March-April 2008 Fieldherping Fun in the Southeastern U.S.

Late March-April was a busy month for me with three major herp trips and numerous visiting of herpers in between.  I'll present it as one long 2-part blog, in chronological order, including the visits to herpers sprinkled in where they fell.  It started with a group hunt of Florida herpers in the sugar cane fields on the southwest side of Lake Okeechobee.  This is a recreation of one capture scene (by friend Rob Nimmo) as I whizzed by on the main road and saw a prize gracing a side farm road.  It epitomizes the reason I always glance down side roads while driving to maximize the square footage I'm able to scan for herps.

 

It was a 5-foot female Everglades rat Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni that we later posed for pix in nearby Australian pines.  I wanted an alert pose, which turned out to be quite easy to induce taunting it with my hat on a snake hook.  The snake sure looked a lot brighter out in the sun earlier!

 

Later along a ditch bank in the cane, Mark Bell of the group found this huge, handsome pigmy rattler Sistrurus miliarius barbouri that I kept.  The close-up was taken in my studio.

 

Just after the Lake O hunt, old shutterbug pal Jerry Gingerich came by the house for two days with an ultra-sensitive, stop-action, strobe system that we used to catch some speedy herp subjects in action in my studio.  The two most cooperative specimens were a recently-caught cottonmouth Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti and a long-lunging Amazon tree boa Corallus hortulanus that Kathy produced last fall.  I used a very sophisticated technique (chunk of foam rubber on a stick, heated against a hot light bulb) to entice the snakes to strike across a laser trip beam....

 

We also took some 'regular' shots of other specimens:  one of Kathy's prized Okeetee corns, cool geckos belonging to Eric Russell, and sizzling hot vipers belonging to Rob Nimmo....

 

Friendly giant knob-tail gecko Nephrurus amyae

 

Crotalus durissus culminatus - caramel (= tyrosinase positive amelanistic)

Working in the studio offers plenty of 'control' over lighting and the subjects themselves -- I just had to sneak a few of these in to show 'em off  ;)

The last weekend of March I attended the 32nd annual All-Florida Herpetology Conference ( www.flmnh.ufl.edu/herpetology/herpsconference/afhc.htm ) in Gainesville, FL as has been a tradition of mine for the last 32 years.  Max Nickerson of the Florida Museum of Natural History is auctioning off a poster outside that evening as the 100% herper crowd enjoyed a leisurely barbeque.

 

Besides the always-great talks, a bunch of us road-cruised one evening.  Not too much was moving that early, but Daniel (Mudsnake6) kept us entertained in his motel room with recently-taken pics on his laptop. L-R is Kathy Love, Chris Lechowicz, Eric Russell, Shane Johnson, Daniel Parker, Bill Love, and Jennifer Evans.

 

Kathy and I also managed a visit to Eugene and Cindy Bessette's (Ophiological Services, Archer, FL) home to see / photo their up-and-coming herpetocultural masterpiece - the 'SmoothyBall' (< my suggestion as a trade name), a completely scaleless ball python!  The female pictured will be a year old this summer and is thriving.

 

After the conference, I dropped in on Bern and Bette Bechtel in Valdosta, GA to see what was new in their lives.  The Bechtels were instrumental in helping us gain an understanding of snake genetics starting back in the late 1970s when Kathy and I were accumulating stock to get into breeding corn snakes in a serious way. 

 

Old pal of 30+ years Terry Vandeventer of MS and new friend Dr. Bob Young of TN spent the next 3.5ish days herping across southern Georgia and South Carolina.  The first place we stopped was my 'canebrake hotspot' (found 6 in that area a year ago, only one of which was taken away), but the catch surprisingly consisted of only non-canebrake herps.  This adult female broadhead skink Eumeces laticeps was first seen in a rusty pile of junk (in-situ in inset), but also looked good prowling on a pine limb.

 

Terry next uncovered a fine, husky (well-fed and / or gravid?) chain king Lampropeltis getula getula under tin....

 

This scarred 'grey' rat was about as ugly as I'd ever seen and was presumably (hopefully?) about to shed.  It was under tin near a scenic, old house in which I decided it surely spent its days keeping the rodent population in check.  This pic on a busted window sill was probably influenced by seeing a favorite painting of a corn snake crawling along a slatted barn at Bern and Bette Bechtel's home the previous day (see it in the background of the pic with them in it).

 

Lastly, we found a black racer Coluber constrictor priapus under more trash.  I opted for both a close-up and 'Grismeresque' style shot from further away....

 

Under a chunk of concrete Bob later found a yearling king still sporting red in its bands.  This and the previous three snakes were all released after the pix.

 

This is the most scenic, wisteria-smothered shack I'd ever seen.  It begged me to have its snapshot taken.  It ought to be suitably dilapidated and ready for Elaphe infestation in a couple more years, I'd reckon.

 

As I was circling another old shack, I got a few months shocked out of my lifespan as this 4-foot+ beast (Crotalus horridus atricaudatus) rocketed up out of the tall grass where I was about to tread next....

 

Fortunately it was headed in the opposite direction, obviously trying to gain the shelter of the structure it called home.  We played with it a spell, and with Terry's help got the '8-foot monster' kind of shot that crops up in the Enquirer every few years....  Just to set the record straight - Terry Vandeventer is a top-notch herpetologist and educator, and undeniably the field authority on herps of Mississippi.  He graciously hammed it up, totally out-of-character, for this shot that I wanted.  

 

....and another 'Grismeresque' tribute....

 

Fire ants -- another common danger (well, more an annoyance, at least to humans) lurking in the grass of Georgia....

 

Terry, Bob and I proceeded eastward toward South Carolina.  A couple greenish rats Elaphe obsoleta ssp. were hiding under old plywood and tin but photographed "out where they belonged", the first from southeastern Georgia....

 

....and the second from Jasper County, SC (below).  I didn't try to adjust the clumsy pose on that one after I noticed I'd just placed the snake on a poison ivy vine.  Its 'portrait' with Bob Young looking on would have to do.

 

Sundew, a tiny insectivorous plant abundant close to the ground in low areas of the Low Country.  It was the first time I'd noticed it in bloom.

 

At my Okatie hotspot, the tin pile that last year yielded two fat corns and a racer, this time was home for two canebrakes.  Just goes to show how those rattlers move in the minute you remove their competitors ;)

 

This dark eastern hognose Heterodon platirhinos was also hiding a few hundred feet away.

 

The only corn snake Elaphe guttata guttata of the trip was sadly this one (below) ......... uh, does that count as a D.O.R. ???  I can't divulge the secret locality of this find lest a horde of unruly snakehunters descend like wolves upon the area.

The trip's grand finale was a visit to the Edisto Island Serpentarium on Edisto Island, South Carolina (Check their website = http://www.edistoserpentarium.com/ to get the 'open' hours) where Heyward Clamp met us for an early viewing of his top-notch exhibit before it officially opens for the summer tourist season.  THIS PLACE IS A TRUE GEM OF A HERP ATTRACTION ! ! !   Did I emphasize that enough? The E.I.S. is cleverly designed with huge diorama exhibits featuring the herps of the region and other spectacular specimens from afar.  Each diorama has a hand-painted background by Heyward's wife Sharon that records a taste of Old South history as it pertains to the featured animal.  Take your time enjoying them - there's a lot going on in those scenes and cage props that deserve a careful look or you'll miss half the fun.  Several huge pits, inside and outside, were populated by an assortment of well-dispersed Dixie species that made the searching fun, the total opposite of sickly heaps of snakes one on top of another like at other roadside reptile places that truly are 'the pits'.

This is the outside view from the parking lot (below), and Sharon and Heyward Clamp to the right....

 

....and the main viewing hall (below).

 

Heyward couldn't stretch his arms wide enough to demonstrate to Bob the length of one humongous eastern diamondback he had on display.

OK, no giving away the whole place.  Don't you dare drive past this class attraction the next time you're passing by on I-95 just south of Charleston, SC!

That afternoon, Heyward treated us to a hunt on the ACE Basin Reserve where he, brother Ted and friends were camped out for a week of herping like he'd done for the past half-century.  Heyward has unique permission to camp and hunt there where no other snakehunters may enter.  Their camp had a turn-of-the-century feel to it.

The massive acreage looked for all intents and purposes exactly the way Carl Kauffeld described the Okeetee Hunt Club in his books.  The reserve is agriculturally and fire-managed for quail and turkey, which by no coincidence also spawns a healthy number of rodent- and bird-eating snakes like rats, kings and rattlesnakes.  We drove through miles of forest, most of it fairly open after a burn had cleared the leaf litter about two weeks prior.  Here are some views of the terrain....

'Hurricane' stumps like below are getting scarce in the region.  No new hurricanes have raged through recently enough to create new ones to replace those that have rotted away since the 1960s when Kauffeld frequented the area.  When we did find some stumps with holes under them, we gathered around in eager anticipation of seeing a granddaddy diamondback staring back up out of one. 

Wait, is that one looking up out of that hole below ? 

Alas, false alarm! There was nothing in the hole pictured above, despite a glimmer from some dry leaves that made my heart skip a beat when reflected sunlight first illuminated them.  The EDB directly above is one I caught in Georgia last year, photo taken in my studio right after shedding its skin. 

Below, Terry uses a mirror to flash some light down another likely-looking hidey hole in the recently burned woods.

 

Heyward did find a juvenile canebrake rattler cached in a burnt log while we were out hiking and called us over to see / photograph it in-situ (see it in the center?), and later out on display.

 

The opaque eastern diamondback Crotalus adamanteus (below) was one that Ted Clamp, Winston _______ and Ricky Walters had caught earlier that day and allowed me to photograph on a hazy afternoon on the ACE Reserve.  That was what we were supposed to see in those stump holes above!  (That's Heyward (left) and Ted in the pic reenacting the find while toting already-bagged canebrake rattlers.)

 

Bob Young, Terry Vandeventer and Low Country herper Ricky Walters compare pix taken that afternoon.

 

The time flew by unbelievably quickly as they say it does when you're having a great time.  Well, we were definitely have a great time!  Terry and Bob dropped me off near Savannah at my sister-in-law's place from which I took the train home the next day - my first train ride in the U.S. since I was a child. Parting shot:  Terry Vandeventer, Bill Love and Bob Young.  Note Terry's van behind us - the 'DMASCUS' license tag refers to Damascus steel and his status as a master knife-maker in that specialty craft (see an example of his handiwork in the inset).

END of Part 1  - - - - -  Click HERE to proceed to Part 2, Herping the Gulf Coast (with a short side trip to the New Joizey Pine Barrens and visits with two friends on Long Island, New Yawk).