By Dirk Stevenson and the Georgia Southern University Herpetology Class
In addition to our annual Indigo Days event, during each Indigo Snake survey season we typically schedule field days with herpetology classes from local universities. This year we have led trips for budding scholars attending both the University of Georgia (Athens) and Georgia Southern University (Statesboro).
During November 2015, Kevin Stohlgren and I joined Georgia Southern University professor Dr. Lance McBrayer and his herpetology class on a field expedition to a remote, privately-owned tract within the Altamaha River watershed. For the last seven years, we have monitored the Eastern Indigo Snake population at this site. Prior to the trip, Dr. McBrayer informed me that many of his students had never encountered an Indigo Snake or Gopher Tortoise in the wild and had scant knowledge of the declining Longleaf Pine ecosystem.
On the heels of our memorable and herp-rich sojourn, class members submitted written accounts summarizing their experiences with us. As these made for marvelous reading, I am going to clip directly from them to tell our story.
We met around 10:00 am, on a red-letter snake weather day.
Below, student Kayla provides a good summary of what would be the focus of this field day.
“On November 11, 2015, Dr. Lance McBrayer provided my herpetology classmates an extraordinary opportunity. My classmates and I spent an entire day alongside Dirk Stevenson and his team of herpetologists searching for reptiles and collecting data on behalf of The Orianne Society. Our hopes were to observe Gopher Tortoises and the rare and beautiful Indigo Snakes that also inhabit the tortoises’ burrows, alongside any other amphibian/reptilian species that we happened to encounter in our exploration! “
So, let the day begin!
From Noelle: “When we got to the cabin we were welcomed, and any nervousness we were feeling left immediately. The staff and hosts were so great and nice! We all loaded up and went to our first site to check out Gopher Tortoise burrows.”
Kayla goes on to describe our first hike of the morning.
From Kayla: “We arrived at the property around 10:00 am, and shortly after introductions and a briefing of background information on the species we may encounter, we were off to the field to begin our search. We observed several Gopher Tortoise burrows as we explored the first sandy hills dispersed alongside a power line field, most of which appeared to be inactive. Then we came across a large burrow that had little elephantine feet tracks, seemingly going out of and then back into the burrow. With Kevin’s assistance and equipment provided by The Orianne Society scientists, we then proceeded to use their scope cam equipment (essentially a long flexible tube with a camera and LED lights attached on one end and an imaging screen on the other) to further explore inside the burrow in hopes of finding a Gopher Tortoise. We were not disappointed. Deep into the burrow the camera revealed a large Gopher Tortoise relaxing in a small puddle of water.”
On long field days lunch is important business. We were well-taken care of by a couple who are the working definition of southern hospitality.
Again, a quote from Kayla: “Special thanks to Mrs. Pam for the early Thanksgiving feast she prepared for us for lunch! Every single dish was absolutely delicious. It isn’t that often that we broke college students get a good, southern home-cooked meal, so if anyone knows how to appreciate your cooking talents it would be us.”
After lunch, we visited a majestic stand of fire-managed Longleaf Pines and learned about this ecosystem from the landowner.
From Noelle: “Mr. Reese told us about the importance of keeping natural habitats healthy. He taught us about Longleaf Pines and how to burn the ecosystems, and he took us to different parts of the property that had been managed vs. not managed. The amount of species variation in the flora was insane, and that was just one spot. I learned that habitat maintenance is very important to keep species that are endangered (and even species that aren’t), healthy and around for a longer period of time.”
And from Bianca: “I learned that prescribed burning every few years is essential to maintaining the structure of sandhill forest habitats. Prescribed burning improves the ground-level vegetation and rids the forest of trees that rob light from ground level plants and pines trees. It also promotes tree and plant growth, minimizes weeds and pests, and improves the habitat for important species such as the Eastern Indigo Snake. Observation of the structure of Georgia’s forest ecosystems opened my eyes even more so to the importance of habitat conservation and forest management.”
By 2:00 pm, the sun warm on our backs, we had a sneaking suspicion that an Indigo might be laying out, basking near one of the hundreds of Gopher Tortoise burrows we ultimately visited on this property. Let’s just say life for us was about to become very “herpy.”
What follows from Kendall is an exciting, well-written and dramatic account of an Indigo Snake capture!
“Dirk and Kevin showed us what they believed were Indigo Snake tracks on the apron of a Gopher Tortoise burrow—and they suspected the tracks were leading into the burrow; there was a snake home! I had the amazing privilege to use the camera to peer into the burrow with the help and guidance of Kevin. After searching almost 25 feet into the depths of the burrow, brilliant blue scales were reflected off the LED lights of the camera—it was an Indigo Snake! Though it didn’t come out, it was truly an amazing moment for me to find this beautiful animal so deep in its shelter.
While looking at another burrow, we were suddenly ‘hushed’ by Dirk, who was on the trail of another Indigo that was spotted by a classmate. The next thing we heard was, ‘It’s climbing the tree!’ (an unusual behavior for this animal) and then the quick swoosh as Dirk, Kevin and my professor Dr. McBrayer raced past me to grab it. This was definitely the highlight of the entire day and a remarkable sight—Dirk had run through briars, and his whole body was scratched and scraped while attempting to reach the snake, Kevin was hanging like a monkey from the trunk of the tree to lower the branches, and Dr. McBrayer had his hands full of branches and the tail of the snake trying to untangle it from the tree. It was also a huge day for Dr. McBrayer because this was the first Indigo Snake that he had caught in the wild.”
Obviously, for us environmental educators, this was a teaching moment. And Kevin and I now had the coveted opportunity to demonstrate to the class how we “work up” or process a field-collected Indigo Snake (i.e., we measure, weigh, sex, mark and photo the animal).
From Anna, a lifelong South Georgian who had observed Indigos as a child: “I have encountered Indigo Snakes before when I was younger but never got the chance to hold one. I was genuinely surprised at how docile these creatures were, especially given that they are incredibly large and muscular.”
From Bianca: “Participating in capturing an Eastern Indigo Snake and then being able to hold it were my two favorite experiences of the trip. I was eager and excited to observe Eastern Indigo Snakes in their natural environment and couldn’t have asked for a better way to experience such a rarity. The conservation of animals like the Eastern Indigo Snake and the Gopher Tortoise is very important. This experience has furthered my already growing interest in snakes.”
And from Taylor: “I learned that the Indigo Snakes like to use Gopher Tortoise burrows as their burrows after the tortoise has moved on and that they eat other snakes, such as the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, by using their powerful jaws to basically crush their skulls.”
And comments like those from Taylor and Austin below make us all feel good inside.
Taylor: “At the end of our trip, we had the great pleasure of releasing the snakes back out into the wild. It was such an experience to allow such beautiful creatures to resume their normal lives.
Without the help of The Orianne Society, I would have never been able to accomplish my goal of seeing a Drymarchon couperi, an Eastern Indigo Snake. Growing up in South Georgia, animals and wildlife are abundantly everywhere except for endangered species like the Indigo Snake. Since their populations aren’t as great as other species, I was stuck on the idea that I would never get the chance to see one of these beautiful snakes in the wild. Not only did I see an Indigo Snake, but I got to hold it, learn about their habitat choices and help with the release of two snakes that were caught. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget. Being able to handle such a marvelous creature is a dream come true for biology majors or even animal enthusiast!”
Austin: “Throughout my four years at Georgia Southern, I have never had an experience equivalent to helping The Orianne Society at the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve. The day couldn’t have gone any better from traversing sandhills in search of burrows housing beautiful Indigos and Gopher Tortoises, to just soaking in the restored Longleaf Pines that make the proper habitat for these species.”