For hibernating rodent and hidden turtle, what dreams, I wonder, come on such a day of spring in January?
~Edwin Way Teale
I just returned from several days down at Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. The weather started off beautiful, then wet and warm, then cold and windy – quite a variety of conditions in a 6-day span. The trend thus far this winter has been for unusually warm conditions which has lead to some strange wildlife sightings. I reported in an earlier blog on the butterflies we saw on the Christmas Bird Count, and the still active mosquitoes and biting flies. This past Sunday set a new personal record for strange winter wildlife sightings in North Carolina – a 4 species-of-snake-day in January. I have seen a few snakes out in December and January over the years (mostly Rough Green Snakes at Pungo), but never 4 species in one day.
Snakes generally seek sheltered locations when cold weather strikes, but can be seen out, even in winter, when temperatures warm to around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or more. Last week had a string of warm days, with daytime highs reaching the mid-60’s on Saturday and Sunday. I had a group of photographers and we heard a few frogs calling as we walked around on Saturday, which was rainy and mild. Melissa was down at Pungo with a group of teachers and texted me about an amazing observation. She had walked up to a tree with a hollow base to investigate what looked like some digging at the entrance to the hole. When she looked inside, she saw what appeared to be a large snake, perhaps a Canebrake Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus. I called her that evening and quizzed her on its location. The next day, I walked my group down the trail to where Melissa had described the tree. As I approached what I thought was the tree, I was at first disappointed, as I did not see a snake.
But, then, I noticed something on the side of the trunk – a snake’s tail! I glanced around the trunk and there it was, a huge, beautiful rattlesnake, wedged between some vines about two feet off the ground. Needless to say, I was excited, and members of my group that had stayed on that morning were provided with a rare opportunity to photograph a winter snake. Little did I realize then that the day held many more reptile surprises.
After our walk at Pungo, we headed over to Goose Creek State Park for our final outing of the weekend. As we walked the long boardwalk behind the Visitor Center, one of the folks in the group called out…”snake”. Lying on a clump at the base of a larger tree was a water snake. At first glance, I thought it might be a Red-bellied Water Snake, Nerodia erythrogaster, due to the colors on its head and general lack of dorsal markings.
The more I looked, I thought maybe it was a Banded Water Snake, Nerodia fasciata, which can be rather dark on its dorsal surface, but can retain faint bands, like this one appeared to have. They usually have a diagnostic dark stripe from the eye to the back of the jaw line, and this one might have that, although it is hard to see. So, not quite sure, but snake species #2 for the day, nonetheless.
A few feet beyond the snake, someone glimpsed a Spotted Turtle, Clemmys guttata, basking on a log. These beautiful turtles are more active in the spring, although it is not uncommon to see them on warm winter days.
The wind started picking up and the temperature seemed to be dropping as we drove out of the park.Not far beyond the park entrance, I saw a car stopped in the oncoming lane, flashers on. The driver was out of the car and I noticed a large, orange-ish snake right in front of the stopped vehicle. It was a Corn Snake, Elaphe guttata. The driver picked up a flat piece of wood along the road and was undoubtedly headed back to shoo the snake out of harm’s way. A good deed, indeed. But for the Sheriff’s car behind us, I would have stopped for a closer look and a photo. Species #3!
After everyone headed for home, I went back over to the Pungo Unit in hopes of getting some better photos of the rattlesnake, and seeing the Snow Geese in sunlight instead of gray skies like the previous couple of days. When I reached the tree with the hollow base, the snake was nowhere to be seen. That causes you to be extra cautious I might add….where did it go?
I walked a little farther, and saw a slight movement – snake species #4 for the day, a Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivus. It was on the ground when I first saw it, but quickly moved to a tree trunk and began to climb.
I soon walked on, carefully scanning the dried leaves ahead of me for signs of a snake, while still trying to look ahead for wildlife, such as bears, and overhead for eagles and other birds. It was, needless to say, a slow pace. I found myself shining my small flashlight (I always carry one) into every tree hollow and open base, looking for more snakes.
One of the last trees I checked had a narrow opening just above the ground. When I leaned over and turned on my light, I was surprised (as was he) to see a sleepy Racoon roll over and look up at me. I guess I’ll be checking more hollow trees in the future. I’ll share more of what happened later that afternoon in another post (it was spectacular).
The next morning I returned to Pungo while waiting on my next group to arrive from Raleigh. Overnight temperatures had dropped to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, much colder than the previous couple of days. I walked down and entered the woods again, hoping to see bears or other animals that might be active on a chilly morning. As I walked by the rattlesnake tree, I couldn’t help but check it one last time…
First glance, nothing. But shining my light into the back of the recess, I saw the snake curled up, probably close to where Melissa had first seen it two days before. Amazing! I figured it would stay put since it was so cold, so I brought my group back several hours later. After having built up the fact that we would see an amazing winter surprise, I was, indeed, surprised when I looked back into the hollow – no snake. Lesson learned…you can’t get cocky when dealing with nature’s critters and their behavior. They are on their own schedule, and do things that constantly mystify and amaze me. Where had it gone? I thought I could see most of the area inside the hollow, but maybe there is a hole in there that the snake crawls into, which would be a much better insulator that lying up on the ground. Maybe that is where it had gone the afternoon before when I came back looking for it and couldn’t find it. But, whatever the case, the entire experience was incredible, and I am happy I could share at least parts of it with others. Pungo never disappoints.