Saturday, November 22, 2014

Palo Pinto and the Butterfly Hound

Clouds echoing the topography, Palo Pinto County
God help me, I've turned a red-blooded bird dog (my german shorthaired pointer) into a butterfly chasing hound. It wasn't planned. It just happened naturally. Ever since I adopted her, I've taken her with me on my invertebrate photo hunts. I strap her to my waist with a leash, leaving my hands free to snap away with my camera. My impressionable pup seems to have picked up on me stalking bees and butterflies with my lens. She's realized these flittery creatures are of some importance, and worthy of attention. Now it's a race to see who can reach the bug first- me with my camera or her with her snapping teeth.  Funny enough, she's somewhat indifferent to her ancestral prey. We've actually spooked coveys without her paying much mind, but butterflies- she just loses her little head. I suppose we end up with the dogs we deserve.

View from the mesa
My dog's enthusiasm for lepidoptery got us in trouble a few weeks ago when we were poking around Palo Pinto County, the home of a (relatively) soon-to-be-opened 5,000 acre state park. My dog Colby does not have what I would call "cactus-sense".  Time and again, running headlong after a butterfly (this time of year it's sulphurs, admirals, buckeyes, and southern dog-faces) she would face-plant into a prickly pear or pencil cactus. I'd pin her down, grab her little maw, and pull the spines out with the pliers on my leatherman. You'd think she'd learn to take more care, but it seems her joie de vivre simply cannot be dampened by something so insignificant as a spine between the eyes or a nopal hanging from her wet little nose.

Keeping a willful dog out of the opuntia was... tricky. 
Topo and satellite images of our trek.
Bringing my naive dog to cactus-country was just one of many poor decisions that accompanied my trip to explore this rugged landscape prior to its development as a state park. I was in search of a sheer canyon with unusual plants located in the southern section of the parcel, off a recently bull-dozed road, not yet added to maps of the area.

I should mention that I have a somewhat poor sense of direction. I am great at following trails and using maps and compasses, but if I rely on 'instinct', it generally ends poorly. I had thought to bring a borrowed GPS unit and printed out satellite photos, but somehow I forgot about the unmarked road leading more or less directly to my target. As a result, we ended up bushwhacking straight up and over a low mesa, through thick juniper and opuntia scrub, when we could've just gone around. I just about had a conniption fit up on top when it was cactus thickets in every direction. I was convinced I was going to blind my poor dog (or, rather, she would blind herself being an idiot), and I'd have to carry her back to the car and race off in search of an emergency vet.  Despite these complications, we did find what we were looking for. We ended up turning back at the cusp of the canyon because it was fringed in a wall of cactus, and I just couldn't justify blinding my dog for the sake of exploration.

View from near the road to the canyon
Despite our misadventures, I was very impressed with the landscape. It looked like a translation of my mental image for "Texas" from before I actually moved here. Low, flat topped mesas were edged in rocky drop-offs, and they were lightly covered in juniper and mesquite. It is hard to believe that something so rugged and western exists less than an hour and a half from green, treed Fort Worth. It was a world away from the hackberry and pecan groves. I could see going into full-hermit mode out there. I'm a real sucker for rocks and spare landscapes.

Migrating sand hill cranes passed overhead
Once we reached the peak of our ill-advised mesa scaling adventure, we had a moment of peace. I could see for miles down the valley, a valley that raptors funnel through in their fall migration. I stopped and ate an orange and Colby huffed quietly. Then I heard a familiar gurgling trill from overhead: sand hill cranes! They were using the same flyway on their migration south to their coastal wintering grounds. I'm not sure Colby appreciated it, but I got a lot of joy from hearing the cranes. Seeing them pass through provides something of a thread linking my year in Nebraska with my time here in Texas. I'd like to return to this undeveloped landscape to see it change with the seasons, though if I bring Colby we'll stick to the roads.

Dog tired. (Hah!)


  1. Great photo of the clouds and topology, you may need to look into some hound dog armor though.

    The ecology of the Palo Pinto area is fascinating. In most of Texas as you move from the southeast to the northwest, the geologic age of the formations get older. The Strawn area shows one of nature’s many exceptions. That area appears to be an ancient reef about 300 million years old that is maybe 100 miles wide and 200 long running from southwest to northeast (It is the lavender sliver in the upper right corner of the Abilene sheet on the statewide map of the Texas Geologic Atlas:

    Even though it is still sedimentary, the reef must have seen some uplift relative to the formations to the east and west, which are younger, respectively by about 120 million and 75 million years. Paradoxically, the older rocks make for a more recent plant colonization site, as the overlain younger rocks had to erode away.

    Whether this geologic event affects plant distribution is an open question. If most of the plants in the Texas landscape moved in after the last ice age, or 15,000 years ago, and placing the time scale of 15,000 years to 150 million years into 24 hours, then the last ice age would have taken place about 9 seconds ago. Another geologic feature potentially affecting plant distribution in that area is salt leaching into the Brazos River about 70 miles east of Lubbock (this also affects the Red River). The salinity in the Brazos doesn’t get diluted enough to drink until around Mineral Wells. Plants that migrate by waterways would have had a natural barrier along the salt stretch of the Brazos.

    Jumping from geologic time to historic time, the high density of prickly pear your dog ouched into almost certainly indicates overgrazing. This event likely occurred in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. That along with the fragile soils likely disrupted nutrient cycles with a net loss from the ecosystem of relative large amounts of soil and nitrogen, which in turn tipped the comparative advantage to woody species. Given the recent increased atmospheric CO2, the woody species are in the driver’s seat now. All that said, hunting for relic plants and their niches in the Palo Pinto area is a frontier for the interested naturalist.


    1. Wow! Thanks for such an informative comment. Geology is fascinating, and I had no idea about the unusual formation in Palo Pinto. It's also interesting that overgrazing from a century ago could leave such a lasting legacy of cacti.

      I visited a site in eastern Colorado last year, and they achieved pretty good control of opuntia using prescribed fire. I know that the site near Strawn would certainly benefit in a number of ways from prescribed fire, and it would be interesting to see what it does to the cedar and prickly pair thickness.



  2. I would love to have anonymous give a lecture to NPAT or NPSOT in Tarrant county. I had the privilege of hearing Chuck Finsley more than once lecture on geology of the area. It is a fascinating subject.