Look closely and you’ll spot plenty of wildlife in a concrete jungle

July 29, 2017
Mike Leggett
A school of baby bullhead catfish swims in a creek in Burnet. The fish join together in a giant school for protection, trying to increase the odds that a couple will survive to adulthood. MIKE LEGGETT/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I’m always fascinated by the amount and variety of natural activity going on inside cities in Texas.

I guess it’s because we are still a state where wilderness bumps right up against many city limits, and one where — even though most people never suspect it — there’s a whole world of fish and animals and snakes and varmints swarming around and into town.

I’m certain that some of that ignorance — like the confusion about the balls of catfish fry that I’ve been seeing — is because people just don’t know WHAT to look for. Other times, it’s that folks don’t KNOW to look, probably because they’re in town or in their own neighborhoods.

As a result of our recent house fire, Rana and I, along with Ceilidh the dog, spent all of May and June, along with most of July, living in a hotel just a couple of blocks from the square in Burnet. Most of that time, I would dodge the traffic on U.S. 281 South and walk down to the trail behind our YMCA for my afternoon exercise.

But I got bored at that and decided to cut through the brush to the walking trail along Hamilton Creek, which crosses Texas 29 just west of downtown and then angles southeast to cross 281 right in front of the hotel.

That was a revelation, in a way, because I wasn’t expecting all the birds and animals and fish that I have seen down there. From ducks to deer to turtles to snakes, pretty much everything is represented in and around the creek.

I’ve seen whitewings, ducks of every kind and geese, including one old gander who stressed that it’s his territory down there by the restaurant. He insists on sneaking up behind me every couple of days and biting me on my Achilles. Other times, he just raises hell and charges me in a full-on attack.

There are baby ducks, mallard and Muscovy mixes that I’ve been watching and hoping they make it through the summer to adulthood. If they don’t, it will probably be one of the big bass that live in there or an oversized turtle that takes them down.

There is one very large softshell turtle living there. I’m not sure whether it would take a baby duck, but I know it’s possible. We’ll have to wait and see.

But I’ve been fascinated by the multiple balls of catfish fry that I’ve seen swimming around in the creek. A bunch of them were in two small sections that have dried up during the heat of July. As they began to struggle and then get sucked into the mud at the bottom of the pools, green herons moved in and began feeding on the thousands of tiny catfish dying in the mud.

“Those would very likely be black bullheads,” said Craig Bonds, head of freshwater fisheries for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Most people call them mudcats, but they’re really bullheads.”

The giant shoals of fish gather for safety’s sake, Bonds said. “If you have vulnerable small fish that way, they keep close together so that more of them have a chance to survive. But in a place like that, there’s a chance that none of them could wind up making it to an adult fish.”

Several Texas rat snakes have come down to the creek to feed, and most of them never made it back to the brush from which they came. I’ve found three different snakes beheaded or stomped to death on the walking trail along the creek. I’m no friend of rat snakes, but killing them seems a wasteful thing to do.

They serve a purpose and help keep down rodent populations in the city.

I haven’t seen any rattlesnakes, but I’m sure they’re in there.

One afternoon, I did see a spotted fawn walking away from the creek and into some tall grass just on the edge of a yard around a house along the creek. He went through a board fence and then disappeared in the tall grass before I could get to him.

When I walked up to the spot where he’d disappeared, I could see him hiding in the brush not far from the fence. A day later, I saw a doe run over on the highway about 200 yards away, and I can only surmise that she was his mother.

That’s life in the big city.