On the Road: Lake Wales Ridge


Florida Pine Snake

I had just emerged from a
maze of head-high rosemary when the jays appeared. It was right out of a
Hitchcockian thriller. One landed on the ground only a couple yards from my
feet, shooting me an eager glance; another dove in, perched on a nearby scrub oak
and issued a series of raspy croaks, while a third bird seemed intent on
depositing itself on my shoulder. My shoulder!

Grace’s soft voice was in
sharp contrast to the strident notes of the jays.

“Ok, let me see if I have
this straight: You wade blackwater swamps and you dive on snakes, but you are
afraid of birds. You’ve got to be kidding me!”

I could see her point.

“They must think you have
peanuts in your pockets,” she giggled.

The shins of all the birds
were bright with pairs of colored bracelets. Were the cerulean-colored corvids
fans of Spielberg and attempting their best impressions of velociraptors? Could
they be recent escapees from a nearby avian prison, intent on finding and exacting
revenge on the biologists who once “put them away?”

Grace Gasper set me straight.
A talented ornithologist, she had volunteered to join me and TOS seasonal field biologist Andy
Day on an expedition to the Lake Wales Ridge region of south-central Florida in
search of Eastern Indigo Snakes.

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Scrub Jay

“Florida scrub jays are a
remarkable Florida endemic, occurring only on the peninsula, and requiring a
very specific habitat—they are restricted to these austere oak scrub habitats,
with short oaks and lots of bare sand; here, they cache acorns by the thousands.
One of the few cooperative breeding birds in North America, the fledglings
often stick around for several years, helping their parents rear later broods.
And the population here on the ridge is known intimately, having been studied
by ornithologists at the Archbold Biological Station for over 40 years; most
members of this jay population are now known by name.”

I later read that the Florida
scrub jay population declined by about 90-percent in the 20th century
due to habitat loss.

“They are intelligent and
inquisitive birds, and some have become habituated to people who have fed them.
No need to be scared, Dirk. They are just curious, or hoping for a handout”. (Note
to readers: One should not feed wild scrub jays, they are a federally
protected species! Researchers with the appropriate permits occasionally offer
them low-salt peanuts to lure them close for observation or banding.)

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Eastern Indigo Snake
of the Lake Wales Ridge

We traveled south from Savannah–
seven hours to Sebring. Our plan was to mount an intensive field effort to find
adult Indigo Snakes needed for a radiotelemetry study being conducted by my
colleagues Javan Bauder and Zach Forsburg (a collaborative effort with staff at
Archbold). It’s 85 degrees and spring-like during much of our week-long stay.
The orange trees are heavy with ready fruit shining in the sun as well as
fragrant blossoms; the samaras of the red maples will helicopter soon. What a
difference a five degree change in latitude can make—we even observe gopher
tortoises out foraging, nibbling trailside grasses, during our stay (a sight
not typically enjoyed in south Georgia until April). Ah, the joys of south Florida in February.

My field notes for Day 2
read: “Got
an indigo within five minutes of arriving on-site. Small adult male. At the hot
spot with lots of tortoise burrows and scrub hickories. Spotted the snake @
0930 hrs coiled partly under grass, basking. Close to where we had a snake two
years ago. He is a little 5-foot gem, with a beautiful face pattern. Recently
shed. Good body weight and condition for this time of year.”

Some of the male Eastern
Indigo Snakes in this part of Florida have an unusual amount of coral red-to-orange
pigment on their face and neck. Accentuating their handsomeness, the black vertical
lines that extend down from the eye and over the lip scales are especially
prominent and well-demarcated on such “brightly-colored head phase” animals. I
have seen many gorgeous indigos in Georgia where, like in Florida, males do
indeed, on average, possess more red/orange coloration on the head than
females—but I have never seen one quite like this (and I will see other
similarly-colored males on this trip). Javan and Zach are thrilled to have a
new study subject.

Grace, Andy and I endeavor to
systematically survey the hundred-acre scrub by walking transects, compass in
hand, parallel to one another. Periodically one of us shouts “ka-kow” so
we don’t lose each other. At one point I find myself in a pleasing section of
scrub, liberally pocked with tortoise burrows, where patches of prickly pear are
interspersed with oaks; here, the vegetation is broken often by expanses of
bare white sand. Osteoarthritis be damned: despite what seems a clear enough path
through the scrub my wobbly gait causes me to bang a thigh directly against an Opuntia.
Several good-sized cactus pads disengage, their long spines impaling me
fang-like right through my jeans. Wincing, I draw a breath and pull the pads,
one spine at a time, from my leg; doing so, I somehow manage to plant a couple
of long spines square into the soft flesh beneath my wrist—now I have relocated
the cacti to my forearm. I shriek, then turn to see Andy, trespassing on my
transect, laughing.

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Bluetail Mole Skink

He has good news. “I just saw
a big snake, out of the corner of my eye, he was just sticking his head out of
a burrow, and drew back in when I walked by”. We huddle, concluding that the
snake was startled, but from afar. Since Andy kept walking and didn’t make prolonged
eye contact, we are betting the snake will surface again soon. (An admitted dearth
of solid science here, just gut intuition!)

We are correct. When we all return
an hour later the serpent is now stretched out close to the burrow, and we cheer
as Grace scrambles to capture a beautiful four foot long Florida pine snake. Now,
on a number of occasions over the years I have struggled to leash my disdain for
those who have pointed to a burrow dug into the earth and proclaimed “snake
hole”. In fact, very few species of snakes are accomplished at digging their
own burrows. But the Florida pine snake is a notable exception. A muscular build,
reinforced skull and a pointed snout bearing an enlarged nose scale are all
adaptations that allow it to excavate true burrows of its own in friable soils.
Pine snakes are known to construct nest holes and dig retreats, and they are
dang good at busting into the subterranean tunnels of their favorite furry prey,
the pocket gopher.