Indigo Days is our annual members-only event held at our Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve in South Georgia. It’s a great time to not only show our members what we do on a regular basis at the preserve for conservation, but also to provide our members the opportunity to search for Eastern Indigo Snakes and Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes and to have special hands-on encounters with the majestic Indigo in a monitored environment. Our members are split into small groups with our staff as leaders, and we have special permits that allow us to handle and process endangered Indigo Snakes found during Indigo Days, so please do not try this at home.
For our coverage of Indigo Days 2014, which was held December 13-14, we decided to have two of our members write about their experiences on the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve to give you a new perspective of the event. We are appreciative of members Ashley Rich-Robertson and Savannah McGuire for contributing their stories about Indigo Days 2014!
Chasing After a Lifer Indigo
Authored by Ashley Rich-Robertson
Indigo Days 2014 was my first opportunity to visit the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve and my first opportunity to view Eastern Indigo Snakes in the wild.
Within two minutes of exiting the vehicle, our group had the first Indigo Snake of the day in hand, and within an hour, we had a second. The snakes were definitely on the move today, and I was determined to get my lifer Indigo.
As I poked through the scrub, I noticed a well-maintained apron. About the same time, I noticed a particularly large snake shed just to my left. I bent down to pick it up—I knew exactly what snake this shed belonged to. There were actually two sheds tangled in the wiregrass. One had mostly disintegrated, while the other was very much intact.
It was a very clear day and quiet enough to hear something rustling in the grass. As I stood opposite the burrow entrance, I caught a glance of a long black tail just as it tucked inside the burrow. I couldn’t believe it—my first Indigo Snake, and I was so infatuated with its shed that I failed to notice the snake was right there. I ran over to the mouth of the burrow, but the snake was long gone.
As I stood there, cursing under my breath, I heard another rustle. Coiled up just beyond the burrow was a second Indigo Snake. I had already lost one snake, so I was determined that this one would not get away. Without ever taking my eyes off of the snake, I snapped a photo. I needed proof that I had actually seen a snake. I reached out slowly, and as I did, the snake began to weave his way through the wiregrass but away from the burrow. I grabbed the snake gently around its midsection, and as I was sure I had it in hand, I called out to the group, “Snake!” I held the snake, who was actively attempting to escape and somewhat entangled in the wiregrass. I called out for help again, and this time I saw someone in an orange vest coming my way. I had a pillowcase tucked under my camera strap, and I decided to try to get the snake to retreat into the bag. As I tried to put the bag in front of the snake, it turned back, as if to strike. Unfortunately for me, there was a point in my life where I would have rather had an appendectomy sans anesthesia than be within sight distance of a wild snake, particularly one whose length could exceed my height. Instinctively, I recoiled and let go of the snake in the process. I had “choked,” and I spent the rest of the day kicking myself.
The next morning, I rode with the Orianne Society technicians and the detector dog, Charlie. I directed our group to the burrow, hoping that just maybe we could catch one of “my” snakes. Charlie really liked the burrow, but there were no snakes to be found. Disappointed, I asked the techs if maybe I could scope the burrow—at this point, I needed redemption.
A few minutes later, we returned with the scope. I’ve scoped many Gopher Tortoise burrows but have rarely seen anything more exciting than the backside of a Gopher Tortoise or an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. As the camera descended into the burrow, I saw a lot of nothing: a cricket, some roots, a dead end. But then, there it was, coiled up with its head poking up looking right at the scope. Everyone took a turn looking at the snake, which didn’t retreat further or even uncoil. The snake almost appeared curious, stretching toward the camera and flicking its tongue.
Satisfied, I pulled up the scope and helped pack it away. As I did, I made a promise: “Next time, I won’t choke.” We all had a good laugh.
Savannah Walks Us Through Her Weekend
Authored by Savannah McGuire
A super early morning along with a three-hour drive turned into an awesome day. At 5:00am on Saturday, December 13, my husband, Heath, and I left our house. This trip was special: The Orianne Society was hosting their second Indigo Days. This was our first Orianne field trip. Heath had a real desire to find a wild Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, and I was hoping this would be his chance to see one in their natural habitat. The forecast was calling for sunny skies and a high of 68° for Saturday and Sunday and a chilly 50° in the mornings.
Around 8:30am, we arrived at the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve. We toured the bunk houses and met Charlie, the wildlife detector dog, and a few others that had arrived early. We milled around talking and waiting for everyone to arrive. After all the latecomers had arrived, we gathered at the end of the gravel to watch a demonstration with Charlie and Dylan. It was awesome to see Charlie in action.
We then divided into three groups. One group would stay on the property, another group would go to a privately-owned property and the group we went with, Dirk’s group, was going to another location that was known to have Indigos on the property.
On the way there, we stopped at a location known for Gopher Tortoises. The area had recently been rototilled. On the road across the property, many snake prints were viewed, but no actual snakes or Gopher Tortoises were found after 45 minutes of traipsing around the front of the property. We then traveled to the property and were met at the gate by Francis. We had a quick lunch before he opened the gate, and we were off. We left most of the vehicles at one location and loaded into three pickup trucks. Not five minutes down the road, we came across our first Eastern Indigo basking in the sun. Paul Laurent was the first to spot it—he ran after it and gently caught the snake before it could slither away. Everyone quickly crowded around with cameras ready. One member had traveled all the way from Texas to get to experience this event.
The Indigo was checked for a PIT tag, but this snake did not have one—it was a NEW snake! Dirk and Francis were very excited with the finding. Dirk and a few others processed the snake, taking length and weight measurement and recording the numbers. A needle with the new PIT tag was inserted into the snake just under the skin, and the tag number was recorded. Holden got the honors of releasing the new snake that we decided to name after him.
Soon we were on our way again to a location just up the road. James was the first to spot our next snake, a small female. I carried it back to the trucks so we could get the measurements on her and helped process this snake. Francis led the others who were not processing the snake to look for specific individuals that he knew lived in the area.
For the next location we came to the end of the drivable road. The property has recently been thinned in this area, and there were still logs on the ground that we had to cross over. Then came the stream. Paul and Richard had on galoshes and easily forded the stream. Some of the more nimble participants crossed on a small log. Others chose to ford the shallower parts of the stream and get their feet wet. The boots I had on were only water proof up to the ankles. Heath had crossed on the log, but I wasn’t confident in my balance and looked for another way across with some others. We were lucky and found a large tree that had fallen across the stream and crossed without getting wet. Those that crossed the stream first were already up the hill at a location where Francis knew of some Indigo habitat. The rest of us hurried to catch up.
It was a beautiful location, but no snakes were seen—however, two large sheds were found. Dirk collected them for further training with Charlie. Then most of us crossed back over the stream on the fallen tree. Heath tried to go across on the small log to ford the stream. He thought if he did it successfully the first time, the second time would not be a problem. Boy was he wrong! He lost his balance and splashed down into the stream, soaking himself to the waist.
We loaded back in the trucks and went to a location where an Eastern Diamondback and Gopher Tortoises were found the year before. We spotted a Gopher Tortoise going deep in its burrow. On the way out, Francis hiked us through the woods to another known Indigo location. Here we found a large male that was about to shed. He was very dull, and his eyes were blue. It was another new snake, so we processed and tagged him before letting him go. We returned to our vehicles for the return drive back to the preserve. There we talked with the other groups to hear about their findings. The group that went with Charlie got skunked while Andy Day’s group found three Indigos that they brought back with them for processing Sunday morning.
That night the Orianne staff gave a presentation and served us dinner at Little Ocmulgee State Park Lodge. Heath and I had to run to the store to get him some cheap dry shoes. Many of the participants were either staying at the lodge or camping nearby, so many were already socializing when we arrived. Soon everyone was there, and dinner had arrived. Heidi started with a presentation about The Orianne Society—its history, progress, goals and plans for the future. Then it was Dirk’s turn. His presentation was about the invertebrates associated with Gopher Tortoise burrows. Did you know that over 300 species call Gopher Tortoise burrows home? Some can only be found in or around the burrows and nowhere else on the planet. Most of this was new information to me and Heath.
Sunday morning was chilly, but after Saturday, we knew it would warm up quickly. Some of us arrived at 8:30am to help process the snakes found the evening before. Three snakes had been brought back for processing, and one of the three was a new snake.
This time we broke up into two groups. One would stay on the preserve bunkhouse side while the other group would go down the road to another section of the preserve that required four-wheel-drive vehicles. A group had searched the area the day before but came up empty-handed. But Dirk said this area was prime Eastern Diamondback habitat and chances of seeing one were high, so we fanned out and began our search. Bob Herrington found the only Indigo that day. It was a new snake, only yards from where we parked the vehicles. We processed it, and Dirk let me do the honors of tagging the snake. This snake is now known as Hairy Gopher.
We loaded up and moved deeper into the property to search again. A Gopher Tortoise shell was found along with flying squirrels, a cornsnake and woodcocks, but still no Diamondbacks. We were running out of time and went back to where we parked the first time and looked across the road for them. Mandy and Sharon strolled off to do a little bird-watching and happened to find an Eastern Hognose Snake that played dead the whole time. Dirk wanted to take this one back and show the other group.
We packed up and headed back to the bunkhouse complex to see how the other groups had faired. With a burrow scope they were able to find many more Indigos and Eastern Diamondbacks. We said our goodbyes and headed home.
All in all, it was a great event from The Orianne Society, and we look forward to participating in future events!