Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Don't Snakes Know Better Than to Go Out In the Cold? ---Guest Post---



    Last weekend the snakes of south Georgia broadcast loud and clear, we don’t fear no stinking polar vortexes!

    It was 25 degrees at dawn (that would be Fahrenheit, not Celsius), a north wind slapping against my home as I prepped for the day’s snake surveys. As a herpetologist with The Orianne Society I conduct field work throughout the Altamaha River drainage of southeastern Georgia—field work designed to monitor population trends of two great snakes, the Eastern Indigo Snake and the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. Crossing a flood-swollen and roiling Altamaha under a dark sky, my vehicle swaying in a mammoth gust, reinforced the futility and/or lunacy of snake-hunting in such brutal conditions. An hour later I drove by a local country kitchen, the parking lot packed to the gills with pickups. Blue smoke played over the roof. I’ve bellied up in that little kitchen, and I knew that inside one could encounter hot coffee, sizzling grease, cute waitresses… I shivered, eyed my grapefruit with disdain, and drove on.

    I started out wearing a hat, scarf, two sweaters over a t-shirt, and a heavy blaze-orange vest over the sweaters. Because both species I was after take refuge in Gopher Tortoise Burrows, those burrows were the target of my search. By moving-moving and doing a poor-man’s pushup on every tortoise burrow apron (I lie on my belly, stick my head in the mouth of the burrow, and shine the beam of my small but high-powered flashlight deep into the nether-regions of the turtle’s lodge; then, courtesy of aging knees and pectorals the consistency of overcooked pasta, I endeavor to make an awkward rise, via a three-point crab-like stance to a bipedal posture), after an hour or so I found a rhythm of sorts, and shed one of the sweaters. The temp had bumped up to the low 40s. I finally saw my first vertebrate of the day when I spotted, 10 feet down, the butt end of a gopher turtle, damp with condensation. Hip, hip, hooray…

    By 1330, the temperature had soared to 48 F. At this point, I was phoning it in; this snake survey had become little more than an extended exercise session. The sun would shine, teasingly, but within minutes would again disappear. Now I moved rapidly over the sandhill, stopping only for a quick drop-and-shine (yep, no snake here, no snake here…) then on. A small tortoise burrow beckoned. Only the width of soda can, the white sand humped at its entrance was clean and smooth. Surely not a snake track, or is it? I parted some thorny shrubs as I got ready to get down on the cold ground. Suddenly, a misplaced jewel patterned with repeated and hypnotic diamonds materializes underfoot.


    Fortunately I saw the rattlesnake before doing my push-up. He was sure a little feller. Such young specimens are very seldom found during our tortoise-burrow surveys (at just a bit over two feet long with only two rattle segments plus his button, this was a snake born in 2013). He looked cold, even trembly. He was wound tight in a compact circular coil, and positioned such that in those rare moments when the sun did shine it slathered his grossly swollen belly (evidently, the little guy had suppered on rodent only a day or two before). Excited, I reached in my vest pocket to grab a quick-reading thermometer carried expressly for such moments. What was left of the grapefruit, a tortoise bone, my eyeglasses, and the remnants of a yet unidentified shed skin spilled from my pocket to the sand. I placed the thermometer on the ground in the open near the snake; when the sun’s rays struck and held it read 73 F, but when the sun went missing (and it mostly did) it read only 57 F. 

    Near the end of what was becoming a memorably long and cold field day (over 125 burrow push-ups), I gasped when I trod past a burrow visited earlier in the day and found a fresh indigo track sculpted into the sand. I searched around for the snake for a good half hour... About the same time, a team of my colleagues searching elsewhere (Team Sissy-Britches, see their coats on the right) captained by Kevin Stohlgren was photographing a young Indigo found on the surface. It was small, two years old, a great find, and a snake that we had never captured and marked. Over hot chocolates that evening, we traded e-mail photos and stories. 
    
    My wife reported that my sleep was heavy, dense, my body unmoving. I can’t recall my dreams, so I’ll employ creative license here and say they were of sunshine, bubbling wrens, the new pink blossoms of fetterbush, and bright-eyed tortoises perched on burrow aprons. I awoke with the backs of both hands raspberry-stippled with many dozens of tiny wounds where the tips of blackberry thorns had broken off like snake teeth.

    The next morning it was 29 at dawn, but clear and calm. With fresh legs and a new attitude, I was up and out early for another day of snake surveying. Again the diner parking lot was congested, and I’ll be darned if at 45 mph with the windows up I didn't smell bacon.

    I returned to the same site, passing many blackwater swamps—wetlands that, per your mood, are inviting or forbidding. Our wet winter means full swamps, where, later this spring, Indigos will chase frogs. The tea-stained waters are now eerily quiet, verging on melancholic—but critters like sirens and spotted turtles will be stirring soon.

    By noon it’s 54, but now some full sun. The weather feels calm, easy, almost snaky. My little rattler buddy, still warming his gut, is right where he was yesterday. I almost forget about the Indigo- track- burrow until I am on it, and I look up to see what might be mistaken for an ink-dipped, extra-large hockey puck curled on the edge of the apron. In my excitement I drop my camera bag and run 20 feet to the burrow…the snake hasn’t moved an inch. What a beautiful snake, and a little female at that. I later learn that Team Sissy-Britches also locates a fine Indigo, a male woven in and out of dense wiregrass. They actually spotted him, his shine that is, from afar with binoculars. 


    I move to another survey site, and here I visit the money burrow, the Indigo honey-hole you might say, where on my last visit I was treated to a circus-like affair. Ambling up a month ago, I found two fresh shed skins of adult Indigos and a large male snake—a purple flash in the sun— relaxing contentedly, nearby. As if that wasn’t enough, another Indigo emerged from the burrow as I stood there. 

    Today there is no snake, but ample signs about the burrow—including a sizeable Indigo scat. The scat begins on the burrow apron and trails off a good 12 inches into the shadows of the burrow interior. Snake feces are clearly recognizable as such —a stream of yellow-green, powdery urates (the color alone is diagnostic and reptilian-odd, almost a bioluminescent yellow-green, a color seen in nature only in certain runny species of fungi and marine organisms). Part of the stream is punctuated by two sizeable packets of dense material (picture owl pellets), and like an excited monkey I crouch on the burrow apron and begin to break these apart. As I begin to crush the scat between my fingers a single fang drops to the sand. Then a tight wad of snake scales, and more balled-up scales. Satisfied, I bag it, and conclude that one of the Indigos recently ate a small diamondback.



And here, a much larger Diamondback,
found by the author a month ago.
    Another arctic blast drifted south soon after the cold blast we had just experienced, and yes, I was scared. But, the brave snakes of south Georgia have been there before, knew what to do, and surely persevered.

About the Author: Dirk Stevenson

Dirk Stevenson, who has been with The Orianne Society for six years, monitors Eastern Indigo Snake populations throughout Georgia.

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