Recently, I was one of a number of biologists based in West Texas to be invited to participate in a biological survey of a ranch near Ozona. One of the benefits of the experience was to camp out on the property. More people should have the opportunity. And in the near future, as a result of region-wide interest in nature tourism, more people may indeed have the opportunity.
The ranch that I visited was not endowed with incredible scenic vistas. It did not have running streams, steep cliffs, or other "eye candy." Despite such drawbacks, I had a wonderful time. What I saw could be seen anywhere on hundreds of ranches within 150 miles of Midland.
We camped in a draw with a grove of hackberries. A small stock tank next to a creaky windmill created a magnet for the wildlife of one section of the ranch. Respecting the need of wild animals for water, we set up camp a hundred yards from the pond.
Despite the drought, shrubs that deer browse are still surviving. As the sun neared the horizon, several antlered bucks began working their way from brush clump to brush clump, moving in the general direction of the water. Despite our presence, they seemed to know that it was not hunting season.
We sat in camp chairs, grilling steaks and baking potatoes in the campfire as we watched the deer. Their acceptance of our presence reassured other animals that we weren’t a threat. A raccoon emerged, trundling down to the water’s edge, where it waded into the shallows. The big fuzzball kept manipulating something underwater, and we guessed it was turning over submerged rocks as it hunted for frogs.
A flock of twenty turkeys also came down the slope of the hill. Two big gobblers faced off, fussing and spreading their tails, and finally collided, wrestling by wrapping their necks together. The hens ignored them, pecking at tidbits on the ground, while the jakes (yearling males) stood around the wrestling gobblers, as if to analyze their behavior and glean the best fighting techniques for success.
Mounds of horehound plants, with fresh growth promising spring's coming bounty speckled the pasture between our camp and the pond. Horehound came to America with the Pilgrims and has spread all over the country, including our West Texas landscape. One of the biologists raised in the area told of his grandmother making horehound candy to ease the throat tickle of spring colds. After an hour or so of storytelling, we retired to our beds in the back of our pickups.
When all of the human noises had faded, the sounds of the night began. Several Leopard Frogs started making raspy calls, indicating the departure of the coon. A female Great Horned Owl started her deep three-note hooting. One of the Great Horned Owl’s hunting techniques is to hoot a dozen times and then sit quietly. When mice hear the hooting stop, they get nervous and run for cover, hoping for a better place to hide. This scampering is precisely what the owls are waiting for, and sure enough, the owl swooped down into the pasture, landing briefly. Being too far away, I did not hear any agonized squeaks, but the owl immediately flew to one of the crosspieces of the windmill. It sat there for 10 minutes without a sound, so I figured it had been successful. In the morning, we found a fresh pellet that it had regurgitated.
After the owl flew away, poorwills began calling their name. Poorwills are night hunters specializing in moths. Native Americans knew these birds as "the sleepy ones." In the 1930's, biologists discovered what the Indians already knew. Poorwills "hibernate," their breathing almost indiscernible. If found and handled in this state, poorwills might, at best, open their eyes briefly. They make no effort to flee.
I was awakened late in the night by strange whimpering and yelping cries. Goosebumps prickled my skin as I listened. Suddenly, the wind drastically increased in speed. I zipped up my sleeping bag to retain body heat, and the strange cries came closer. I continued shivering -- and not just from the chilly wind. I knew the yelping and whimpering was the sound of courting foxes, but still…