BIRTHDAY. HERE'S YOUR RATTLESNAKE
October 10, 2010
My son and
I had birthdays last week and I was reminded of a column I wrote about
a long-ago birthday present. It went something like this:
here's your rattlesnake. Actually here are your 28 rattlesnakes, plus
a handful of other kinds of snakes for good luck. Sound like a good time
or what? That's what we gave our son, Mike, for his birthday the year
he graduated from the University of Alabama. An ecology field trip. The
present was my idea, and I got to deliver it. (His mother actually had
in mind a gift in wrapping paper and ribbons.)
day was a Sunday in October at a national wildlife refuge in Florida.
Terry Farrell and Peter May of Stetson University let us go with them
to their pigmy rattlesnake study site. These two ecologists have collected
more pigmy rattlesnakes than anyone else in the world. We began the hunt
at a gravel parking lot alongside a swamp. As we drove up, one of the
students was taking measurements on a rattlesnake that had been crawling
across the parking lot as she got out of the car. I wondered what it would
be like when we got to the study site.
down a dike separating two lakes toward a hammock where most of the snakes
are found. A hammock is a wooded area of palmettos, cypress, and bay magnolia
trees surrounded by open wetlands. A variety of wildlife find refuge in
hammocks. As we walked along, Terry found a baby pigmy rattler coiled
on the dike. Mike found another, coiled in the grass a few feet away.
I relaxed. Mike had found a snake. He would not be disappointed. The pigmy
rattlers are so well camouflaged that many people do not find one on their
first trip. On a previous trip with Peter and Terry, I had watched Tony
Mills stare at the ground while someone pointed to a pigmy rattlesnake
that neither of us could see at first. It blended perfectly with the groundcover
of dead twigs and pine cones.
of venomous snakes in North America are shy and retiring when it comes
to humans. They prefer not to be seen or heard. They do have a tiny set
of rattles that sound like an insect buzzing if they get mad and you get
close enough. And their venom is potent, drop for drop. But because of
their small size (seldom over 18 inches) they are not as dangerous as
cottonmouths or diamondback rattlers.
in tune with his environment that day and spotted an adult pigmy rattler
on the dike. I began to wonder how many I had stepped on. Then came the
really fun part, entering the hammock where most of the snakes lived.
A walking trail leads through the hammock but central Florida had recently
been favored with torrential rains. The trail was a foot deep in water.
seek refuge on higher ground or vegetation during floods. And the little
rattlers were on exposed areas of dry ground as well as on palmetto fronds
and in low-lying bushes. Mike found one more than six feet above the water
in a wax myrtle tree. This made me think about the wisdom of pushing vegetation
aside while charging through the woods off the trail. We stayed approximately
three hours and found 28 pigmy rattlesnakes. I say "we" found
them because I was there. Mike found five, Peter found six, Terry found
seven, the students found the rest, and I found none. But I did catch
a green snake no one else saw. We also found two garter snakes, four ribbon
snakes, a water snake, and four box turtles.
rattlesnakes, pigmy or otherwise, isn't everyone's idea of a good time.
But an ecology field trip need not include snake hunting. Tailored to
the recipient's age and interests, it would make a fun and memorable birthday
present. Why not plan one for someone in your family?
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