Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Critter Report, Summer 2016

Any day that starts with a lizard in my pants is okay with me. This morning, I walked out of the bathroom, put on a t-shirt, reached for my pants, and saw a swift motion out of the corner of my eye. Fortunately, I didn't reach out to smash whatever it was, mostly because I thought it was a roach, and those guys are filled with goo that you have to clean up. Nope, I could see it clearly, looking up at me: a tiny lizard. And I knew just which one it was.

• • •

Don't make it sound too good. Tell 'em we got bugs that'll hurt you bad. Plants that'll poison you. There's rattlesnakes and other critters that don't mean you no good. People should think about that before they decide to move here.

Hondo Crouch, in an interview with me, Luckenbach, Sept. 26, 1976

* * *

I grew up in a lizardless region, the New York suburbs. There were salamanders, and I always liked our vacations in Vermont because there were toads and frogs around the lake the cabin we rented was on, but there were few critters around the place I spent most of my time. 

But, as Hondo Crouch (who died the day after I interviewed him) made clear, that simply isn't the case in Texas. You've got to be careful in Texas. The plants can get you: I've never seen such opulent poison oak as used to thrive in the woods by my old house on West 9 ½ Street. Pecan trees were everywhere, and you could pick up a snack any time from the windfalls. If, that is, you were willing to crack them and then very, very carefully pick out the membrane from the meat. It contains so much tannic acid that your mouth will pucker so badly you'll be hard pressed to get anything in it. And of course, there's cactus, but nothing as lethal as the cholla that's all over the place in Arizona. 

Some of the animal life seems incredibly exotic, too. One morning my dog got very excited, the hair standing up on his back as he ran around on tiptoe, growling. I was still asleep and yeah, I heard something walking outside the window, but it was moving quickly and after a while the dog calmed down. After breakfast, the dog and I went on our customary walk in the woods and found two cops with Stetsons and rifles on horseback, and a very excited little Latina girl, about six. "Did you see the pantera?" she asked. "Yeah," one of the cops said. "We got a report on a panther on the loose around here." It happens, I guess. The lady next door to me complained about armadillos digging up her garden, and I'd see them occasionally when I went to pick up my girlfriend in way-far-north Austin (hardly way-far-north these days, of course) and once, on Thanksgiving, I was invited to dinner out in the country, and took a British friend who was about to return home. "I've really enjoyed my stay here," he said, "but I'm sorry I've never seen an armadillo." As if by magic, two appeared at the side of the road. They were, um, making more armadillos. 

So far, there's been a decided lack of such critters here in suburban far south Austin. There are birds, of course. My office looks out on my back yard and I can hear birds with the windows open, which alerts me to their presence. For a while, I had a woodpecker who pecked a wound in one of the trees he visited daily. The wound bled sap, which was sweet, ants were attracted to it, and the bird would show up to eat them. I'd always assumed there were bugs in the wood that they were after. There's also a cardinal couple, who seem to hunt as a pair. He is the most brilliant red imaginable outside of the tropics, a magnificent bird. She, conforming to the ways of birds, isn't. She's a kind of drab brown with a tiny bit of red on her head. That seems to be how bird love works: "Darling, I've seen some drab females in my life, but you're really drab." "Ooh, listen to mister sweet-talk." 

The one bird I've been wanting to see, but hadn't until recently, was the monk parakeet. Friends tell me of them visiting their yard, but they don't come here. Finally, one day when I was walking to the nearby middle school to vote -- it might have been the primary -- I heard a familiar sound, and sure enough two green birds, bickering loudly, swooped over my head and onto a branch. I have no idea why they don't come to this side of South First, but I've never seen one here, although I'm about ⅛ of a mile from that sighting. I also enjoy them in Barcelona, where they seem to outnumber pigeons. 

Bigger than a budgie, and surprisingly omnipresent. Wikipedia photo

But this year I made the decision not to mow the back yard. This was in large part because of the regal toad that used to come every night and sit beneath the light on the back of the house, which also attracted bugs, or, as he thought of them, dinner. I hoped there were more critters out there. Benign ones, of course. And there were: as springtime came on and the rains let up a bit, at sunset giant clouds of lightning bugs would lift off of the plants back there, a luminous flying carpet. That was nice. And I knew I was getting somewhere when I found a small brown Cuban anole hanging out on the deck sunning himself. 

The toad hasn't been back, but the back yard wasn't my only concern. The tree in my front yard was host some days to a magnificent Texas spiny lizard, which I'd never seen before, and whose commanding presence (at about 11") just plain looked good, even though he was expert at dodging the camera. 

Not a great shot, but not mine, either. Wikipedia.
He hasn't been back yet, either, but I gather they have a pretty good range they wander, eating bugs as they go. Welcome back any time, dude. 

And I was aware that there was other critter action in the front, dating from two years ago, when I found a J-shaped toad turd in the driveway, and running up to early May of this year, when I returned from shopping to find a small snake waiting by the front door. I ran inside and grabbed a camera (or maybe it was my phone) and found he'd stuck his head under a pile of leaf litter, so I took a stick and pulled him back to photograph. His head arched up and he took a good snap at the stick, hard enough that I felt it. Then he sat back and let his picture get took:

Healthy snake, wounded stick
A Texas garter snake, a useful website told me. 

I haven't seen him since, but I suspect he showed up because a bit up the hill Google Fiber was putting in cable. This has resulted in a bunch of eco-upheaval, because there's a tiny stream up there, right where they're working, and its critters are abandoning it. The most remarkable one I've seen was hanging out in the parking space in front of my house, fortunately when I was carrying my phone. 

Somewhat traumatized by the speed at which he was moved, a red-eared slider,  who later moved on to another small creek. 
You can tell by the pattern on the shell that he was just hanging out in a diminishing stream when the decision was made for him to move. Nine inches long, and plenty heavy. 

Then there was the night when I went out to light the grill and this guy hitched a ride on my shoe and hopped off when we returned to the house.

Not a great photo, but he was jumping around like crazy, and I wanted him outside where he could do some good: a tiny, tiny toadlet who could have perched on a quarter. Progeny of Back Door Toad? Maybe, maybe. At any rate, a quick ride on a piece of paper, and back to foraging for bugs. 

Because there are bugs. Anybody who lives here knows that. The most common one is the ant, of which Texas seems to have 23,847 kinds. My computer hasn't gotten clogged with Raspberry Crazy Ants, fortunately, but there are small ants who manage to squeeze through the windows, and, recently, great big ants I call Iron Ants because you step on them and they kind of go "ow" and keep on walking. They hold regular love-ins in my shower, where I literally pour cold water on their assembly, and they either go down the drain or retreat behind the shower lining into the wall. Last night, though, I saw something odd that I've never seen before: an Iron Ant walking with another one in its mandibles, a kind of a T walking across the living room floor. I have no idea what that was about. 

And, sadly, there are roaches. Mostly, there are the big ones, the ones you can't step on unless you want to get down on the floor with a paper towel or something to clean up the ooze that results. My research, though, says that these so-called palmetto bugs or waterbugs don't want to be in the house, since it's not their natural habitat. The way I deal with them now is to stun them with a broom and then go all Canadian on their asses and play curling with them, opening the door and launching them outside. Sometimes I say "cheeseburger" to alert the neighbohood reptiles and birds that a sumptuous meal awaits. (Or any Thais who might be around: I found a small Thai grocery here that sells them canned, and in Montpellier there was a Thai restaurant with an insect menu that I never went near). They're not real smart, but they are real fast. And, according to Wikipedia, they're properly called American cockroaches. The ones you don't want because they do want to live in your house (and which you can whack with impunity) are brown, or German cockroaches. I never saw one in my 15 years in Germany, so maybe this is a xenophobic leftover from one of the World Wars, like "liberty cabbage" for sauerkraut or the more recent Freedom Fries. 

Another new visitor this year was one I found irrationally scary. I routinely approach the bathroom by my bedroom with watchful eyes, because there appear to be a couple of entryways from outdoors, and the big roaches get in. Well, the other night there wasn't a roach, but under the sink was a three-inch scorpion, reddish brown. There are over 1000 species of scorpions, none of the ones in Texas are lethal (for that you have to go to the Sonora desert in Arizona), but I, a Scorpio, freaked out, whisked it out with the broom, and stomped the hell out of it. Then I swept it out the door and waited for the adrenaline to subside. 

Right there, on the wall, under the brace, that's where it was. 
But wait, the lizard in your pants, aren't you going to tell us about that? Well, yes, because the above photo is about that, in a way. 

A few weeks back, I was passing in and out, grilling something for dinner, and a two-inch brown Mediterranean gecko (not unlike the Moroccan geckos who occasionally visited in France) ran in. I tried to dissuade him, but no soap: he ran to where I couldn't get him and it was at a crucial part of dinner so I gave up. Anyway, I don't mind a gecko in the house. They have prodigious appetites, and the summer I moved away from Austin to go to Berlin, my house suddenly had two of them in the kitchen. There had been a problem with German roaches, as there usually is in a house with no central air conditioning and open windows and doors. There was, within 24 hours of these two moving in, no longer a problem with German roaches at all. And, with his propinquity to the shower and the ant love-ins, I suspect this one had found a good place to hang and was hanging and dining well. I tried to photograph him, but it was before I'd had my coffee, so it didn't happen: the camera refused to click when I had him in focus and when I returned with the phone (and its clip-on fancy lenses) he'd vanished. But I was curious why the camera wasn't working so I aimed it at the under-sink area, and hence the above photo. 

I'm blessedly without mammals, although a large, fat white cat with black blotches saunters through my yard each day. He is manifestly not welcome: I caught him staring at an area where the toad hung out during the day last year, and wished I had a pan of water to throw at him. Cats are stupid hunters and predators, and with the cardinals and the various reptilia, I just don't want them in the yard. And yes, there are squirrels. I don't pay them much mind, but this spring, there was a very cool sighting. Remember Pizza Rat? He was a thing on the internet a few months ago, a tiny rat straining to take a mammoth slice of pizza down the stairs to the New York subway. Well, one day this spring, I noticed a squirrel behaving oddly, and saw that it had a slice of pizza in its mouth. No camera nearby, no phone, and he was moving quickly: he was, after all, bigger than Pizza Rat, and the slice was smaller. And I kind of felt sorry for him.  Pizza Rat was rewarded by a luscious New York slice. Poor Pizza Squirrel probably had Domino's. But no matter where it was from, it didn't matter: none of us critters in Austin have access to good pizza. 


  1. Great story Ed. Makes me miss Texas not at all, actually. You should know however, that scorpions travel in twos, so keep your eye out for the mate of the one you stomped on. That one is now mad at you.

  2. No possums? No raccoons? No hummingbirds? You will have them eventually.


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