Natural History Treats


South Georgia has experienced temperature swings of 50 degrees over the last couple weeks, prompting lively battles between my wife Beth and me here at home— as the “thermostat wars” resumed in earnest. (Yesterday, with the high temp topping 80 F, she had the unmitigated audacity to scold me when she spotted my twitching finger on the AC dial)

Knowing I was in for a long walk on what would become a hot day, I got an early start. Golden and auburn grasses carpet the gently undulating sand ridges along the lower Altamaha, and the foliage on the pond cypress foresting the distant sloughs now burns fire-orange. It’s a wonderful morning to be afield, still, the life around me is still awakening. I flush numerous small flocks of mourning doves and common ground doves, enjoying the soothing, soft whistles of their wing beats. The recent warm weather has our Gopher Tortoises exhibiting greater surface activity than is normal for early December. I hike to my survey site, smiling, as I take in the many sets of parallel foot prints and accompanying shell rubs on the sand road, reptilian graffiti that shouts “Welcome to Gopherus polyphemus International Speedway”.

Two hours in and still no sneaky snakes. Even so, I am “feeling it”, and am expecting something serpentine soon. Then, a quick flash as a little Coachwhip perched on the top of a gopher tunnel entrance books back into his refuge. Alas, I had no chance to get my hands on this handsome little fellow. Another hour of walking, oh my goodness it is getting warm. And then I spot something that gives me the tingles…

Crossing a narrow sand path through scrub is what looks like a fresh snake track. I drop my gear and go on high alert. The same path is crisscrossed with fresh armadillo sign, complete with the corresponding snake-like tail drags. And I have weathering tortoise prints, also some scratches where somebody played with coyote dung a few days ago… I return and again contemplate “the track”. Yes, I decide, with a finality that turns my tingles back on, that is indeed a fresh track of a large snake.

  Enlarge Photo

I walk all of 15 feet into a tight forest of sand live oak hammocks, islands of saw palmetto clumps dot the habitat here, and look up to see a large Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, motionless, head held high, stretched out in the leaf litter. Toting a sizeable bolus, it is clear that the snake has recently fed (a bit unusual for December, but like I said it’s been abnormally warm the last week.) Good stuff!

On the ride home I hit the brakes hard for a plump and tightly-kinked form in the road that proves to be a very good-looking Eastern Hognose Snake. That evening, Beth returns from a sensational field day of her own, having photographed a snowy owl on one of Georgia’s barrier islands. The mood is festive as we converse about our respective natural history treats. I report that I may be a bit warm…”Oh, shoot, honey, me too, how about cranking the AC?”