Spring is right around the corner, and warmer temperatures are already being felt in many areas of the southeast. That means our annual indigo snake survey season is winding down as snakes move away from their winter retreats, dispersing broadly across the southern Georgia landscape. This season, recent Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia graduate, Kevin Hutcheson joined as a field technician to help complete our annual indigo snake surveys. These surveys of course offer ample opportunities to work with indigo snakes in some of their few remaining strongholds but also offer chances to see some of the other rare snake species in this region. Kevin describes some of his experiences below, highlighting a great encounter with a species that is actually harder to find than indigo snakes.
Working with a species like the Eastern Indigo Snake is any herpetologists dream. They’re not only America’s longest snake but also subtly beautiful and extremely charismatic. That being said though, they’re nowhere near my favorite snake, and I honestly wondered if this snake might be over-hyped so to speak by people within the herp community. After all, coming from a predominantly amphibian background I felt like there were many species (e.g., kingsnakes) that are this way. Starting in January, I was skeptical of whether or not indigo snakes would live up to their legendary status but none-the-less excited to see what the season would hold.
Truthfully, while my job was to find indigos as part of The Orianne Society’s annual occupancy surveys, I also wanted to find the far more elusive Florida Pine Snake. Being my favorite species of snake, they’re both striking and cryptic, spending the majority of their lives in rodent burrows underground. My boss and good friend, Ben Stegenga, had mentioned to me that he usually saw one a season, so my anticipation built over the weeks as we found plenty of indigo snakes but no pine snakes.
Then on one warm day in early February while checking gopher tortoise burrows on a sandhill, I looked down to see a beautiful juvenile pine snake poking his head out of a leaf-choked burrow. Shaking with excitement, I proceeded to call Ben, who was just out of earshot. I bagged the snake for processing and photos and continued with my survey. A few minutes later I checked my phone for any updates from Ben to see a text message, “You dropped your pine.” With an attached photo of another pine in his hand. Two pines in one day is something hardly heard of in this part of their range and needless to say became one of the best days surveying we had.
Ben and I collectively went on to find two more pine snakes, blowing the one per season expectation out of the water. My expectations with indigos were equally surpassed. After spending two months with these animals, I can confidently say they live up to their name, “emperor of the forest.”