March Intensive, it’s not school, it’s more than that. During the third week in March, Hanover High School students from Hanover, New Hampshire, leave traditional academia and get a snippet of what a real career looks like. The program is certainly not job shadowing because it’s a hands-on, immersive experience that sometimes unveils a student’s unknown passion, which may lead to a potential academic path.
As seniors this was our fourth and final March Intensive. Beginning in our freshman year, we have been a part of beekeeping, a capella workshops, dance instruction, stock market education (in New York City), wilderness medicine, and global warming studies, to name a few. The school’s selection system gives Seniors first pick of courses and, after three years of engaging in a fascinating and rich array of offerings, this year, our fourth and final, we took March Intensive to the next level.
The Rattlesnakes of Southern Georgia coalesced when Timber Rattlesnake author, local naturalist, and Hanover High parent, Ted Levin, coordinated with celebrated environmental science and chemistry teacher, Jeannie Kornfeld, for an in-depth field study of reptiles and amphibians in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeastern Georgia and Longleaf Pine flatwoods of southern Georgia. Through Ted’s travels and research for an upcoming book on the Timber Rattlesnake he met Dr. Christopher Jenkins, the CEO of The Orianne Society, the world’s largest nonprofit organization devoted to the conservation of reptiles and amphibians and their dwindling habitat. The Orianne Society is based on the fringe of the southern Appalachian Mountains, in Clayton, Georgia. Coordinating with Chris, Ted and Jeannie shepherded March Intensive from conception to delivery. Eleven students, including Levin’s son, Jordy, a Hanover High School Junior, and our chaperones arrived at Atlanta International Airport early on the afternoon of March 18. We picked up our slick 7-passenger vans and then drove two hours north to Clayton.
We arrived at 4pm, and were met by Chris, who introduced us to both his staff and an array of captive reptiles on exhibit in the office. Two Gopher Tortoises, each the size of a half basketball, wandered around the office furniture, thumbing their plastrons against wooden floors. Chris handed us a pair of large Indigo Snakes, dark as night and well-muscled. The raw power of the six-foot-long snake, its scaly, cable-like body curling between our fingers, was amazing. We also handled a Louisiana Pine Snake (one of the rarest vertebrates in North America—there could be fewer than ten left in the wild), and saw a Pygmy Rattlesnake and a Canebrake Rattlesnake. Chris controlled both snakes with a homemade snake hook, the handle and stem of a golf putter welded to a hook. The Canebrake, the coastal plain variety of the Timber Rattlesnake, was five-feet-long, thick as the sweet spot on a baseball bat, grayish with darker vertical chevrons bordered in white, and an orange dorsal stripe extending down the spine. Like all forms of Timber Rattlesnakes its tail was velvet black.
Next, we went upstairs to see several more venomous snakes. Chris warned us to “stay back” as he pulled out an Amazonian Bushmaster, the largest, most venomous snake in the Western Hemisphere (this one was a baby, but no less dangerous). Next, an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. We watched in awe as our host easily maneuvered the venomous snakes with his snake hook. We also passed around a Rough Green Snake, thin and luminous green, an arboreal snake that lives on caterpillars and other insects in the drapes of Spanish moss that festoon deciduous trees of the Deep South.
Later that afternoon, we drove from Orianne headquarters into the Blue Ridge, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Mountains, through the rain and mist and down muddy national forest service roads. Stands of rhododendrons flanked the rushing streams and shouldered the rolling hills. Swollen tree buds expanded with the urgency of spring. This corner of Georgia gets over eighty-inches of rain a year, more than any other region in the United States except the Pacific Northwest, and is the epicenter of salamander biodiversity in the world. Drenched by rain and startled by thunder, we hiked up a rocky trail, over logs, and then crossed a wild stream, cold water filling our shoes. Everything glistened—the trees, the rocks, the green rhododendron leaves that dripped on our heads and down our shirts. We followed the stream to the base of a towering waterfall and began our salamander hunt, rummaging through submerged leaves and sticks and in the debris that hemmed the rippling pools. We turned over woodland rocks and rolled over logs, always returning the rocks and logs as we had found them. The more daring group waded into the rushing stream, while the rest of us combed the waterlogged woods, rolling and turning, sifting through leaves.
“I found one, I found one!”
Boots and soggy sneakers splashed through the stream, as we began to crowd around the little spectacle, a six-inch, Black-Bellied Salamander cradled in a classmate’s hands. The salamander squirmed and wriggled through our fingers. Its bright black eyes sparkled in the dripping, fading daylight, and its skin shone as dark as night. Our glimpse of the animal, however, was ephemeral. It swiftly slipped out of wet hands and vanished into the murky stream water. We continued the search, and our efforts proved fruitful. Further upstream, another student snatched a squirming Blue Ridge Two-Lined Salamander. The amphibian was beige; two black stripes ran the length of its body. Feisty, the Two-Lined Salamander jumped from hand to hand, student-to-student, and clinging to clothing and boots. Its yellow tinted tail curled, as its little legs crawled up a dripping raincoat sleeve.
We found several grey, two-inch long salamanders, called Ocoee, hidden beneath stones in the burbling steam. Their small size and vigorous nature made it easy for them to elude our groping hands. After we successfully captured and released five or six salamanders, we decided that we had harassed them to the point of exhaustion. Then, Chris caught a five-inch-long Seal Salamander. After a last few peaks beneath the stream stones, we trekked to the vans. Along the way we continued to roll logs and peel the bark of rotting trees, but our luck had run dry (perhaps, the only thing in Clayton that was dry at that moment). We released the salamanders, harvesting only the memory of their majestic beauty.
Back at Orianne headquarters, we spent the night on the floor, sleeping beneath the venomous snakes (caged, of course). During the night rattling of an annoyed snake occasionally awakened us. We slept with one eye open, but it was a memorable experience.
The next morning, we were up at sunrise. After breakfast, we piled into the vans, groggy and dirty from lack of showers, not exactly ready for a hike. But, after twenty minutes of testing our rental mini-van’s suspension on old dirt, logging roads, we arrived at our next destination, 4,500-feet in the heart of the Blue Ridge. We crawled out of the vans and gathered on orange soil. Chris, waiting with plastic box and snake hook, welcomed us to Nantahala Mountains, named by the Cherokees for the soil and seemingly endless mountains and valleys. He explained that the mountain range supports a huge variety of biodiversity—plants, salamanders, invertebrates and so forth— and that Timber Rattlesnakes were apex predators. He said the only way to fully experience this gorgeous snake was to see it in its own environment, not locked up in a zoo or an aquarium in his office. He wanted us to appreciate the snake’s full capability for camouflage and stealth. They are, said Chris, “a symbol of the few wild places we have left in eastern North America.” Then, he took the snake out of its cage, and the snake, for its part, delivered that otherworldly rattle, the very sound that had punctured our sleep the night before.
Chris discussed the term ectotherm or cold-blooded. Unlike humans, snakes can’t regulate their own body temperature. They rely on the external temperature of the air and rocks to warm themselves. In spring, Timber Rattlesnakes are most active during the day, when the sun is out and the temperature is in the 60’s and 70’s. When it’s cooler out, they chill beneath rock awnings. During the summer, when the temperature is too hot, they’re active at night and sleep in the shade during the day. Very little, he said, is known about the thermal ecology of most species of ectotherms. Why, for instance, do they coil in particular spots? What is their optimal temperature for hunting? Mating? Shedding?
After our tutorial, we took to the trail, rushing through shaded woodland, slowing at spots where the sun filtered through the trees to bask snake-like in the building heat. Fifteen minutes down the trail, we found two American Toads (pictured left) locked in amplexus. The brick-red female was considerably larger than the gray male, and had chosen her mate based on the quality of his trill. He needed to be small enough so his vent would line up with hers; during the spawn (external fertilization) the male’s sperm fertilizes thousands of eggs, which she had exuded in a double strand, nearly four-feet long that spiraled around the nursery pool.
When we reached the top of the mountain, the sun was out and the fog had cleared. There were lines of rolling hills, one after the other, deep valleys with the familiar orange soil, as far as the eye could see. The sky was bright blue. Clouds were absent. The day heated up, but it was still too cool for the rattlesnakes to emerge from their dens. Instead, we sunbathed on the unglaciated granite for a few minutes. Then, we had the choice of following the same trail back to the vans or bushwhacking down the cliff. Chris said that if we followed a small stream to our east, we would intersect the forest service road, where he and Jeannie and Ted would meet us. Duuh! We chose the trek. Our student leader guided us safely down the rocky ridge and the trough the brambles. We arrived at the road, our legs lacerated.
“This ain’t my first Rodeo.”
Back at Orianne headquarters, we packed the vans and feasted on Subway sandwiches, and then embarked on a five-hour drive out of the mountains, across the piedmont, and into the coastal plain, through what was once an unbroken forest of Longleaf Pine, fire prone and fire dependent. Our destination: the Orianne Society’s Indigo Snake Preserve in Jacksonville, Georgia.
Once we had unpacked and eaten our fill of pizza, we went out for a late-night exploration of the nearby pools and swamps, ever mindful of seeing a Water Moccasin. We sat on two planks across the bed of Chris’s black Toyota Tundra. Chris led in his golf cart; Ted drove the truck; and together we entered into the depths of the Orianne woods.
Our first find was a shuffling armadillo along the side of the road. After a few failed attempts to capture it, we walked into a nearby swamp. A tiny Squirrel Tree Frog hunched across a horizontal vine, lit by a flashlight beam. All around us, a chorus of Southern Leopard Frogs, Spring Peepers, Chorus Frogs, Green Frogs, and American Toads. Dylan, one of Chris’ technicians, spotted two ruby eyes shining just above the black-water swamp. Dylan walked slowly toward them, bent down, and in one fluid motion scooped up a three-foot alligator. The ‘gator put up a good fight as Dylan struggled to walk out of the swamp. At times, Dylan appeared to be losing, his grip slipping, the squirming alligator about to wiggle free. He reassured us, “This ain’t my first rodeo!”
Dylan placed the gator on the road, restrained its head, and we took a closer look.
He estimated the animal was two or three years old. As our fingers caressed the rough torso, flexible and leathery, and the alligator, an unbridled amalgam of energy and strength, grinned back, its toothy mouth waiting for an absent-minded finger. After we took pictures of our new friend, Dylan returned it to the swamp.
Driving further down the muddy road, our next destination was a collection of muddy logs. Chris had been told that adult Spotted Salamanders lived under the logs, another opportunity not to be passed up. Our second flipped log revealed a Marbled Salamander, four-inches long, black and white, and neatly coiled. Very rare in northern New England, Marbled Salamanders are quite common on the coastal plain. They spawn in the fall and their tadpoles metamorphosed in the summer. It was strikingly gorgeous.
Nearby the Marbled Salamander, Gavin found an unknown tadpole so young and transparent that we saw its coiled guts and beating heart. Another pool held a dozen Spotted Salamander egg cases, green with symbiotic algae. (The embryos provided nutrients for the algae and algae provide oxygen and camouflage for the embryos.) Tired and overflowing with exciting, amphibious discoveries, we returned to the truck and the windy, bumpy ride home to the dormitory, serenaded by a mixed chorus of frogs, Whippoorwills, and a Barred Owl.
Wednesday morning, we hunted Gopher Tortoises, Indigo Snakes, and Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes. It was hard to believe we had only been in Georgia for a day and a half! Already, we had learned so much from our mentors, had experienced ecosystems we formerly knew nothing about.
We drove two hours south to a sprawling Longleaf Pine forest owned and maintained for both research and hunting by a reptile-sympathetic family, named the Warnells, who have a long history of conservation and husbandry in the Longleaf Pine forests, forest that had once stretched unbroken from southern Virginia to central Florida. A landscape molded by fire and battered by tropical storms long before anyone called the region the South. Today, however, it is an endangered ecosystem, much modified by development and farming and fire suppression. Longleaf Pine forests support more American endangered species of plants and animals than anywhere east of Hawaii.
Once we piled out of the vans, Dirk and Matt, both affiliated with the Orianne Society, showed us treasures they had caught the day before: Pine Snake, Coachwhip, nickel-sized hatchling Musk Turtle, Spotted Turtle, and a batch of Marbled Salamanders.
Then we met the landowner, Mr. Warnell, who understood how important the Indigo Snake and the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake were to the health of the Longleaf Pine ecosystem. Working closely with several herpetologists from the Orianne Society, Warnell, unlike many Georgia natives, learned to value the importance of these snakes; he even relayed some of the Orianne Society’s information to members of his family and to his circle of friends and hunting companions. Today, he shared his land with us (and his toilet)—one of the best spots in Southern Georgia to find Indigos.
We split into groups of four and five, each accompanied by an Orianne Society scientist, to collect field data, engaging in what Chris termed citizen science, one of the hallmarks of the Orianne Society. Our quest: the gem of snakes, Drymarchon couperi, the Eastern Indigo Snake, one of the longest in the United States. Drymarchon translates to “emperor of the forest,” a suggestion that the Indigo Snake is a major predator that eats anything it can overpower, including venomous snakes, rats, birds, and turtle eggs. Indigo Snakes winter in Gopher Tortoise burrows, long, narrow tunnels that may extend thirty or more feet into the sandy soil.
Tortoise burrows descend three- to six feet and are a bower of life, which makes the tortoises themselves keystone species in the pine forest. (Not unlike beaver in the Northeast.) Chris explained that dens must be large enough for the tortoise to turn around inside. The way one spots a tortoise den is by spotting the wide, sandy, sparsely vegetated apron that surrounds the entrance. The herpetologists taught us to use mirrors to beam sunlight down the dens, a sort of natural spotlight to search for snakes, tortoises, and even Black Widow Spiders, which drape their messy webs just inside the burrow. There are other freeloaders too: frogs, scorpions, mice, lizards, cottontails, armadillos, mosquitoes; any life really, that can squeeze into a subterranean burrow and escape deep beneath the roots and leaves, thus avoiding fire and frost and summer sun and predators. We were warned that when we walked around a den to beware of snakes and spiders; and when we looked inside the den and in the leaf litter by the den’s entrance check for snakes—Hognose, Diamondback, Coachwhip, Coral Snake, and of course, the Indigo.
Before leaving, Chris proclaimed, “Pick up the blackest of snakes,” the Indigos —other snakes without this coloration could be dangerous. We gathered cameras, mirrors, data sheets, and snake hooks, and then we spread across the wind-blown sand deposits, the desert-esque landscape, toward various Indigo “hotspots.”
Chris’s group searched many, many tortoise dens with no luck. It was still cool and windy, and we were bundled in our sweatshirts and windbreakers. We moved on to a second clearing in the woods and just as we crested a sand hill, a tortoise scuttled backwards into its burrow. Circling the den, we crouched down around its sandy apron, always careful of where we our hands and feet, and beamed sunlight off a mirror and down the tunnel, hoping to illuminate the tortoise. Sure enough, a grey-paneled shell and a pointed face of a Gopher Tortoise stared back at us; the tortoise’s eyes were dark and still; its throat inflating with each breath. Its body fit perfectly in the narrow burrow, plugging the tunnel; its clawed feet braced against the sandy earth. We checked several other dens and found another tortoise—this time only seeing the side of the shell.
We left the tortoise and walked along the railroad tracks, turning over brush and old railroad ties—we found several small Fence Lizards; their backs camouflaged like bark while the stomachs of the males shone a bright, turquoise blue. We also chased in vain a beige-colored, four-foot long Coachwhip, which flowed over the junked ties and disappeared into an impenetrable pile of saw palmettos.
Another group of three students discovered an untagged young Eastern Indigo Snake and a larger, gravid Indigo in the leaf litter, just across the entrance to a tortoise burrow. When Dirk Stevenson, an Orianne herpetologist, had spotted black scales reflecting sunlight, he dropped onto the sandy coastal plain, grabbed the little snake first and then, after digging through the leaf litter and around the burrow entrance, his hand shot out with the gravid female. Holding the snakes in our hands, tails wrapping around our arms and necks, heads slowly creeping and tongues flicking for scent, our trip-mates began the short hike back to the trucks.
In Longleaf Pine shade, we stretched out a tape measure and placed the Indigo on the sandy, pine needle floor, four pairs of hands stretched her muscular body across the tape. She was six-feet long and weighed more than four pounds. After, being shown how to determine a snake’s sex— we inserted a probe in the snake’s vent; if it goes deep inside the snake’s a male; a short distance a female. Then, we scanned the snake with a receiver and discovered that she had been implanted with a passive integrated transponder device, a PIT tag for short—much like the barcode system used ring up groceries. This snake, then, was a recapture, a snake Dirk had previously tagged. The smaller Indigo, however, hadn’t been tagged. While gently holding it in our hands, Dirk took a thick needle and injected a transmitter subcutaneously, in the fascia below the dermis. We tagged a new snake!
Although the Coachwhip had eluded Chris’ group, Kevin’s caught one, a long, thin, whip of a snake, with large round eyes. Coachwhips are fast, diurnal predators that chase lizards and avoid Indigos (if they’re fortunate). We were told that Coachwhips bite, but ours was a gentle, if terrified snake.
All teachers who lead March Intensives give their students reading assignments to be completed before their program begins. Our required reading included Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, by Janisse Ray, which recounted a childhood spent in rural isolation—living in a junkyard, amid the husks of cars and refrigerators; the life of a country girl that neither knew how to swim or much about the wild, shifting seasons, but who had grown to be a passionate spokeswoman for the vanishing Longleaf Pine ecosystems and one of America’s most esteemed nature writers.
We were invited to Ms. Ray’s farm in Reidsville, Georgia, a short drive from our snake-catching activities. We joined Janisse, her husband Raven, and their daughter, Megan, for a home-cooked meal and a tour of their farm. As we pulled into their driveway, a plethora of animals greeted us: a courting turkey, chickens, Guinea fowl, two dogs. Housed in pens were: two neurotic peacocks, incessantly pacing back and forth; goats; cows, rabbits, pigs; all of which approached us with calm confidence. Janisse and her family introduced themselves and inquired about our adventure. After a whirlwind tour of their farm, we better understood the concept of agricultural diversity that we had read about in our textbook at school.
Their 1830’s federal style house was absolutely stunning! Janisse explained that the reason she and Raven bought the farm three years ago was because of the grand swamp chestnut oak tree, which lorded over the front lawn. Our house tour began in a bedroom. At first the arrangement of the bed seemed a little odd. It was dead center in the room. Janisse explained that the reason for the odd placement was so the bed would face north. She claimed if you slept with your head facing north, you would have a better sense of geographic orientation. The tour wrapped up at the kitchen, which was separated from the rest of the house to avoid fire. The kitchen was gorgeous; the ceiling was about thirty feet tall; in the center was a six-foot long and five-foot tall elk-antler chandelier. We gorged on a delicious homegrown meal: pasta, meat sauce made of their own rabbits, chickens, and pork, and a garden salad. What great company. Then, Janisse entertained us with readings from The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and three snake-related poems from A House of Branches, her book of poetry, published in 2010. It was an unforgettable experience. Ms. Ray is as skilled with words as she is in the kitchen.
We returned to the Orianne Preserve and our final event of the day: the histrionics of an Eastern Hognose Snake. Beth, a Society field biologist, had caught a plump Hognose in one of her snake traps. The snake, true to its nature, put on a big, dramatic show. First, it coiled and struck, viper-like; when that didn’t warn us away, it played dead, defecating and regurgitating (a semi-liquefied toad) all over itself. Then, it rolled over on its back, its tongue lolling out of its mouth. Whenever we manually turned the snake back on its belly, it rolled over, and started the ruse all over again.
Natural and National Heritage
Thursday mid-morning, after spending several hours of writing and exchanging data and watching Beth scale-brand the Hognose snake with a special, personal and retrievable number burnt onto the ventral scales (burnt scales smelled like burnt hair), we searched more of the Gopher Tortoise burrows in and around the preserve. Kevin brought the burrow-cam attached to a hose, and inserted it down each burrow. Although we never saw any rattlesnakes, we did see three tortoises, two in the same burrow, which plugged their respective tunnels like gray corks. And, surprisingly, inside one burrow a cloud of mosquitoes and gnats swirled around.
Next, we hunted for serpents, turning logs (a theme of the trip) and checking the snake traps and lifting sheets of tin, which had been scattered in the woods to attract snakes. Nada. We did catch several Fence Lizards, including another bright blue male, a southeastern Five-Lined Skink, and a Mole Skink, which unfortunately lost its tail when we caught it. We donated the twitching tail to a fire ant colony and the residents swarmed the gift.
After lunch, we waded through and root-hopped around a swamp, looking for Water Moccasins, various species of water snakes, and anything else that might show up. A couple of slash pines rose out of soggy hummocks and towered above the cypress, tupelos, and red maples. Kevin caught a Lesser Siren, a fully aquatic salamander in a mat of submerged leaves. The seven- or eight-inches long siren propels itself through water by a broad laterally-flattened tail. It has permanent fleshy gills and only front limbs; the hinds having been lost during its long evolution. No snakes.
Our final adventure, set for mid-afternoon, was to radio-track Gopher Tortoises (and hopefully finding a Diamondback). Unfortunately, the wind made 65° Fahrenheit feel like the mid 40°s. We did track three tortoises to their respective burrows, braving the pads of thorny cactuses that slapped and stuck in calves. We had dialed the frequency of each tortoise’s radio into the receiver, raised the antenna, turned in a circle, listened for bounced-back signal of an individual broadcast, and then walked in the direction of loudest beeps. Eventually, after much listening and many false turns, we found each of the three tortoises in their burrows. One, lit by mirrored sunlight, was visible inside; the others, however, had to be imagined. They were deep beneath our feet, and located well beyond the entrance by the beeping of our receiver and the handheld antenna. Again, no rattlesnakes.
For our final Georgia dinner, Chris introduced us to southern barbeque. At the local smorgasbord in Lumber City, we swarmed the counter like a colony of fire ants. And then, returned to the cafeteria tables eating our greens and beans, deliberately and with patience, rather like a Gopher Tortoise; ribs and fried chicken were devoured with the gusto of Indigo and the speed of a Coachwhip.
Back home at the Orianne Preserve, sitting in front of our dormitory, Chris lit a bonfire and together we reviewed what we had accomplished during the March Intensive and discussed the nature of time—how quickly it passed while we engaged in rugged, thought provoking, outdoor activities. The natural history of Georgia, its herpetological biodiversity and the passion of the people who study it, was a revelation, not a Biblical epiphany, but an ecological epiphany, threading together the past, the present, and the unknown future. Here in the unglaciated South, sitting by a campfire, we spoke of the true nature of misunderstood things: venomous snakes and wildfires. And the yeomen service that will be required to educate the public on their behalf. An Indigo Snake, for instance, is a hundred million years in the making, an unfinished reflection of Georgia pinewoods, which has been influenced by sandy soil and wildfire and the unintended generosity of the Gopher Tortoise. It is part of our natural and national heritage.