Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dreaming of Snakes - Part 1

Winter in Colorado is long - very long.  Yes, we have days and even weeks of incredible sunny and warm weather but as a snake lover these just aren't good enough.  I go through a MAJOR withdrawal from snakes in the fall and then have impatient tantrums all February waiting for the snakes to come out again.  It sucks!  I grew up in Georgia and then lived there again for 10 years as an adult and was spoiled rotten with snakes.  Not only are there twice the number of snake species in Georgia, I could find a snake any day of the year as long as the sun came out.  Even when the sun wasn't out, there were always logs to roll with many different species of salamanders hiding under them or wetlands to visit as the chorus frogs and peepers got it on.  In Colorado, there is a complete lack of snakes and other herps from middle October until the middle of March.  No wonder I am depressed.

Scene from January 4 this year - Cold as a witch's tit.
About this time of year (as noted above), I start to get really impatient for spring.  Dreams (both day and night) of the swamps in the southeastern United States flood my brain knowing that they are going crazy with herps.  Snakes can be easily found basking just about anywhere.  In Florida, this is the best time of year to find certain species of snakes that disappear from the surface world during summer only to reemerge again in the fall.  

The short-tailed snake (Lampropeltis [Stilosoma] extenuata) is one of the handful snakes in Florida (and the southeast for that matter) that I have never seen in the wild.  It is known to be notoriously difficult to find but that is because most herpetologists (including me) look for it during the summer.  This is obviously the wrong time of year for a snake that is most active in the winter.  I learned after I left Florida that I should be looking for these pencil shaped snakes in winter and not summer.  The only short-tailed snake I have ever seen was caught by my graduate advisor at the University of South Florida.  He brought one in and put it on the center of the table during our weekly lab meeting thinking that none of his students would know what it was - they are a very infrequently encountered snake afterall.  As I sat down I exclaimed, "Holy shit, where did the Stilosoma come from?".  Henry looked at me with the look of a wounded child that just dropped his ice cream cone. 
Short-tailed Snake - Damn these are cool snakes.
It took a while but finally got Henry to divulge where he found the snake.  He must have known I would spend the entire summer that year looking for my own short-tailed snake instead of focusing on my graduate work.  No wonder I never finished my degree at USF.  I did however find the exact spot where Henry caught the snake.  USF had a parcel of land just north of campus that was used by the Ecology Department for various projects and experiments.  Henry put out a lot of AC (artificial cover for the non-field herping readers) as part of a herp inventory project.  Ask any herpetologist about AC - the response you will get it that AC is a great place to find snakes.  Needless to say, I was out almost every day flipping the AC in hopes of finding a short-tailed snake.

Artificial Cover at its best in Colorado
Back to how I found the exact spot where Henry caught the Stilosoma.  Henry was a chronic cigar smoker.  Everywhere he went, Henry was chewing on a cigar butt and lighting it up when he got the chance.  The only thing that would ever make Henry drop a cigar was if he got excited enough to forget he had one.  The day after Henry brought in the short-tailed snake, I just knew I would find one for myself so I flipped EVERY piece of AC in the ecological preserve that I could find.  One piece of AC about halfway through my blind rage of AC flipping had a chewed up half of a cigar under it.  DAMN!  I knew what that meant.  This was the piece of AC where Henry found the short-tailed snake.  I memorized its location, confirmed with Henry that he dropped his cigar when he found the snake, and visited that piece of AC every day until I was asked to leave USF. I was possessed.

I still have not found a short-tailed snake which makes this time of year is very difficult for me.  Florida calls for me to escape my snake-less winter and flip AC until I find my short-tailed snake.

So what do I do about my snake-less winters?  Well, for starters, any warm day I keep my eyes wide open for any snake - even a gartersnake gets me super excited this time of year.  For example - the high temperature yesterday was about 55 degrees.  Did that stop me from looking for snakes?  NO!  I walked an extra 1.5 miles during my lunch break (normally I walk 3 miles but yesterday I walked 4.5 miles) just to visit a gartersnake hibernaculum along the South Platter River.  No snakes yesterday but I will likely run or walk by the hibernaculum every warmish or sunny day until I find a gartersnake.  I get super-possessed about finding my first snake in the spring that I practically give up trying to work on days over 60 degrees - I have to find a snake.

Gartersnake Hibernaculum on the South Plate River - can you see the snake?
Two years ago, I got EXTREMELY lucky on March 14th.  I had not found a snake yet that spring.  I was beginning to doubt my ability to find snakes and I know I have one of the best snake search images in the world for snakes (Is this arrogant?  Certainly but I will "out snake" any challengers and I welcome anyone to challenge me.).  Doubt is not a good thing for someone who has a snake-spotting ego like mine so I was working hard to prove to myself I still had the ability to find a snake.  I hated my job at the time so I would take 3 hour lunch breaks on warm days just to find a snake.  Still no snakes - I was struggling that year.

Rainbow snake - not the south Florida variety
On March 14th, I was scheduled to fly to Florida for our first attempt at rediscovering the south Florida rainbow snake (another story).  My ego and arrogance desperately needed a snake for good luck before I headed to Florida.  My flight was at 6:00pm that night so instead of going to work, I played hooky to find a snake.  My blatant disregard for work paid off in spades.  I now hold the earliest known record for a Great Plains milksnake in Colorado.  I nailed it! 

So how did I do it?  How did I break a record by a full month?  Well - I through responsibility to the wind.  I risked getting fired for taking for time off I really didn't have and worked my ass off walking rocky southeastern facing slopes looking for snakes.

The Center for Snake Conservation has been conducting a snake inventory for the City of Boulder on about 3 square miles just north of town.  It is a parcel of land that currently does not have any "official" trails (although there is a social trail) but it is slated to be developed as a recreational open space in the next 5 years or so.  The city is way ahead of the curve with snake conservation.  Their ecological program is run by 3 ornithologists (I do hold that against them sometimes) but luckily they understand the importance of snakes to a healthy ecosystem.  The CSC was contracted to find snake hotspots that should be avoided by the new trail system.

Rocky hillside = HEAVEN
That day I played hooky to catch a snake before my Florida trip, March 14th, was the first real day in 2012 that I actually had a chance to find a snake.  It was going to reach 70 degrees in the afternoon and had been warm the two days prior to my visit to the north Boulder grasslands.  Like I said above, I worked my ass off.  The best way to find a snake in Colorado during spring is to flip rocks - lots of rocks.  I headed to our site in north Boulder with the hopes of maybe finding a gartersnake, or if I was lucky, a rattlesnake that came out a bit early.  I never dreamed I would find a milksnake.  Milksnakes are known as a May snake and are the snake of 1000 rocks - meaning you have to flip 1000 rocks before you find one (another story).  However, that is exactly what I did - I found a milksnake on March 14th.

I was beginning to get frustrated when I finally found the milksnake.  I had been flipping rocks for over three hours on the steep slopes of our north Boulder site.  I was tired.  I needed to pack for my trip to Florida.  I needed water.  I needed a massage.  I was not going to give up until my famous and arrogant search image came through for me.  I spotted a baby bullsnake basking right next to a small hole next to some large rocks. I jumped for joy.  I found my first snake of 2012.  WTF - read this paragraph again - every sentence starts with "I".  Oh well - so I throw in some bad writing every now and again.

Bullsnakes are not a new snake for me so I no longer "have to catch" them (another story).  Using my camera to capture them in situ (as found) is much more rewarding now instead of quickly pouncing on them.  As I kept my eye on the baby snake, I began to swing my camera around off my back (where I keep it so it doesn't bang on the rocks as I bend over to flip them) to take a picture of the baby bullsnake in situ.  As soon as I brought the camera to my eye, the snake bolted down the hole.  FUCK - I should have grabbed it to make sure I caught a snake to ensure good snake mojo followed me to Florida.  Little did I know that my luck was about to explode.

Small hole leading to hibernaculum that the baby bullsnake escaped down. Rock with the prize is to the right.
Unlike adults, baby bullsnakes in situ are not very easy to find so when you find one you better keep looking for another one.  They seem to occur in twos and threes.  Knowing this, I was pretty confident that if I flipped the nearby rocks, I would easily find another bullsnake to get the giant and grotesque snake-less winter monkey off my back.  I got to work flipping rocks.  The third rock I flipped about flipped me out.  Under the rock was a milksnake almost 3 feet long.  It was a monster!  Milksnakes in Colorado are normally around 2 feet long so just the size of it got me excited.  I don't remember what I screamed as I found my March 14th monster milksnake but I am guessing it was close to what my friend and mentor screamed when we found a pale milksnake together in Nebraska 19 years earlier - "THERE'S THE MOTHER FUCKER NOW!".  Yes, John - you really did scream that.

March 14, 2012 - Great Plains Milksnake
I did it!  I found a snake before my Florida trip. Not only did I find a snake, I found a fucking milksnake in March.  This is unheard of in Colorado.  I was pumped and beyond excited for my trip to Florida - I just knew I would find the south Florida rainbow snake.  Unfortunately that did not happen but I do still hold the earliest record for a milksnake in Colorado.

So what does that mean today?  It means I am dreaming of snakes.  When I dream of snakes, I cannot think about anything else.  Work tasks don't get completed.  Dinner doesn't get made.  I don't do anything except read and dream about snakes.  My mind goes to happy place regardless of the stress and consequences this brings.  Snakes are my happy place.  Snakes are my religion (not the freaky venomous snake free-handling kind of religion though).

Both of these snakes are rattlesnake eating snakes - I prefer to free-hand these.  :)
I will be dreaming about my March 14th milksnake hoping to break my record by finding one in February.  All my free time will be spent in the field looking for snakes before the chorus frogs even start calling or the tiger salamanders make their overland journeys to breeding ponds.  I am possessed and crazy about snakes this time of year - 4 months of no snakes is way too long for me.  

Florida is on my mind.  Florida is on my agenda.  I turn 40 this year so I am planning a solo trip to Florida to visit my old haunts - to catch some of my favorite snakes.  The short-tailed snake is on my list to find this year but first I need to book my trip.  Do any of you out there want to fund my trip?  I just need about $500.  I doubt I could be that lucky but I had to ask.  Hell, we could make it a tax deduction for you - hint, hint.

All I see is snakes in this photo
South Florida Rainbow Snake habitat
Seriously though - whatever it costs, it is worth me getting out of Colorado in the next month or so. As soon as I start catching snakes, my mood changes.  My SAD disappears with the beginning of snake season. This makes me wonder why I live in Colorado.  Oh yeah - it is incredible here if I just can survive the snake-less winter every year.

Even the smallest snake makes me happy

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