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Apr 09 2006

Natural History, Part Two

pipevine swallowtail larva
Pipevine swallowtail larva, Blanco County TX, April 6, 2006

El Rancho Deluxe, the rural seat of the Fasters in Blanco County TX, in tres partes divisa est. There’s the hilly, woodsy part where the deer and the antelope play and where I’m building my new HQ, and there’s a big old flat pasture that should be planted in coastal bermuda but which instead lies fallow because I am a gentleman farmer pretty much in name only, and then there’s the ridge.

The ridge is a dozen or so remote hectares separated from the rest of the farm by a creek running north and a big-ass bluff. Because of geological, climatic, and riparian happenstances beyond the scope of my expertise, the ridge has a wilder and woolier ecosystem than the rest of El Rancho D. Rocky, sandy, cactusy, and snakey, it’s a whole nother undiscovered country up there. If I were writing a 19th century Gothic novel, the ridge is where I would set the heroine’s encounters with the brutally handsome, dark, melancholic, reclusive sauvage. It is there that she would eventually find his mangled body, partially devoured by the wolves he’d spurned in order to be with her.

The ridge is especially otherworldly when you get up to the top. If you look to the west, the grand vista greeting your discerning eye will be the collection of old junk cars and rusted washing machines curated by my insane redneck neighbor.

turkey vulture Blanco County TXBut if you look any other direction you can see for miles, which distance is something all humans enjoy seeing for. I’m no different, at least insofar as my innate appreciation for majestic vistas, so the other day I saddled up the dogs, forded the fjord, and up the deer path we did hike.

Here’s a nice turkey vulture I found sailing around up there, but I wish I had thought to snap a picture of the fucking anaconda I nearly stepped on while walking around in non-snakeproof kicks with my head in the clouds. Unfortunately for my bright career as a snake photographer, my attention was diverted by the necessity of keeping Bert, my golden retriever puppy, from using it as a chew toy. I am not an accomplished snakeologist, so I treat all serpents as potential venom delivery devices until I can identify’em with my trusty field guide, which of course I was not carrying at the time. It may have been a diamondback rattler, or it may have been a rat snake, but it was 5 feet long any way you slice it, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t emit a whoop of startled surprise—or, okay, I admit it, discomfiture—upon encountering such an improbably jumbo reptilian entity, and you’d have done the same.

Anyway, the aforementioned close encounter of the serpentine kind reminded me to keep my eyes on ground, which is how I happened to glimpse the excellent caterpillar pictured at the top, the posting of which photo is the sole excuse for this whole dorky nature hike post.

35 comments

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  1. Summer

    Yes, that is is quite a caterpillar.

  2. schatze

    Varmints aplenty! I will be most happy when my newest varmint, also a Golden Retriever puppy, loses his piranha teeth. I think my other 2 dogs will heave relief sighs,too.

  3. FamousSovietAthlete

    Twisty, I love your food posts. That red spiky vegetable looks delicious.

    Happy birthday!

  4. R. Mildred

    pythons are huge constrictors – non-poisonous, rattlers…rattle and are sometimes poisonous, unless they’ve bitten alot of other things already – which is the real reason to have loads and loads of kids (or to know someone who will let you borrow theirs and won’t mind if you come back with slightly less than you left with) so you can use them as all weather anti-snake chaff, and the correct term for a “snakeologist” is phallicreptiliannonarthropodsconveyedviaaeroplaneologist.

    So now you know.

  5. Cass

    Very pretty. The poor thing doesn’t look very camouflaged, though, for crawling about the not-exceptionally-colorful Hill Country landscape; I’m afraid it may meet its end before ever having a chance to take to the skies. Or does it pass most of its days on the tops of Indian paintbrushes?

    My handy snake ID guide for Texas is as follows. If it wags its hinder parts back and forth, producing a rattling sound, its probably a rattlesnake. If it doesn’t, but it bites you anyway; and if the area of your flesh around the bite soon turns an ghastly shade of greenish-black, and this color begins visibly to travel, slowly and inexorably, through the veins beneath the surface of your skin on its way to your heart; and you begin to remember things like your fourth birthday party, or to regret that you didn’t tell Mom how much you loved her often enough; well, in that case, you’ve probably encountered a copperhead, a coral snake, or a water moccasin.

  6. bitchphd

    That is the prettiest caterpiller I ever did see. Thanks!

  7. Ron Sullivan

    Cass, a critter colored like that is usually toxic and advertising it, or nontoxic and trying to look all toxic anyway. I’d bet pipevine swallowtail kids are toxic; pipevine (which they eat when they’re caterpillars) has some righteously nasty compounds in it. Some fools have taken it (as an “herbal cure” I suppose) and wiped their kidneys out in one swell foop. Some of them died too.

    Twisty, there’s one decent way of telling the venomous from the nonvenomous snakes in North America. The venomous ones all have slit pupils a la cats’; the nonvenomous ones (with one exception I know of, a harmless little california nightsnake with slit pupils) have round pupils like us. If that seems a bit of a fine point, you, like everyone else with eyesight, need a nice compact pair of binoculars to take with you everywhere.

    It probably won’t console you to hear that one of the very few wild rattlers I’ve ever seen, in thirty-plus years chasing birds through California and much of the continent, was IIRC about five feet ng and I swear as big around as one of my mighty thighs. It was sunning itself on a road outside Livermore. We swerved around it, stopped the car, and examined it closely from a safe distance and standing up on the back of the car via those handy binocs.

    When we were visiting some preserve in Texas 23 years ago, some guy brought us a little rattler in a pillowcase, just to show off. Cute li’l bugger. I mean the snake.

    Nice turkey vulture. I like their attitude and expertise.

  8. Ron Sullivan

    That rattler was “five feet long” of course. More coffee, please.

  9. Cass

    I didn’t know that about caterpillars, but its very comforting.

    I have a sneaking admiration for vultures as well. Edward Abbey wanted to come back as one; he loved their impassivity before the processes of nature, and found wisdom, I think, in the idea of taking life and nourishment out of death.

  10. Twisty

    I dig what you’re saying, Cass, but taking nourishment from death is something I do every day. Vultures get a bad rap, but everybody just loves the condors. Why-o-why? The vultures we have here are just condors with red heads. The coolest thing about vultures is that they stay airborne all day long and hardly ever bother to flap. They are far and away my favorite bird of all time.

    Ron’s surmise is correct; the pipevine butterfly larvae are toxic as all get-out.

    I can tell a viper from a colubrid when I have 30 seconds to spare, but when I’m wrestling a wacked-out 70 lb. puppy and the serpent in question may be a rattler big enough to kill him, the more pressing issue is to get the dog the heck outta there. I actually did tippytoe back later to see if I could find that wackybig snake, but of course it had vamoosed. So I guess I’ll never know, although the habitat up there has “Western diamondback” wrote large all over it.

  11. Cass

    Well, of course; even us vegetarians are feeding on the carcass of *something*. Vultures just seem to get more villified for it, for some reason. (And yes, they are very majestic flyers.)

  12. Pony

    I’ve never seen either of those birds. But daily I watch bald eagles soaring over the river.

  13. Cass

    We have those here too!! A trio has set up their nest in a pecan tree alongside the highway between Burnet and Llano, Texas. (Yes, that’s right; our national symbol forms non-monogamous families of THREE, unblessed by any Christian sacrament! Write your Congressman today!) You can’t miss them; there’s always a crowd of onlookers by the side of the road…

  14. june

    I eagerly await your 19th century gothic novel.

  15. lavalamp

    I once backed into a 5 foot plus long ratsnake in the cemetery at Grit, looking for my great grandparents’ gravemarker. Very memorable, for me anyway.

  16. Betsy

    I salute your respect for snakes. I was bit by a NON-venomous snake about four feet long, and “good-and-fat” around. I didn’t even know it was there, until I felt something like a branch whipping back and snapping on my hand, and I saw this gigantic-appearing jiggety-jaggety-patterned brown serpent dropping back and zooming away. AAAAAAH

    As I made for the house, my hand began to bleed profusely. Of course the damned cordless phone was dead, and I had to race around and find the regular one. As I waited for the EMS team to arrive and my arm to balloon, darken, and drop off, I thought of the standard advice: Stay calm! Oh, sure.

    Well after 30 minutes of no swelling the EMS team decided that it was either a “dry bite” or a non-venomous snake, and they split.

    But I had to have a tetanus shot, and was pulling infinitesimally tiny, razor-sharp, crystal-clear teeth out of my hand for a couple of weeks thereafter. It seemed like I extracted dozens of the damn things as they gradually surfaced and worked their way out.

    Later I found out it was a Northern Water Snake. (It *would* be a northerner …) They have zillions of teeth, and unlike most snakes “bite readily when disturbed,” according to the field guide.

    I am a bit jumpier around snakes now, even the green ones.

  17. Ron Sullivan

    Twisty, I kinda thought the problem might be puppy adolescence rather than discernment. But I get all evangelical about knowing venomous snakes from nonvenomous and spread the word in the hope of saving a snake or two. And I myself would be jumpier in Texas, where IIRC you have more varieties of hot snakes to sort out. Though come to think of it that’s not the main reason why I’m jumpier in Texas.

    Marin County has zillions of turkey vultures, and there’s a roost on our Chrisrmas Count sector that usually has 10 – 15 residents. It’s neat to watch them get up late in the morning, sun themselves and look around and glide off. Friend of ours got to pet a vulture at some lecture or other, and he said the head was soft and warm and dry, and the vulture seemed to like being petted; she (?) rubbed back like a cat. Condors are even better at that effortless efficient flying. And hey, if we didn’t have scavengers we’d be hip-deep in corpses.

    Oh, R. Mildred — not all pythons are huge. I have a ball python who’s about his adult size at maybe five feet, if that. Which isn’t very big for a snake. Constrictors are cuddly.

  18. Sylvanite

    I dunno Ron Sullivan, about constrictors being “cuddly.” Though I suppose they could cuddle you to death, if they’re big enough. The most painful animal bite I’ve ever received was from a ball python.It didn’t do much damage, but it stung something fierce. Of course, the most damaging animal bite was from a parrot who went by the name of “Sunshine.”

  19. Ron Sullivan

    Huh, Sylvanite, I’ll be damned. Shep has bitten me (only once, and I’ve had my fingers in his mouth and/or forced it open a number of times) and it didn’t even break the skin. I suppose I should be more cautious.

    The rats and mice I feed him, they’ve bitten me a number of times and man, that hurt. Especially the rat that came out of the rat cage attached to my forefinger. Nasty little sumbitches; I’ve stopped feeling sorry for them.

    I’ve picked up wild gopher snakes (who are also constrictors). They purr.

  20. finnsmotel

    You realize that I endure the patriarchy postings to get to the El Rancho stuff. I get the biggest kick imagining you patrolling the grounds. Oh, and happy birthday!

    You know, I’ve found that a 5 iron makes for a good snake-chaser-lifter, head-chopper-when-necessary. The driver and 3 iron are too long and unwieldy. The 7 and 9 iron are a bit too short and the club head angle too steep to provide dexterity.

    Yeah, the 5 iron. Once you add it to your life, you’ll wonder how you got around without it.

  21. Sara

    Hey, Ron, it’s kind of hard to get close enough to a snake to see its pupils when you’re jumping five feet in the air (or so I’ve been told — heh heh). A better far-away test I seem to remember is the size/shape of the head. PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought I’d heard and read before that venomous snakes have big sort of — for lack of a better analogy this out-of-coffee morning — heart-shaped heads (like rattlers have), whereas nonvenomous snakes have small, sleek-to-the body, kind of thumb-like heads (like garter snakes have). True or false?

    Meanwhile, that is a mighty fine caterpillar.

    “I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the turkey vultures fluttering among the junk cars and rusted washing machines; listened to the snake of indeterminate venomousness retreat from the curious young golden retriever in the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

    Wuthering Heights à la Twisty

  22. Cass

    After reading Twisty’s post I did start to wander what a central Texas Heathcliff would look like; I’d guess, not very attractive. I’m afraid it just won’t do. Windswept moors requite fog, mist, a northerly climate, and generally high humidity. The sun-bleached landscapes of this part of the world are more appropriate for the musings of 20th century existentialism, if anything.

  23. Ron Sullivan

    Sara, that works in North America except for coral snakes, who have harmless-looking little heads and nasty neurotoxic venom. (Most of our hot snakes are vipers, and our constrictors aren’t big enough to hurt us.) I’ve reached a point where various mnemnonics pass through my head on the way up, instead of my whole life. But see, that’s why I’m for having binocs surgically implanted.

    “Heathbubba! HEAEEEEATHbubba!”

  24. Cass

    Don Quixote would feel at home here too, though that may just be an expansion on my earlier point.

  25. Newbie

    Taking it back to the Turkey Vultures – what I absolutely love about them (although I have only heard about it rather than seen it)is their defence mechanism. Gorge like hell on all that stinky dead flesh then if threatened by some predator up-chuck it on the aforementioned predator and fly away.

    Now can you beat that!!

    In terms of snakes. Coming from a country in which there are no snakes, no where, no thanks, I must admit to finding them all a bit scary. My daughter is into reptiles, but luckily its the four legged lizard or frog variety, because there is not way I would have a snake as a pet in my house (I have told her the same thing about Madagascar hissing cockroaches as well!).

  26. Ms Kate

    I live next to a nature reserve in a very densely populated area. I get to see hawks soaring all day with nary a flap, particularly on spring or fall days when the sun-heated air coming off the urban zones rises up the ridges that form the preservation area. I frequently hear them with their scream-to-a-whistle calls.

    I was biking in Boston on the Muddy River bike trail when I was nearly knocked off my bike by a red tail hawk. He had a squirrel dialed in and wasn’t going to change course for me. I ended up with a couple of feathers in my bike helmet, he ended up with breakfast.

    Hawks are welcome check and balance in the urban ecosystem. I’ve heard that a nearby neighborhood with a serious rat problem has been receiving visits from the local hawks, drawn to streets and alleys full of rats like mall visitors to Old Country Buffet. Harvard was rumored to be on the verge of poisoning squirrels in Harvard Yard (they were aggressive and increasingly rabid) when first one hawk, then his mate moved onto a high-rise administration building. The squirrels are far less numerous and more circumspect these days.

    I wonder if we can train them to attack neocons?

  27. Annie

    I also have a fondness for the vulture for numerous reasons…not the least of which is that they clean up the friggin’ plethora of racoons and opposums that the city leaves bloated and awaiting disposal for days on end! I take care of rescuing the wayward turtles from the hyper-developed clutches of what is more rightly (but sadly no longer)the Everglades in the western reaches of fair Boca Raton.

  28. verdigris

    El Rancho Deluxe sounds like a beautiful place.

    I’m glad you managed to keep Bert from investigating the mystery snake too closely. It seems like every dog I’ve ever seen bitten by a venomous snake was bitten on or around the head, I guess because dogs lead with their noses. Unfortunately it makes the bites that much more dangerous.

    Oh, and IIRC, Coral Snakes actually have round pupils unlike the other North American venomous snakes. Not really relevant to this because they don’t get to anaconda size, but just in case.

  29. Charles

    Until I read Ron Sullivan’s first post I thought I was the only person (dork?) in the world who said, “swell foop.” I am glad to know otherwise.

  30. Annie

    Charles, it may comfort you further to know that I am la dorka suprema here with you…I don’t do the Swell Foop, but I have been known to publically acknowledge “Fig Newtons of the Imagination,” and offer up “Chuck-you Farley and y’er whole famn damily” curse-outs. Ugh… well, I guess admitting to dorkdom is the hardest part…

  31. Kate

    When I grew up in the St. Louis area in the seventies, I don’t remember seeing much wildlife and my father would say it had much to do with DDT spraying and such. I saw some wildlife in the Ozarks but still not much. I do remember the snakes though, copperheads, water mocassins, blue racers, cottonmouths and even hog snakes everywhere. I’ve nearly put my hand on ones sunning themselves on cliffs, stepped on ones traveling to nearby water, one about a good five inches in diameter and about four feet long. Looked like a walking stick had come alive and was going for a dip in the lake.

    We also saw many various swallowtail butterfiles which sadly I don’t see around here quite as much.

    Then here I am in New England and it seems that within the last four or five years I’ve noticed all kinds of cool things, like bald eagles perched in trees along the highway, hawks flying everywhere and even a Perigrin (sp?) Falcon a couple of times, once perched across my house on the firehouse steeple.

    When I lived in Michigan we had a house out in the country and the deer would come and hang out in the orchard on the property. A light swooped over the orchard in the black summer darkness would emit a million lights of eyes shining back. We once had a doe and her fawn camping out behind the house in a nest of tall grass we didn’t bother to cut. I saw a buck the first and only time, it came running across the front lawn, full eight points, was quite a thing to see.

    The natural setting here in New Hampster is what keeps me here, a five minute drive and I can bike in the woods all day and not see a single soul. Moose venture into town every now and again and it is said that bears inhabit the park about a fifteen minute drive out.

    Building puts us in remote areas often as well and me and the crew have enjoyed some interesting wildlife that sneak around the jobsites as well.

    That caterpiller is awfully neat and yes, his color is his protection. Hiking is good for the mind, body and soul.

  32. Ron Sullivan

    Charles, Annie, I proudly embrace the full extent of my dorkitude. It’s not a lifestyle preference; it’s inborn and hardwired.

    In due time, all will come to love their dork overloads. I mean overlords.

  33. Charles

    Ron, Annie: I am in the process of embracing my inner dork. It’s a long process, because my inner dork is really extremely large.

    My other favorite word dorkiness is to refer to “Our Leerless Feeder.”

  34. Sara

    Let your dork out, Charles. (Or maybe should I say, Get your dork on! Or maybe not.)

    It’s like Ron says; you can’t choose to be or not be a dork. We are born dorks…or we are born something else. Or sometimes we are halflings — half dork and half something else. Or quad-dorks. Or multi-dorknic.

    Proof? You want proof? Okay. I learned “swell foop” from my parents.

  35. Annie

    Sara,

    I have family in NH, in the White Mountains very close to the Canadian border. They’re place wouldn’t sound like much (a double wide on a plot of land they bought CHEAP because of ultility poles on site), but the view is spectacular, and the wildlife sitings are regular. I was thrilled to “meet” some new birds there, and walk with Uncle Herb to the site where he’d spotted some beavers setting up household. They have regular close encounters of the moose kind. But holy moly, I couldn’t take the winters up there.

    So here I am at 8:30 in the am and my natural encounter du jour is occurring as usual…squirrel nutkin is racing back and forth on my roof. When I bring the puppy out for her walk in a bit there will be the regulars, a veritable herd of Muscovy ducks and their ducklings, Great Blue Herons who like ducklings for breakfast, red-eared pond sliders who poke their heads out whenever we approach the drainage lake (they are mighty used to hand-outs), tri-colored herons, glossy ibis, white ibis, wood storks, red shoulders, marsh ducks, ospreys…and on it goes. We live in a pathetically over-developed area (which I would object to violently if it wasn’t necessary for the moment), but we are close to a large state park that is one of several Everglades preserves, so at least the wildlife is visible daily. And even the mighty vulture adds to the pleasantry of it. My butterfly garden has suffered fiercely after the hurricane season, but at least the monarchs are back. Sadly, I actually have to buy lady bugs to keep the aphid population even marginally under control.

  1. Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » On caterpillars and “potential venom delivery devices”

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