Sunday, May 20, 2007

Atricle: Hunting horned lizards

A horned lizard or horney toad

When I was a kid, my parents took frequent trips to Las Vegas dragging their five kids along and parking us at an arcade or at the hotel pool. This contented my older siblings but my younger brother and I could not be so easily contained. After our parents disappeared onto the gambling floor, Stephen and I headed out into the desert just behind the hotel.

The hot sand beyond the strip crawled with secretive life. We marveled at enormous ants clearing rings around the bustling entrances to their colonies. Turning over rocks, we watched in fascination as centipedes and scorpions scurried to find new hiding places. But our favorites were the lizards and most of all the horny toads.

There’s a lot to love about a horny toad--or horned lizard as they are more properly called. Of course, their thorny exterior makes them uniquely charismatic. Occasionally one would manage to jab us with the sharp horns that rimmed the back of its head and we would imagine ourselves as T. rex’s, in mortal combat with the great armored herbivores of the Jurassic.

The most endearing characteristic of horned lizards was how easily they were caught. Their evolutionary survival strategy is camouflage. Unlike the speedy race runners or desert swifts, horned lizards don’t run off when approached. Usually they hunker down and hope you’ll pass. To two little kids that made them the best lizards ever.

I suppose those memories are why horned lizards hold such fascination for me. I thrill every time I see one. I’m willing to travel a distance to get that rush too. So last weekend I headed south to Chaparral Wildlife Management Area to get my annual horned lizard fix.

Even in Chaparral where horned lizards are still fairly common, they’re not easy to spot. The lizard hunting plan is to drive, drive, drive and then drive some more, slowly going up and down the roads of the wildlife management area staring at the pavement. It’s not unusual for hours to pass without seeing anything.

I shouldn’t say that though, there’s a lot of other stuff to see. This time of year, the chaparral is teaming with flowers and butterflies. Birds including caracaras, painted buntings, vermilion flycatchers and roadrunners can be seen. Maybe a pack of javalina will cross the road. Or a diminutive Texas tortoise. On this trip we were amazed to spot two bobcats. And there’s the occasional western diamondback rattlesnake for excitement.

Our patience on this trip was rewarded with a stunning ten horned lizard sightings. Naturally, I had to photograph each and every one. Along with their official status as the Texas State Reptile, all three horned lizards species living in Texas are protected. The reason for their decline is not fully understood but may be related to pesticide usage or the invasive Argentine fire ant. Horned lizards are specialized ant predators but they need big, juicy ants like harvester ants, not small, stinging ants like fire ants.

It’s hard to believe that horned lizards were once common in Hays County. There are probably a few areas where they can still be found. My niece, who lives only about a mile from me, found a dead one on her driveway last year but I’ve never seen one anywhere around here. Kids growing up in this area will not have wonderful memories like mine. That’s a real loss.

To learn more about horned lizards go to:
http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/learning/texas_nature_trackers/horned_lizard/
http://www.hornedlizards.org/index.html

Photo: This lizard has one skewed horn. Sometimes they'll tilt their head backward to stab you with those things.Photo: The colors seem bright but they blend very will with the lizard's environment.Photo: My daughter Coral and her friend Carl serving as horned lizard spotters on the top of my Jeep.

1 comment:

Coral said...

poor lucky number eight...