Hit the Road for a Toad
A FASCINATION WITH TEXAS’ REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS SPURS A YEARLONG QUEST TO SEE THEM ALL.
Deep in the gloom of the East Texas Pineywoods, I’m on a hunt for some of Texas’ most elusive creatures. Secretive salamanders are playing out an ancient drama here, and I’ve always wanted to experience it.
Earlier in the week, heavy winter rains filled drainages and depressions throughout the forest, triggering a salamander breeding frenzy. Unique to this region of Texas, these mostly lethargic creatures hide beneath logs or buried deep underground.
When the pitter-patter of raindrops breaks their subterranean trance, the no-longer-sleepy salamanders emerge with a singular focus: Perpetuate the next generation.
On the edge of one of these winter wetlands, I flip logs and fallen branches. I’m not sure what constitutes a good salamander log, but I key in on what I consider an especially nice stump. Beneath it, the big payoff.
I’m looking at my first-ever spotted salamander.
Such remarkable beauty. Its shiny, dark skin is punctuated with bold yellow dots.
And it’s only the beginning.
This special find will kick off my year of searching for reptiles and amphibians across Texas. My goal is to discover as many “herps” as possible to document the rich diversity of this group of 230 species.
I continue to turn over more stumps and logs in these deep woods and eventually uncover another first-time prize — a marbled salamander, silver and black. This vision of subtle splendor has already distracted me from the remarkable find of only moments earlier.
My Herping Texas Big Year (#HerpTX21) is off to an incredible start.
The ending isn’t bad either: In a year of dedicated searching I managed to see 178 species, more than 75 percent of the Texas total. Of course, the real story is in the journey between the salamander with yellow spots sleeping under a stump and Herp No. 178.
WHAT’S A HERP?
Field herping is the little-known hobby of pursuing and observing wild reptiles and amphibians. Herpers are like birders, only they seek snakes and salamanders instead of hawks and herons.
Herping, in general, is less well understood and not nearly as well organized as birding. A lot of herpers prefer it that way.
The word “herp” is short for “herptile” and comes from the Greek root herpeton, meaning “to creep.” That makes herpetology the scientific study of creeping animals, more specifically, reptiles and amphibians.
With more than 225 native species, Texas proves to be a great place to experience herp biodiversity. Texas is home to more snakes — around 70 different species — than any other state. Our herps also include cave-dwelling salamanders and legless lizards, tiny pink blind snakes and enormous, ocean-swimming sea turtles.
Over the next few weeks of my Big Herp Year, I worked on adding more species to my growing list. I saw an American alligator lurking at Choke Canyon State Park, a common snapping turtle basking at Palmetto State Park and DeKay’s brown snake slithering along in my neighborhood dog park.
That momentum screeched to a halt in mid-February when Winter Storm Uri blanketed Texas with snow and freezing temperatures for nearly a week.
Herps are ectothermic — they derive warmth from their environment. That’s why we typically see less herp activity during the cooler months. Because of the historic snowfall and frigid temperatures, February was my slowest month. My Big Herp Year list grew by only two species.
Thankfully, in the aftermath of the storm, it became obvious that herps had not experienced lingering consequences.
SPECIES AT THE EDGES
Texas marks the meeting point of several disparate landscapes — forest, desert and prairie, making the place we live a cornucopia of biodiversity. We have a variety of species whose range barely enters the state.
I observed many examples of species at the edges during the year, including pig frogs near Beaumont (just like bullfrogs except they oink instead of moo) and mountain short-horned lizards, found in the highest elevations of West Texas mountains.
The Rio Grande Valley is one of those unique and incredible Texas landscapes on the edge, home to many species typical of the tropics of Mexico. In my Big Year, South Texas gave me some of my greatest triumphs.
I had a healthy dose of work-related projects at Sabal Palm Sanctuary — a site owned by Audubon Texas. I had no problem finding Mexican tree frogs calling from the central resaca; indigo snakes (known for eating rattlesnakes) slipped around the gardens. One lunchtime, a daring thornscrub rat snake edged across the kitchen table.
Every herper hopes to spot the elusive speckled racer here. This slender and intelligent snake uses its large front-facing eyes to hunt lizards, and I used my front-facing eyes to see six of these amazing animals over the year. Beautiful aquamarine speckles edged in jet-black make it one of Texas’ most beautiful snakes.
One night in May, a large Gulf storm traveled up the Rio Grande Valley and dropped more than three inches of rain along its path. Such a heavy deluge can stir the underground slumber of one of our state’s most unusual species of frog, the Mexican burrowing toad, at which time it emerges to contribute its unique song to the cacophony of calling frogs and toads.
When you are working on a Big Year, you’re regularly forced to solve something like an algebraic equation with variables like RTS (remaining target species), EN (the effort necessary to get into proper habitat), SW (season/weather) and PD (probability of detection).
After the storm in May, the equation worked out in my favor to pursue this bizarre creature. It was spring, a big rain had come, and I could catch up on sleep later — it was “go time.”
The Mexican burrowing toad (it’s not really a toad) is one of the most difficult animals to see in Texas. It lives in just a couple of remote South Texas counties, inactive and buried through most of the year.
That evening, as dusk transitioned to twilight, the din of calling frogs began to crescendo into a deafening cacophony. Standing roadside, I picked out the western narrow-mouthed toad, the Rio Grande leopard frog and three highly prized regional additions to my yearlong list — the giant toad, sheep frog and Mexican white-lipped frog.
Then, from across an inaccessible expanse of rangeland and thornscrub, I heard it — the faint but distinct rising wooo of the Mexican burrowing toad. I knew that I would commit the EN (effort necessary) to hold one of these animals in my hands.
I drove around for hours that night hoping to find a burrowing toad calling from an accessible roadside ditch. In the process, I learned that the call of these frogs could carry deceptively long distances, as much as a half -mile. Finally, at around 2 a.m. — an hour seen too often by field herpers — I located a pair of burrowing toads calling from the side of a quiet county road. Overcome with joy, I held this dark, palm-sized blob with a beak in my hands. So worth it.
THE WILD WEST
As the seasons advanced, I started sharing photographs and vignettes to highlight the life histories and conservation challenges of these animals I love. There were many people interested in these often-maligned creatures.
I believe that some people’s strong aversions to snakes and other herps can be lessened through an improved understanding of the value they contribute to the great theater of nature. After all, herps are a barometer of the health of the environment we all share.
During the fall, I helped coordinate a week of herp-focused cinematography with Fin and Fur Films — the crew that produced Deep in the Heart: A Texas Wildlife Story. My team and I assisted with filming and scouted for herp subjects in the mountains and deserts of the Big Bend region. Although my year list stood at 150 species — already a new high-water mark — I had no intention of slowing down. This trip allowed me to clean up a few missing West Texas species, including one nocturnal lizard that had always eluded me.
The reticulated gecko is a larger, rarer cousin of the more familiar Texas banded gecko. It is found only in the southern mountains of Brewster and Presidio counties.
Field herpers consider the reticulated gecko to be a “Holy Grail” species of the Big Bend.
Each night, I went road-cruising for snakes to film, stopping to explore the nooks and crannies of road cuts in the mountain passes, places where geckos like to linger. Burning the candle at both ends, I paired early-morning shoots with late-night searches, and each became more challenging.
On the last night, at the final stop, I rolled over a roadside boulder at the foot of a cut and unveiled a juvenile reticulated gecko — another first.
I reared my head back in celebration. My howls of excitement and the arcing beam of my headlamp tore through the murky twilight as this small, fragile and nearly translucent lizard jumped from my hand onto my shirt.
THE BIG YEAR ENDS
A Big Year is a personal challenge to observe and identify as many species as possible, but it can be so much more — adventure, education, fellowship, triumph and defeat, perseverance.
For me, it was also about taking care of unfinished business.
In Texas, we have an abundance of found-only-here endemics, native plants and animals that are limited to a specific site or geography. I found most of our endemic reptiles — the Concho water snake, plateau earless lizard, Texas map turtle and Cagle’s map turtle — each representative of a distinct river basin or land formation.
There was one endemic I had never taken the time to find, despite ample opportunity. Maybe I was just too close.
I spent six years living in San Marcos while studying for my undergraduate and graduate degrees in wildlife biology. It’s where I met my wife. My son learned to swim in the crystal-clear waters of the San Marcos River.
It’s also where I rediscovered the awe and joy in nature that would form the foundation for my vocation in land, water and wildlife conservation.
My Big Year ended on Dec. 26, when I went snorkeling on the upper San Marcos River. Despite living so close to this river while attending Texas State University, I never took the time to seek the river’s namesake creature — the San Marcos salamander.
Now, 12 years later, I corrected that shortcoming when I observed a slender, purplish form crawling among the cobbles of the riverbed.
I couldn’t have scripted a more meaningful conclusion to my Big Herp Year of passion, exploration and personal reflection.
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