Authored by David Hutto Jr.
Indigo Days is an annual event that started in 2013 as a way to show our appreciation to our members by inviting them to our preserve system in Telfair County, Georgia and some adjacent counties to be a part of our Indigo Snake surveys. Indigo Days is always in the fall-winter to correspond with our Indigo field season and event participants get the chance to search for the federally listed Eastern Indigo Snake, Gopher Tortoises, and Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes in the field alongside our staff. This is a two-day event where private citizens learn the value of the Gopher Tortoise to the Longleaf Pine ecosystem, learn why habitat restoration is so important to our mission, how and why we PIT tag snakes, and why what we do and why we want to conserve these animals is so critical to obtaining balanced ecosystems. This is an opportunity for individuals that wouldn’t normally think about these animals to get up close and personal with our focal species and learn to value these animals and understand their basic ecology.
Our good friend and member, David Hutto, participated in Indigo Days again this year. Below is his recap of the weekend:
Indigo Days 2017 began like any other has, with a brief meeting at the main headquarters of the Orianne Society’s Indigo Snake Preserve. The February morning was crisp and cool as we stepped out of our vehicles to meet with our fellow herpers, but the sun on our backs gave an indication of the heat that was to come later in the day. We all made quick introductions and Dirk Stevenson welcomed everyone to the Preserve. There were three separate trips that everyone had the option of joining, one led by Dirk, one led by Ben Stegenga, and one by Houston Chandler. After a quick review of safety procedures and protocol, we split up into groups that we would be in for the rest of the day.
I joined up with Ben’s crew to search the Preserve; armed with snake hooks, nets, and pocket mirrors, we piled into vehicles and took a short drive to our first stop. The day started slowly for our crew; despite our best efforts the only species that came out of the area was a Little Grass Frog (Pseudacris ocularis) found by Scott Bolick and Kaitlyn Dunagan, who decided to check out a small depressional wetland. A stop at the next spot, one that had produced an exceptional Florida Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus mugitus) during the last Indigo Days event, turned up only the shell of a Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). After spending a good portion of the morning walking through the sandy, longleaf pine dominated ecosystem and attempting (unsuccessfully at times) to fend off the sharp spines of prickly pear cactus, we stopped for a short lunch break. The break was a much needed pick-me-up after our poor morning’s luck, as was the welcome news that both of the other crews had found Eastern Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon couperi). We heard that in Dirk’s crew, Matt Moore had come upon a basking Indigo and was able to just get his hands on its tail as it dove down a mouse burrow. Not wanting to risk injury to the snake, Matt was forced to drop its tail and watch as the large snake disappeared into the darkness. This story rejuvenated our spirits and as chance would have it, our luck began to turn.
Upon arriving at our next location we were told that an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) had been spotted near one of the tortoise burrows a few days earlier. Excited by the prospect of getting to spot this revered serpent in the open, we fanned out and began the search. We hadn’t been combing the area long before Chris Bolick and myself came upon a large pile of woody debris. Without hesitation we began carefully flipping every limb and log that we could, being careful to put them back the way we found them; after all, it could be someone’s home. On Chris’s third flip we both saw a Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) bolt from under the section of bark and into the grass. The chase commenced and after several redirections, Chris lifted the racer off of the ground just before it could get back into the woodpile. The small racer had a good amount of scarring behind his head, though nothing fatal. It appeared to have been caused by a predator, possibly an Indigo who regularly feed on other snakes.
At the same time Chris and I were chasing the snake, Corey Hawkins found a Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum) under a log next to the wood pile, and John Bolton captured a Northern Mole Skink (Plestiodon egregius similis). The Mole Skink was a hit with everyone and definitely a memorable find as this species is fairly fossorial in nature and has a very patchy range within southern Georgia.
The last site of the day provided more excellent habitat and a multitude of tortoise burrows to shine with our pocket mirrors (the power of the sun is much brighter than any flashlight we could hope to wield). Several people in the crew got glimpses of the tortoises themselves in their subterranean retreats, but Corey found something else entirely. As he rolled a large piece of wood he heard a buzzing coming from within a nearby burrow, and that could only mean one thing…rattlesnake. He angled his mirror into the opening and lying about 4-5 feet into the burrow was the large Diamondback. He called for the rest of the crew and once everyone got to the burrow, plans were made to safely extract
the snake. Luckily the burrow was only about 6 feet deep so the snake could not escape further into the hole (Gopher Tortoises can dig their burrows to an average of 15 feet deep!). Ben has experience safely removing rattlesnakes from burrows, and used those skill expertly. Once the snake was safely in a pole-bag we found an open, shady spot where we could safely pose it for pictures. Ben wrangled the snake and remained vigilant while we took our photographs, after a quick session it was placed into a secured tub. When encountering a rattlesnake or indigo in the wild, Orianne Society staff will capture the animal and swab it for the presence of snake fungal disease (SFD). Since swabbing a large Diamondback is a two person job, we packed him up to take to the Preserve, where another staff member could assist with the data collection. After leaving the site with our prized find in tow, it was back to the Preserve headquarters to regroup and break for dinner. We found out that both of the other groups found a total of six Eastern Indigo Snakes, two Corn Snakes (Pantherophis guttatus), and a Southeastern Crowned Snake (Tantilla coronata).
Before leaving the headquarters several of us decided to poke around the onsite borrow pit turned wetland. We were told that a large chorus of Barking Treefrogs (Hyla gratiosa) had been heard the night before. In February. We had to check it out. A few Southern Cricket Frogs (Acris gryllus) were seen and Lauren Casey found a charismatic juvenile Banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata fasciata). Scott Bolick and myself happened on two Barking Treefrogs before we left, a great way to end an afternoon herping.
Dinner was served at Little Ocmulgee State Park where Dirk Stevenson gave an informative presentation on the herpetofauna of the Altamaha River. After the talk and fellowship a group went with Ben Stegenga to herp along the shoreline of the lake at the park and around the lake’s spillway. Several members then went salamander hunting in a wetland near the lodge where quite a few larval and adult Southern Red Salamanders (Pseudotriton ruber vioscaii) were found along with a juvenile American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus).
On Sunday morning upon arrival to the Preserve headquarters, Ben and Houston tubed and swabbed the rattlesnake from the day before for SFD while the crowd looked on. To check for this fungus you must swab the areas around the mouth, nostrils, and heat sensing pits; the snake must be in a tube in order for this procedure to be done safely. After the rattlesnake demonstration and a chance to handle/photograph a vibrant Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), a Florida Softshell (Apalone ferox), and a juvenile Gopher Tortoise found by crews the day before, we gathered into our groups for the day. The group that I was in largely stayed the same but went with Dirk and Houston this time out. The weather was a bit cooler to start off with and did not get as hot as Saturday, so we were all very optimistic about the chance to get an Indigo. We surveyed fantastic habitat and shined many burrows throughout the day but did not come up with the first snake. Striped Scorpions (Centruroides hentzi) were a hit at one of our first stops, along with several Eastern Fence Lizards (Sceloporus undulatus). At our next-to-last site I found an Eastern Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis) under a log escaping the midday sun. After some quick photographs I put him back under his woody refuge and met up with the rest of the crew to head to the last site. Immediately after getting out of the cars, a set of tracks potentially made by an Indigo, were found at a tortoise burrow entrance. We quickly pulled out the burrow scoping equipment to see if we could find anything underground. After scoping several burrows and finding nothing, we decided to call it a day and head back to the Preserve headquarters to pack up and say our goodbyes.
After a quick overview of how the day went for the other groups, which largely mirrored our experience, the “outstanding herper” award was given to both Corey and Josh Hawkins. They were given a coveted Orianne Society hat that they could fight over between the two of them. Overall the weekend was an enormous success and a great time to reconnect with friends as well as meet new people and make new, lasting connections. A huge thank you is extended to The Orianne Society, Dirk Stevenson, Houston Chandler, Matt Moore, Ben Stegenga and all others who worked behind the scenes to make Indigo Days 2017 a memorable and fun weekend! Happy Herping, everyone!
Total Species List:
American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)
American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)
Banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata fasciata)
Barking Treefrog (Hyla gratiosa)
Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus)
Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)
Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)
Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)
Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi)
Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum)
Eastern Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis)
Florida Softshell Turtle (Apalone ferox)
Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis)
Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea)
Ground Skink (Scincella lateralis)
Little Grass Frog (Pseudacris ocularis)
Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum)
Northern Mole Skink (Plestiodon egregius similis)
Ocmulgee Slimy Salamander (Plethodon ocmulgee)
Southeastern Crowned Snake (Tantilla coronata)
Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus)
Southern Cricket Frog (Acris gryllus)
Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus)
Southern Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber vioscai)
Southern Toad (Anaxyrus terrestris)
Southern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea cirrigera)
Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)