Harbingers of Spring


Eastern Coachwhip

From his perch in the Piedmont, my good friend and
accomplished naturalist Giff Beaton has been steady with e-mails to his invert
cronies here in the low country of the Coastal Plain; his hunger and
anticipation are palpable. “What are you finding, what have you been seeing?
Boy, it’s sure warm early this year, a lot of cool stuff should be flying, I
heard Cindy just got a novel date for the Sartorial Skipper, dang, I need to
get down there. Any neat tigers, what about odes?” (Note: tigers = tiger
beetles; odes = Odonates = dragonflies and damselflies). He just can’t help

So it was with colleagues that I explored thousands of
pristine acres of a sandhill-bay swamp complex, a notable site for the eastern
indigo snake. Until 2:30 p.m. that is, when temps of 85 plus degrees sent us
sissies scurrying back to our air-conditioned vehicles.

I awakened that morning with heavy thoughts, aching knees.
Unfocused. It was a struggle just to pack my lunch and I wasn’t awash in
optimism like I normally am on the brink of a field day. I might have snapped
at my wife (it has been a long field season…).

Arriving on-site, we were greeted by the song, scents, and
color of nature. Like opening the door to a raucous nightclub, the tableau
before us was alive. It seems to be raining flowers — lupine, azalea, horse
sugar, and titi are in flower. So are dogwood and doghobble. A box turtle five
feet away, in a reflective pose with neck extended, was doing the same thing I
was — taking it all in. Transported to a better place, my only concern now is the
species identification of a dragonfly I see land near a Mayhaw blossom.

  Enlarge PhotoScarlet Kingsnake

The clear liquid notes of male Bachman’s sparrows announced
what was to follow — their rambunctious trills. A song that will float through
the listener. A declining species, this sparrow is essentially tied to grasslands
and prefers habitats maintained by fire (a predicament in our fire-suppressed
21st century). Returning migrants were well represented: Northern Parulas did their
fast-step up the scale, and a bluegray gnatcatcher played its wispy tune as it bounced
between clumps of Spanish moss. I waited for the throaty weeps of an old buddy,
the great-crested flycatcher; us herpetology types having an affinity for birds
that weave shed snake skins into their nests. But they have yet to return…

My buddy Johnny elbowed me, smiling, and said “Look up”. It
was the first swallow-tailed kite of the year. Gifted at catching rough green
snakes and green anoles, all prey taken by these raptors is plucked in flight.
I couldn’t pull my eyes from it…

New swallowtails metamorphosing, a million bee flies hovering,
tiger beetles copulating, odonates careening, wasps tunneling — the expression of
six-legged life is rowdy, wanton, chaotic. Most of the animals I see today, with
or without backbones, have a bug sticking out of their mouths. A rare Say’s
spiketail, one cool dragonfly with an ophidian-like pattern, lands on a nearby
fennel and chews for some time on a sand wasp; a fence lizard grapples with a
beetle. Enjoying the shade of the slope under a canopy of big loblolly pines
and red oaks, I see and/or hear countless shiny skinks, smooth lizards built
for speed, as they zip, snake-like, over-and-under, in-and-out of the leaf
litter, hunting insects.

  Enlarge PhotoAmerican Toad

Nick finds an eastern coachwhip, a good five-footer, sunning
near its refuge, an old small mammal burrow about the diameter of a crawdad
hole. The snake disappears before we have time to marshal our wits or grab our
cameras. My time in the wild has taught me that snakes are many things but they
are not fools. Like a fat cottonmouth I found four days ago, this animal has
only recently emerged from its winter slumber and is sunning to warm it juices,
in preparation for its field season. It’s not ready to quit that reliable
refuge that it just escaped into, not yet.

When it gets warm, our favorite big black snakes (i.e.,
eastern indigos) bask in the sun less; they don’t need to, and thermally they
are vulnerable to overheating. I once found fresh sign of one in the sand on a
similarly warm March day. I walked about for many minutes searching for it, knowing
that if it was close it wouldn’t be lying exposed in the sun. My eyes devoured
the ground, looking hard for the pattern of scales, for a hint of color, hidden
among the palmettos. I concluded there was only one place that it could be — at
the base of a small turkey oak, where a thick collar of brown leaves were fluffed
up a foot off the ground.

I gently poked my titanium stump ripper into the leaves, and
a 7 foot male indigo materialized. The rascal had been curled up tight under
the leaves! He had molded his massive form into an oval shape about the size of
the open dictionary open on my desk (yes, dear reader, I promise to start using
it — tomorrow). Like I said, snakes aren’t fools. But they are sneaky!