Conservation Expedition with Georgia Congressman


Dirk Blog-Kingston

On 11 April, I was privileged to be part of a field team that joined Jack Kingston, U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 1st Congressional District, on an indigo snake survey.  Kingston, an avid reptile and amphibian enthusiast, traveled with his aide, Ms. Brianna Foran, to a remote part of southern Georgia to join us and look for snakes.  Biologists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and two volunteers, Mark Wallace and Robert Redmond, together with The Orianne Society, rounded out our party.

On what proved to be a sunny and exceptionally warm day (90° F!), we spent over four hours exploring extensive sandy ridges near the sand ridge along a south Georgia river. The coarse and well-drained sands of these ridges support an interesting and picturesque habitat of Longleaf Pine and Turkey Oak sandhill and are home to a booming population of Georgia’s state reptile, the Gopher Tortoise.  Our quarry, the Eastern Indigo Snake, is a species that only occurs in Georgia at sites supporting large tortoise populations, since the snake requires tortoise burrows for winter dens.  The very impressive adult indigos, growing up to 8 plus feet in length, making them among the largest of North American snakes, may also forage, mate, nest, and shed their skins in or near tortoise burrows.

Fresh from an early morning turkey hunt, Jack and Brianna arrived attired in hunter camouflage and wasted no time in finding some interesting specimens, including a slimy salamander and a five-lined skink. At one point, I looked in astonishment as the Congressman nimbly grabbed a fast-moving Fence Lizard off the trunk of a large pine, admired it briefly, and then purposefully resumed his search. As we hiked together, he shared fond memories of boyhood catching snakes (worm snakes, water bandits, copperheads) near Athens, Georgia.  I led a similar existence during my youth, sometimes to my Mother’s chagrin!

Herpetologists will tell you that especially hot, sunny and dry isn’t always ideal weather for snake hunting, and our quest for the imperiled indigo went unfulfilled.  The giant reptiles were likely hunkered down in the cool, sandy bottoms of tortoise burrows.  Before long, they will engage in foraging close to full-time, dispersing as far as 3-4 miles from the sandhills to lower, wetter habitats where rodent, frog and snake prey abound.  (Essentially at the top of the food chain, indigos commonly eat other snakes, including rattlesnakes—they are mostly immune to the venom of these and other viper species). 

We did find some snakes, however, including an example of the diminutive Crowned Snake (a tiny, to 8 inches, centipede-consumer that is rear-fanged), a handsome, docile  Rough Green Snake, and a very long (6 feet!) and lively Eastern Coachwhip.  The latter, mamba-like, but non-venomous, is one of the fastest-moving of snakes and was found near a tortoise hole.

Speaking of tortoises…Well, Spring has indeed arrived in south Georgia, and the sand aprons of most adult tortoise burrows that we visited possessed prominent prints and pathways courtesy of their lumbering occupants, who are now just beginning to emerge, bask, stroll and feed in earnest.  Tortoises eat broad-leaved grasses, wiregrass, and occasionally fruits, and tend to place their homes in open-canopied (and fire-maintained) environs where groceries are close by.

All told, it was a very enjoyable day afield, and we look forward to Representative  Kingston and Brianna joining us on a future expedition in search of the magnificent indigo.