Authored by Amanda Newsom
I spend most of my days as part of the Orianne team in front of a computer at our headquarters in Athens, Georgia, working on our publications, website, social media, memberships and other communications projects. I love getting to work on these fun, exciting projects that incorporate not only the diverse conservation work my fellow Orianne co-workers do in the field, but also the people that help to make it all possible: our members and other supporters! I get the chance to see what everyone’s working on and how it all comes together to support the Orianne mission, which is a very special part of my job.
But one thing I don’t get to do very often is go out in the field to put my boots on the ground, which is why I was so excited to attend Indigo Days this year. I wasn’t able to attend our 2014 Indigo Days event, so this was a first for me. I did have the opportunity to go to Places You’ve Never Herped in Waynesville, North Carolina, last fall which let me meet some of our members in person and see what field herping is all about. While I have always considered myself a friend to wildlife of all shapes and sizes, I don’t have a background in herpetology, so I learned a lot on my first PYNH trip that made me all that more excited to get back out in the field with everyone for Indigo Days.
I learned more about where to look for different kinds of species—flipping rocks, lifting moss, sifting through leaf litter, checking pools of stagnant water—and saw the different strategies of our members who were giving their best effort to find the most species that day, part of the friendly competition among the groups during our citizen science events. It was amazing to see how many amphibians and reptiles were in such a small area and how easy it is to not notice any of them unless you keep your eyes peeled and look for them specifically. They are certainly masters at blending into their environments!
I took my limited field herping knowledge with me to Indigo Days with the hopes of finding some lifers of my own. I was eager and determined, but so were the 41 members and handful of volunteers at the event. The first morning of Indigo Days, I watched as our members arrived and congregated at our Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve.
The comradery among our members is a wonderful sight, and you could feel the excitement in the air as we did the roll call before announcing our group locations. We split into three groups each day so our members were able to visit two different sites for the event—the scramble on day one to fill the limited-number locales was entertainment in itself.
The first day I joined Kevin Stohlgren’s group on the preserve where we combed over two different tracts of land. I hadn’t spent much time on the preserve, so it was a pleasure to get out and hone my skills at spotting Gopher Tortoise burrows and using a mirror to peer into their depths. Kevin showed us what types of tracks to look for and how to spot snake tracks coming in and out of a burrow to determine if a snake had recently been there. We saw old burrows, recently cleaned burrows, adult burrows and juvenile burrows. And of course there were the armadillo burrows that are distinctly shaped differently as well as their tail marks on the burrow aprons which have different characteristics of snake tracks when examined more closely.
Our first day on the preserve didn’t yield many finds—a Southern Toad, a Fence Lizard and some egg masses were about it aside from our only snake spotting: a most beautiful, large Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. I have to say that I was equally most hopeful of seeing both an Eastern Indigo Snake and an Eastern Diamondback as my weekend goals.
Andy Day, an Orianne volunteer helping with the event, had seen an Indigo at this burrow the day before, so Kevin waited until a prime time of day for us to approach this burrow in hopes of seeing the Indigo. Much to our surprise, when we peered just inside the burrow, we saw the side of a large Diamondback with a beautiful contrasting pattern. Using the mirror, most of us were able to get a glimpse of it before it moved further down into the burrow away from our view. This was a moment of pure awe for me! I’ve never seen a rattlesnake in the wild before, and this one was such a beauty. I instantly wanted more.
Later in the day we went back to the burrow with a bucket and burrow cam hoping to capture the rattlesnake basking, but instead it was deep in the burrow. We used a newly-acquired burrow camera to scope down and take a look at the snake, and it gave us a great show. We were able to see it very clearly on the screen, sticking its tongue out and curiously moving toward and back from the camera to inspect it. When it finally got bored of us, it turned to go further back and we were able to observe its rattle. It was amazing to have the opportunity to not only see such a beautiful creature in the wild, but to observe it in its natural habitat normally out of plain view.
That evening, we all convened at Little Ocmulgee State Park to share stories of what was found that day, Dirk’s group proudly taking the win for most number of species found on day one. Dirk gave a presentation, “A Land of Rattlesnakes and Birds,” about his recent trip to the Chiricahuas while everyone had pizza and refueled for day two.
The next day I went with the group headed by Orianne volunteer Rob Richie off-site from the preserve to two different protected locales. I was told that I would certainly see an Indigo, but I didn’t want to get my hopes too high after not seeing on the day before. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about my chances because Orianne member Heather Ahrens spotted the first Indigo of the day about five minutes into our first site!
I can’t emphasize how impressive the camouflage abilities of these majestic animals are—four of us had just walked right by the spot where Heather spotted the end of an Indigo’s tail sticking out of some brush and was able to catch it before it sped off. It was a big moment for us all, as most of us had been in the preserve group the day before and not yet seen an Indigo on the trip.
My adrenaline shot through the roof—this was the first time I had ever seen an Indigo in the wild, and it was an amazing moment to experience. It was such a beauty. A couple of other members held the snake, and then I was able to hold it before we put it into a bag for processing it later in the day when we learned it was a snake that had not been marked yet. Knowing that Indigos are incredibly docile animals is not fully put into perspective until you are able to see it firsthand for yourself—I couldn’t believe how calm the snake was while several people stood around it taking photographs and posing with it. As I smiled for the camera in my proud moment, it simply put its head on my arm waiting patiently for its release. It was a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
We went on to another site to search several known areas where Indigos have been documented, and we were able to find two more Indigos. The first one got away from us, with two of us able to capture its tail end while going into a burrow. We held it for a few moments without pulling to see if it would release its hold, but it was determined and so we let it go on its way.
A little while later, Chris Brookshire was able to capture an unmarked Indigo, again in an area where several of us had looked closely but had not seen the animal. Chris was about to walk away as well when he heard the rustle of the Indigo and spotted it with excitement. A couple of members helped work up the snake in the field while the rest of us watched the process—measuring, weighing and PIT-tagging the snake—before letting it go where it was found. At the end of the day, all of the groups met back up at the preserve to again share what they had found and to see the Indigo and Pine Snakes that had been brought back from the field by two different groups for processing. We took a group photo in front of the beautiful Longleaf Pines and then everyone parted ways for home.
Indigo Days 2015 was an unforgettable weekend walking through different habitats (including more than our fill of Prickly Pear Cactus) looking for reptiles and amphibians with our enthusiastic Orianne members. I enjoy these citizen science events immensely, getting out in the field and seeing animals in their natural environments, but I have to say that the people really do make the trips. It’s great getting to spend time outdoors alongside our talented Orianne staff, volunteers and members and to see the special connections they all have with one another. It was a privilege to be a part of it, especially being able to put faces to the names I’ve grown to know and to see the members I had met at PYNH again.
I’m looking forward to seeing where Places You’ve Never Herped takes our Orianne team in 2016 for our Citizen Science Initiative! Until then, please be sure to check out the photos compiled from everyone who attended Indigo Days in our Facebook album.
Indigo Days 2015 Species List:
Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi)
Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus)
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)
Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)
Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)
Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis)
Southern Toad (Anaxyrus terrestris)
Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus)
Southern Cricket Frog (Acris gryllus)
Central Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)
Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum)