SW Texas Gopher-thon, 2023
I spent a weekend in Texas this month with Professor Bob Dowler, gopher and skunk expert and all round good guy, looking for rodents. In particular we were chasing two of the remaining three pocket gophers in Texas that neither of us had seen: Desert and Strecker’s Pocket Gopher. Both species are very localised. Desert Pocket Gophers are found around El Paso and Strecker’s around Carrizo Springs, 500 miles to the south-east. I had greedily hoped we might get a chance to look for the remaining species too: Hall’s Pocket Gopher, but turns out they are another 600 miles north of Carrizo Springs at the very top of Texas. And even I could see that that would have made for a bit of an intense trip.
Bob knows every mammalogist in Texas and was able to plan the perfect trip, including time on a friend’s ranch east of El Paso in the shadow of the Guadalupe Mountains where he thought we might get another species or two for my list. He also loves catching mammals and is extremely good at it. He is particularly skilled in gopher trapping with his home made tube traps which get set inside an active tunnel system. This is as much art as science.
Bob had details of recent gopher records around the small town of Fabens near El Paso and it took us a few hours to catch our target there: Desert Pocket Gopher.
We also saw a Fox Squirrel running alongside of the road.
We drove on to Richard Brown’s beautiful ranch near Dell City in the shadow of the Guadalupe Mountains. This really is the middle of nowhere. Richard, a friend of Bob’s, very generously hosted us at his place and helped us set a bunch of Sherman traps. He too is a very keen naturalist and as very little survey work had been done on the ranch he was as interested as us to see what we could catch.
The trapping was very productive and over several sites we caught plenty of Silky Pocket Mice and Rock Pocket Mice. The latter a lifer for me.
We spent several hours going back and forth on whether these mice were indeed Rock Pocket Mice, rather than the very similar looking Desert Pocket Mice (C. eremicus). The most ‘obvious’ external difference is supposed to be the spinyness of the fur on an animal’s butt. But this was not as obvious as we had hoped. Our animals were sort of spiny and sort of not. After much discussion we decided the hairs were sufficiently long and numerous to qualify them all as Rock Pocket Mice. The largely rocky habitat also fitted much better for this species.
Hispid Cotton Rats were a surprise.
And Southern Plains Woodrats were not.
We also caught several Southern and White-footed Deermice and a few of the longer-tailed Cactus Mice.
We saw a few Merriam’s Kangaroo Rats and Black-tailed Jackrabbits after dark and also trapped a couple of the kangaroo rats.
Richard had set pitfall traps for shrews but we weren’t lucky.
Richard’s ranch is a beautiful place with some spectacular star gazing and distant vistas and – clearly – a very diverse small mammal fauna: we trapped 8 rodent species. I hope to return one day.
After a long drive Bob hit the ground running in Carrizo Springs with a nervous eye on the thunderstorms close to town. We had some fairly old records of gophers from the area and so we were delighted to find active mounds in all the old places. Once again it didn’t take the maestro long to catch a Strecker’s Pocket Gopher!
Small trapping was also productive close to town once we could find a decent looking bit of grass along the roadside. We caught 13(!) tiny Merriam’s Pocket Mice in 80 traps, along with several Hispid Cotton Rats and White-footed Deer Mice.
A single kangaroo rat was a source of some excitement as both Ord’s and Gulf Coast Kangaroo Rats have been recorded in the county. But we decided it was Ord’s Kangaroo Rat.
We also got a lone Hispid Pocket Mouse, a species I had only seen once poorly while spotlighting and was on my ‘want better views’ list. No longer!
And best of all we had a Northern Grasshopper Mouse, a lifer for me and a key target here. Fantastic.
What a very nice way to end a great weekend. As always a massive thanks to Bob Dowler for indulging my mammal fetish and for sharing his skills and knowledge so generously. Bob is to small mammals what Liam Neeson was to bad guys in Taken: a man with a “very particular set of skills. Skills acquired over a very long career. Skills that make him a nightmare….[for rodents that try to hide]”. And thank you again Richard Brown for hosting us at your beautiful ranch and for your dedication to protecting the wildlife that lives on it.
Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)
Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus)
Silky Pocket Mouse (Perognathus flavus)
Merriam’s Pocket Mouse (P.merriami)
Hispid Pocket Mouse (Chaetodipus hispidus)
Rock Pocket Mouse (C.intermedius)
Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami)
Ord’s Kangaroo Rat (D.ordii)
Desert Pocket Gopher (Geomys arenarius)
Strecker’s Pocket Gopher (G.streckeri)
Bryant’s Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger)
Southern Plains Woodrat (Neotoma micropus)
Northern Grasshopper Mouse (Onychomys leucogaster)
Cactus Mouse (Peromyscus eremicus)
Southern Deermouse (P.labecula)
White-footed Mouse (P.leucopus)
Hispid Cotton Rat (Sigmodon hispidus)
House Mouse (Mus musculus)
Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana)
19 species, 4 lifers (bold).