given a chance. Among their dietary favorites are cockroaches. While I personally feel that's all I need to say to prove their value, I'll point out that they also eat crickets, grasshoppers, ants, beetles, spiders, even other scorpions.


Though Texas has 18 to 20 species of scorpions, only two are found are in Central Texas. This little scorpion is a Striped Bark Scorpion (Centruroides vittatus), the most common. It is easily recognizable by its two dark stripes down its back and the dark triangular mark on its head. Our other Central Texas scorpion is the Texas Cave Scorpion (Pseudouroctonis reddelli).

It's important to be tolerant of nature and recognize the role that different animals have in their natural habitat. That doesn't mean you have to accept a rattlesnake in your backyard, but rather than rush to kill such a valuable predator, investigate whether a skilled wildlife person or snake expert can remove it for you. Be kind to ordinary garden snakes, too -- you don't have to do a happy snake dance like I do (more like rush to get the camera and take a thousand pictures) -- but do be glad if they do come visit to help balance the creatures in your garden. Scorpions, too -- let them do their job outside. If you find them inside the house, just scoop them into a cup and take them to the backyard.

So this topic of scorpions led to an online chat I had with my husband. I'll just post it word-for-word here.

Meredith: I wonder if we can thank our scorpions for being a reason why we have very few cockroaches and crickets.
Michael: I think that's a reasonable guess.
Meredith: I think we can -- scorpions and lizards and snakes, too.
Michael: All our little friends.
Meredith: "Scorpions have tiny mouths, so they do most of their digesting externally by coughing up digestive fluids onto their prey and then sucking up the liquefied remains. If it helps, you can think of it as akin to drinking a nutritious smoothie." [description by Alex R. at EarthSky].
Michael: Mmmm....
Meredith: If you're still hungry, you could try that technique. Got a nearby coworker?
Michael: In fact I am still hungry. AFK a moment to try.
Meredith: lol
Michael: I'll have to come up with an explanation for Lee as to why I'm coming over to throw up on him.
Meredith: Oh wait, you don't have a tiny mouth. Perhaps the throwing up isn't necessary.
Michael: Well, it's kind of tiny compared to the rest of me.
Meredith: True, and since you don't have a tail stinger full of venom to help you subdue your prey, you might try farting.
Michael: Oh, how I do try that! They never get subdued, though. Quite the opposite.
What does this have to do with the Commons Ford Ranch? Pretty much nothing.

And Then There Were Reptiles


Meet the two newest members of our family. They are ssssimply worth sssssmiling about! Though we certainly didn't need more animals in this zoo we call home, the boys were eager for a snake, and I finally said yes because I'd wanted a snake for a teaching companion when I talk to kids about wildlife. Somehow I managed to bring two snakes home. Don't ask.


And so we have two very young snakes, adorable and loaded with personality.


Morse is the most outgoing and friendly. Just look at that smile!

morsec01-12.jpgShe is a corn snake, one that is an anerythristic motley (meaning she lacks red pigmentation and has that dotted pattern you see on her dorsal side). She likes to climb and explore, but she is also content to entwine herself through your fingers or to wrap around your wrist until you have a serpentine bracelet.


I say that she's a she, but I really haven't confirmed the gender of either snake. She does seem to taper the way female snakes tend to, but as my friend learned with her Baird's Rat Snake, that is no guarantee (her snake turned out to be a boy despite all indications otherwise).


Morse's name was inspired by the dot-dash-dot pattern that her motley pattern makes.


She, like other corn snakes, is a constrictor. I love how it looks like Morse tied herself in a knot.


Our smaller snake is a rat snake/corn snake hybrid, and his markings are just beautiful. He looks more like snakes you might find in the wild here in Texas, which is why I was so drawn to him. He is younger and smaller than Morse and quite a bit more shy. Poor thing, it took us forever to name him. For the longest time, we had to call him Little No Name, but now he is Walker. An odd name for a snake, you might think, but let me explain.


When I met this little guy, he seemed very frail in my hand, but the folks at the exotic pet store assured me that it was because he was shedding, and shedding snakes are sensitive to being touched. However, at home and post-shed, the little guy still seemed fragile, and on closer observation, I realized that he couldn't grip in his middle section -- I don't know whether he'd been injured at the store or whether he has a spine or nerve issue from his incubation period in the egg.


For Walker, this means two things -- he can't climb well, and he needs extra special care when we hold him so that he doesn't fall.

lnnf01-17-12.jpgHe's most content staying on the ground, of course, and he moves quite comfortably on a relatively flat surface. And so we named our legless pet Walker, after MUCH deliberation, discussion, voting, and compromise between members of my family. A little bribing might have happened, too -- hey, we know how politics work! For the record, Walker is his last name -- now we're deliberating, discussing, and so forth on the initials that will someday be in front of his name.


Walker is only about 11 inches long right now, compared to Morse's 16 or so inches. But he's a happy eater, and we're giving him a little extra food to help him grow faster. He stubbornly refuses to drink any water, however, at least not in front of me. Morse, on the other hand, likes me to hold her while she lowers her head down to the water's surface and guzzles. The saying "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink" almost earned Walker the name Horse, but good thing for him we didn't want his name to rhyme with Morse.


Walker is our shy guy. It could be that he's showing his rat snake side (corn snakes are naturally more docile, whereas rat snakes are known for their much more skittish behavior), or it could be that because he is injured he's understandably wary of being handled. In any case, two things are happening already -- a) he's getting stronger, and b) he's getting much more comfortable and trusting. But he'd still prefer to be tucked into a dark little cave (almost earning him the name Tucker or Bear).


Both snakes will peek out of their hiding spots to see what's going on. Above, Walker had hidden himself under a tissue box but couldn't resist looking out. Morse, below, was on her way over to taste the camera, flicking her tongue at it.



  Sometimes Morse will stick her head out of the Aspen bedding in their habitat and look like a submarine's periscope, or like the Dianoga in the Star Wars garbage compactor scene.


Now there's a size comparison for you -- these young snakes are itty bitty!


What else can we say about these snakes except that we love them!

Creature Features


This drought has been crazy. Aside from birds, I'm just not seeing the usual wildlife species that hang around the garden -- most notably butterflies are absent. I think it's just too ridiculously hot. That being said, I'm seeing all sorts of other cool creatures around, and happily so.


We came home one day to a stick insect not-so-camouflaged on our garage door. I moved it over to a tree where it seemed much more at home. Pictures got harder, though.


Check out its scorpion-like display:


Clearly I liked it more than it liked me.

Our front pond has been busy with aquatic life. Apparently, it's become THE place to lay eggs.

croakingtoad07-1-11.jpgThe male toads are singing each night, doing their best to entice a female for a dip in the pond.

toadpair07-01-11.jpg Sometimes one even gets lucky!

toadeggs07-01-11.jpg Toad eggs are laid in long gel-like tubes. The eggs are laid in mass quantity.

toadembryos07-01-11.jpg Within just a day or two, the eggs become blobs, also known as embryos.

Here's a closer view:


Soon the blobs/embryos become the tadpoles we know and love.

tadpoles07-01-11.jpgDespite the great numbers of eggs laid, very few make it to adulthood to live the life of a toad. They become food for other creatures, including the one below.

dragonflynymphb07-1-11.jpgEwww, you say? I say not! That, my friends, is a dragonfly nymph, and who doesn't love dragonflies? Other than the bugs they devour, I mean.

dragonflynympha07-1-11.jpgWe find these nymphs -- damselfly nymphs, too -- in our ponds all the time. It turns out that dragonfly nymphs can play dead. They stay very still if briefly removed from the water, but --whoosh!-- they'll zip back to the water depths the moment they feel that water surround them again.


Here's the exoskeleton left behind after an adult dragonfly emerged and flew away. Those weird-looking white strings are actually tracheal tubes that once transported oxygen. I'm so curious what kind of dragonfly completed its life cycle in our little pond. I'll never know, I suppose, but I have seen a Neon Skimmer flying around the pond. Who knows... maybe!

Back in the back, our hackberry has these nifty little leaf galls. It turns out that these are caused by Celticesis midges.


The adult midges, which are little flies, lay eggs on the underside of a hackberry leaf, and the plant tissue forms galls around them. The larvae have a miniature habitat inside the gall, where they eat and develop.

In other news, we had an sssstupendous set of ssssnake sightings last weekend. On a hike at Walnut Creek park, we decided to take paths less traveled for a change. Within moments we discovered this beauty:


It's an Eastern Hognosed Snake, flattening its head and hissing something fierce. While I didn't disturb it more than to take a picture with my camera phone, if I'd gotten much closer, this snake would have flipped upside-down and played dead. Part of me wishes I could have witnessed that, but I just don't like to stress out wildlife (more than is required for a quick photo op, that is).

In a different area of the park, we found a little snake traveling along dried-up sections of the creek.

racersnake06-11.jpgCamera phones and wild snakes just don't work well together. I really should at least carry a pocket camera on these hikes. But I think this might be a juvenile Yellow-Bellied Racer. It was very small and quickly found a hole to curl up into.

Just seeing these two snakes had already made our day, but when we returned home, we found a little snake in our hallway!

tantillasnake07-1-11.jpgWe rescued it and took it outside. I tried to get a picture, but that little snake moved to hide in the leaves as fast as its little no-legs could carry it. The best I can tell you is that it is possibly a snake in the Tantilla genus (perhaps Flathead or Plains Blackhead), or perhaps it is a Rough Earth Snake.

Just a few days later, my friend Diane shared a picture of a molted skin left behind by a friend's pet snake her family was snake-sitting. She didn't know the species, but from her description, it sounded like it might be a corn snake.


Have you ever seen a snake skin include the head and eye areas? Holy moly, now THAT'S a creature feature.

And the harvestmen are back, this time congregating in the highest eave on my house, making it nearly impossible for me to (get my husband to) kindly move them back to the greenbelt behind the house. Hopefully visitors to my house won't look up. I'm not taking a picture. Hey, even a wildlife lover can have something to cringe about! They're good garden predators, so I don't *really* mind them. In some ways, harvestmen, a.k.a. daddylonglegs, are even kind of cool. But they do creep me out. It has something to do with discovering thousands of them bobbing inches above my head (and my big mass of hair) when I was crawling through a cave.

Instead of harvestmen, I'll end with a skipper, one of the few butterflies we do get to see from time to time even in this horrible drought.


skippera06-11.jpgNo legs, two legs, four legs, six legs, more -- they put the wild in this wildlife garden!

Meredith O'Reilly happily
gardens for wildlife in
Austin, TX. She enjoys
educating people of all ages
about native flora, fauna,
and healthy environments.

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