Monday, November 2, 2015

Not Just a Snake, A Forest Ruler ---Guest Post---

A preview from our new monograph about the amphibians and reptiles of Conecuh National Forest (which you can obtain here).

By Sierra Hulsey Stiles

    By any normal distance measure, she’s not far from where 
we’ve parked when I see her, but anyone who has done a lot of field work before knows that “far” can be more qualitative than quantitative at times. I find her just down an overgrown and faint “crick” of a road running into the woods from a small tributary of a dirt road about a quarter of a mile from the paved county road you might call the main river closest to here—if you think of the roads as rivers like I do sometimes. I like thinking about rivers all the time, but particularly on hot June days like this. I am working in the upland Longleaf Pine forests today and already aching for a cold plunge in a stream. It is still morning, but there is already sweat streaming from my eyes and stinging. The road I am walking disappears quickly into a small food plot planted for game animals like White-tailed Deer, Turkeys and Bobwhite Quail. I’ve seen deer feeding here more than once at dusk and I’ve stopped to look for their bare sandy scrapes on its edges in fall and winter and also for the aprons of Gopher Tortoise burrows around the edges, but until now I’ve not walked downslope from here before.

    I duck and dodge among thick Sparkleberry shrubs and Yaupon Hollies. The soil is sandy here, and there is really no understory at all, but Lance-leaved Catbrier vines trail dangerously from the branches like snares and I have learned to move slowly through them. They have eaten more than one cord from my telemetry rig with their thorny teeth and it is a long drive from here to buy another one. It’s only another fifty meters or so more before I see her. She looks both sleek and rubenesque lying on a sparse layer of pine needles that seem to float on the bare sand like they have just been blown gently down from the trees by the wind. But there is no wind today, only hot, still air, and I wipe my eyes with my shirtsleeve and retrieve my camera from its pouch around my neck to get a photo before she startles. There is no doubt in my mind that she is aware of me. Indigo Snakes always seem as aware as they are conspicuous. Even if snakes could blink, I think I’d feel her staring at me. I photograph her lying there as still and black as one of the “road gators”—blown out tractor-trailer tires—that I stop to identify while road cruising for snakes at night. She stays paused, then moves slowly downhill away from me while I scrawl notes in my Rite in the Rain book™.

    I am just on the edge of where the dark, shady Sparkleberry opens up to the slight slope of the sandhill. The beeps from the speaker in my telemetry receiver grow slowly fainter; I count them to calculate her temperature later on, using graphs that illustrate the cadence of thermoregulation; perhaps they will reveal some secret adaptations of her life as an ectotherm. Meanwhile, she is moving away. Just beyond me in the direction she is headed, the sky looks larger and I can see the sun getting higher in the sky. This is the point where I’d usually head back to the car to look for the next snake on my list for the day. I have entered my second year working to monitor Eastern Indigo Snakes, Drymarchon couperi, released in Conecuh National Forest in hopes of reestablishing this federally threatened species here. It has been 60 years since the last confirmed sighting of a wild indigo snake in Alabama, and even on the rough days, I am aware of how privileged I am to be a part of this project to reintroduce the largest native snake in North America back to Alabama. There are many other snakes to track today, but instead I adjust the gain on my receiver and walk towards the sun into the openness I see ahead.

    As soon as I emerge, I am drawn like a hummingbird to something red in front of me. I forget about B2, the three-year old, female Indigo Snake I am following, as I realize it is the flower of a White-topped Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia leucophylla, that I am standing over. These carnivorous plants are scattered throughout Conecuh National Forest, but I grew up in Birmingham and I’d only seen them a handful of times on the way to Dauphin Island before my husband Jimmy and I moved here in 2003. For me, finding a patch of them unexpectedly harbors the same level of excitement I still feel every time I find a new Gopher Tortoise burrow in the sandhills. I take out my camera to photograph the large red flower erect on its stalk beside its red veined green pitcher with its white cap-like top, and snap a few photos. As I look around me, I realize this is no ordinary small patch. 

    Along with the White-topped, there are large groups of Yellow Pitcher Plants, Sarracenia flava, and below them Parrots, Sarracenia psittacina, with their pitchers reclining on the ground; pitcher plants are scattered around an open area of the sandhill nearly the size of a football field. This Indigo Snake, slithering slow and deliberate on a belly whose scales reflect a rainbow of iridescent colors, has led me to the largest bog of carnivorous plants I have ever found without a human guide. I stand there in awe looking out at it, imagining all the partially digested bugs held inside the pitchers by little arm-like sticky hairs, stewing in digestive juices. These bugs might have been eaten by birds or frogs, or smashed on the windshield of a passing car, but they will die instead in the throat of this rare plant. To the left of me stands a dense wall of Titi shrubs hiding a small blackwater seep with bright green patches of sphagnum all along it. Bog Cheetos and hatpins hail me as I wander through thick wiregrass down the slope to explore it.

    It is one of those days where it feels like more than a snake is leading me further into these woods. I remember a letter my brother wrote to me about how our love of nature makes us “oblivious to the itching and welps and heat because it’s worth it every single time- and it always will be”. Before he died in a paddling accident in Little River Canyon in October 2006, my brother explored Conecuh with me whenever he came for visits. It was our first few years here and I remember how excited I was to show him a Gopher Tortoise and a Pine Snake, to float beside him in my new favorite springs, creeks and rivers. He liked to wake early and run for miles through the woods on the Conecuh Trail. 

    I drink a slug from my water bottle, raise my antennae into the air like a white flag and surrender myself to following the now waning metronome of beeps. The snake is moving again and I’ve lost visual contact for now. I home closer in on the strongest signal. She has moved into the thick Titi and across the narrow trickle of water hidden there. Although I have managed to penetrate many areas sans machete by folding my antenna down and crawling under thickets, I owe Titi a special dose of respect in this regard as it is one vegetation type that is rarely worth the pain of pushing through. I trail along the pitcher plant lined edges instead and move back upland to make my way around it. The snake has moved uphill again now as well and she stays just ahead of me and moves into a prickly wall of Yaupon and tall Gallberry. The Yaupon scrapes across my arms as I move through. She slides into a wet area with a small break of River Cane preceding a muddy flat beside a tiny blackwater creek. The main channel is only a narrow trickle but the land is so flat here you can tell the whole wide area flows in heavy rains, its small floodplain strewn with rotten logs embedded in the mud. B2 keeps moving on through steadily, like she has an appointment somewhere, so I cross quickly too, curious enough to see where we might arrive, but also content to just take in the scenery along the way. 

    She turns uphill and the trees grade into regal, mature Longleaf Pines with a few scattered Turkey Oaks and Persimmons mixed in. The soil has turned sandy again and I pass a Gopher Tortoise burrow here and there, scanning the aprons for other Indigo Snakes as I pass them, since Gopher Tortoise burrows provide a critical habitat for Indigo Snakes in this part of the range, and therefore Indigos are often seen basking near them. As I continue to follow B2, I am still hoping to catch one more glimpse of her magnificent, big, black body, but she seems to keep the same distance ahead of me the whole time, pausing when I pause, speeding up if I do. As I often do, I suspect she knows I am tracking her but she allows me to follow. A little further and I come upon an old overgrown dirt road in the woods. I follow it, and her by way of it, eventually moving off it to an old plowed fireline and then downhill again. I know now where I am because I have tracked her here many times before, to the huge old upturned rootball of a mature Longleaf Pine tree. Some storm of long ago leaned it over until it eventually fell, making an arch with its roots to frame a door opening to the large safe space deep in the ground where its taproot used to be. Drymarchon, I speak your Latin name softly here, in a language fading with rarity like this crucial space made by old growth trees you’ve entered now. Drymos, forest. Archon, ruler. You have slithered down into this cool space to rest from your morning hunt, and for now, I will not catch another glimpse of you, the forest ruler once again. I turn away from the shelter, full of gladness, hoping Indigo Snakes like this one I have followed for hours now will always make their home in Conecuh National Forest. I wander slowly towards the road to find my own shelter from the mounting heat of a June day.

    The sun is almost over my head now and the heat becomes visible in waves, turning the road back into a river on my walk back. I think again of rivers as I walk the road back to my car where I crank up and drive it like a boat floating -from a small dirt tributary of a road, out to the main river of paved black road and onto the dirt again until I reach Five Runs Creek to take that cold creek dip I dream of in the uplands. As I float there quietly in the cool water, recounting the serendipity of my day following an Indigo Snake in Alabama, I remember the next line in that same letter from my brother: “Do it forever.”

I will. 

For my brother, Shane Harper Hulsey 1973-2006, 
with love forever.

    To find out more information about the Hulsey Little River Trust, established in honor of Shane Harper Hulsey to protect land in the Little River watershed around Little River Canyon, please click here.

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