Cold snake

Last Friday before driving six hours to the Texas coast, I checked the weather forecast for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.  Saturday would be cool and cloudy.  Sunday would be sunny and comfortable, like a spring day if ever there was one.  FAIL!  The forecast couldn’t have been more wrong, even when revised during the day both Saturday and Sunday.  Dense fog and drizzle on Saturday?  It’ll clear.  NOT!  Sunny and beautiful Sunday?  NOT!  Unexpected dense fog and drizzle Sunday morning?  It’ll be gone by 9 AM.  NOT!  (I’ll add the fog rolled in thicker and heavier as the day wore on—both days!—though it thinned quickly as you moved inland.  Unfortunately, Aransas NWR is on the coast.)

I remember something about only fools predicting the weather in Texas.  Anyway…

Despite atmospheric setbacks, I knew I could still see marvelous creatures at the refuge, though clear views would be limited to nearby subjects as a gray wash would blanket everything else.  I also accepted that my hope of seeing amphibian or reptile residents had diminished to nothing given the temperature and lack of sunshine.  So much for seeing alligators again, I thought, much less a snake or frog or lizard.  Thankfully I was wrong on that count.

Along the back stretch of the Heron Flats Trail where it exits the woodlands and makes a brush-lined approach to the viewing blind, a swamp rabbit on the San Antonio Bay side of the clearing sat feeding against a backdrop of thicket.  I saw it from a distance as I exited the woods, a twitching shadow behind tall plants that shielded it from view.  In my best impersonation of silence, I measured each step, placed footfalls in the quietest of places, checked my breathing, held the camera gear firmly.  Again: FAIL!  The rabbit bolted into the underbrush before I even got close to it.  When I finally stood where it had been only moments before, I realized I had no chance for a photo given all the flora standing more than twice as tall as the bunny.  Oh well.

Then a bit of noise caught my attention.  Well, “a bit of noise” does it an injustice.  It sounded more like a miniature earth mover dredging up the planet’s crust just a few steps away.  Though I couldn’t see what made the noise, I could see various bits of foliage and stem being jostled about most violently.  I would soon find the friendliest armadillo I’d ever met.

But before I knew what it was, I knelt in the path and waited patiently for the loud creature to make an appearance.  Anything that busy and unconcerned for secrecy would most certainly want its picture taken, right?  Yet kneeling on the opposite side of the trail so as to be less of a threat afforded me a discovery that took me by surprise.

A rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus) lying in a bit of autumnal debris (2009_12_13_044442)

Despite being less than an arm’s length away from it, this rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus) never moved.  It went unnoticed at first because it lay unflinching at the edge of marsh greenery.  Little stays unnoticed by me, however, and as I knelt and waited, slowly my eyes drew down until they settled on this beautifully delicate reptile.  Then I thought, Oh, it’s not moving and it’s not warm at all.  I’m betting it’s dead.  I reached down to push away some of the detritus resting atop its head.  It flinched.

A rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus) lying in a bit of autumnal debris (2009_12_13_044452)

No sunshine.  Temperatures too cool for it to warm its body.  A cold drizzle falling.  Why in the world is this snake out and about? I wondered.  I put my hand down next to its face and again it drew back, recoiled in a slow movement like fish swimming through cold molasses.

By this time I’d discovered the identify of the noise maker across the way.

A nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) digging behind tall grass (2009_12_13_044434)

A hungry nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) hunted with a devil-may-care attitude, not even worried when I sneezed (though it paused long enough to sniff the air and look about).  It had moved close enough to the trail for me to see it and identify it, though it remained busy digging in the dirt and snacking on whatever goodies it found.  Yet it continued moving ever in the direction of the clearing…and the snake.  With the reptile easy prey in the open, the armored mammal would no doubt find it and capture it and eat it.  Just one more tasty morsel.

A close-up of a rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus) lying in autumnal debris (2009_12_13_044532)

Should I move it?  But if I do, where do I put it?  Why isn’t it in its winter hiding place?  What in tarnation do I do with an adult snake who’s too foolish to know the forecasters were wrong?  These thoughts ran through my mind as I looked at the snake, at the armadillo approaching the clearing, and back at the snake.  A few steps were all that separated the two.  If the armadillo crossed the trail, the snake would be toast.

Then I remembered my cardinal rule when visiting the non-anthropocentric world: Don’t interfere in the natural order of things.  I don’t mind helping a turtle cross a road since a road isn’t natural and most people are unforgiving when behind the wheel.  I don’t mind rescuing a wounded animal who’s been shot or hit by a car or snagged in left-behind fishing line.  I don’t mind being a loud-mouthed prick when it comes to stopping people from throwing rocks at birds or trying to hit a turtle with a stick.  But what I don’t like to do is interfere with nature when nature is doing its own thing.

Ultimately, and much to my own emotional detriment, I left the snake where I found it.  After spending a bit of time photographing the armadillo—and learning its more than amicable disposition—I went on my way.  A few hours later when I returned to walk the Heron Flats Trail again, the first thing I did was look for the snake.  And I found it, still alive, still where it had been.  The armadillo had long since vanished, of course.  Amazing how uplifted I felt to see something as simple as a silly snake who didn’t know when to get out of the cold.

13 thoughts on “Cold snake”

  1. I agree with you totally about when and when not to intervene in nature. I’m glad you found the snake later, and trust the armadillo found plenty to fill his belly elsewhere.

    That is one handsome snake! What vibrant coloring. I just investigated and we have greens here but they’re secretive and I’ve never seen one. I’ve seen armadillos just once, while visiting my mom in Florida. They’re otherworldly creatures to a northerner.

    1. These are pretty common snakes, Jain, but they’re well camouflaged. I’ve stood over one that I knew couldn’t have run away, yet I never could find it in a small clump of grass. They blend really well! Mostly I see them crossing roads or sidewalks but lose track of them the moment they enter greenery.

      You know, armadillos are common down here and I still think they’re otherworldly!

  2. I too agree with your non-intervention in nature philosophy, though sometimes distinguishing between natural and situations already influenced by the hand of humans gets a little tricky. (I’m thinking of black rat snakes and Phoebe nests on structures around our place. I rationalize that by building the structure we’ve provided the Phoebe an unnatural nesting site and, therefore, it’s okay to non-violently send the snake on its way elsewhere.)

    Your description of the “bit of noise” made by a foraging armadillo is right on.

    1. It can definitely be a fine line, Marvin. When ants get in the house, technically they’re doing their natural thing–but I can’t exactly let them move in. As you say, juggling when and when not to intervene can sometimes be a foggy game to play.

      Yes, armadillos aren’t exactly quiet when foraging. I actually find it endearing in a way, the in-your-face “I’m tryin’ to eat here!” attitude they have.

  3. The vividness of the snake contrasted with the grass makes for really nice photos.

    I’ve also occasionally found Rough Green Snakes out and about in mid-winter here in North Carolina. It’s the only species that I’ve ever seen then so they seem to be pretty hardy as snakes go, at least in places where days below zero are relatively few. I can’t help but wonder what they’re eating though.

    1. Thank you, Nate. I’ve always felt colors become more vibrant when it’s cloudy (when they’re not washed out by direct sunshine). But in this case it helped to have that stunning bright-green-and-yellow mix resting on stoic winter browns.

      Interesting that you’ve also seen them out in poor weather. I’ll admit this was the first time for me (though seeing them when it’s warm is a given). And I had the same thought about what they might eat given the dearth of insects…

  4. Super shots of the Rough Green Snake Jason! If you ever do a “butt shot” post , you can use that cool armadillo shot too 😉

    Obviously you did the right thing, letting nature take its course with the snake and the armadillo. It can get sticky though as you say.

    The example Marvin gives above with the rat snakes and Phoebes I consider more cut and dry. If you entice creatures into your natural habitat with artificial structures (like bird houses, of which I have many) you must protect them from possible predation because you have already altered the balance by installing the structure. If the bird nests in a tree, without my assistance, then I allow nature to take its course. If the snake climbs the tree, that’s nature in action.

    1. Hilarious, Larry! Yes, it would indeed make a great addition to a “butt shot” post. Thankfully the armadillo later gave me some better views, otherwise I’d be stuck with that one picture of an armored moon.

      Good example on the artificial habitat. I agree. My mom keeps bluebird houses and she checks them constantly for wasps, signs of predators or invaders, safety of the parents and chicks, and so on. But when other birds nest around the farm and face off against rat snakes and the like, my parents keep their fingers crossed but don’t intervene.

  5. Pingback: House of Herps #1
  6. What a lovely little snake, I’ve searched to no avail here in NW Missouri for these snakes. I know they are greatly camouflaged against their usual habitats, with any luck one day I will find one. Armadillos are without a doubt one of my favorite animals. I agree with your “Other Worldly” description. While in Southern Missouri I came across one at a local wildlife park. He was aware of my presence but didn’t seem concerned in the least. I was able to approach it and watch it as it dug around for buried treasures. They are slowly migrating further north and in the past two years have been spotted near St. Joseph, as well as Savannah where I live.

    I try to follow your same example of when to interfere and when to let nature run its course. It is hard at times, but all things considered it is the best thing to do.

    1. It can be difficult not interfering, MObugs41. I watched more than a dozen mallard drakes gang up on a single female. She was obviously in heat–and so were the they. Every part of me wanted to chase them away. A few days later I watched two mallard drakes separate a female from her young, chase away her mate, then try to kill the ducklings while claiming the female as their own. I wept at the idea of it. But I also realized nature has done its own thing for far longer than we’ve been around, and though we do love to interfere and control and manipulate, I doubt pushing our view of things makes a difference in what nature will and will not do on its own. (None of which makes it easier to watch goings-on that fly in the face of our emotional perspective.)

      I hadn’t heard armadillos had made it quite that far, though I’ve read their range is expanding. They’re docile in ways that surprise most–even me, and I’ve lived here for 40 years–so your experience isn’t surprising. Still, I’m glad you had the close-up encounter with one of our more famous “alien” lifeforms!

  7. Slowly making my HOH rounds. Glad I made it over here. That is a beautiful snake ( I love little green snakes), and I love your story. I might have to visit Texas some day just to see green snakes, armadillos, and gators.

    I wrestle with the question of intervention and my own tender heart a lot. Predators have to eat too. It’s heartbreaking to empathize so much with both sides.

    While I’m over here, I also wanted to thank you for helping organize House of Herps. This is a great beginning. I look forward to many more.

    1. Thank you, Liz! I’ve always thought of this species as quite attractive, though as Nate pointed out, I think the real beauty came out with the snake on winter grass as opposed to being hidden in lush greenery.

      You’d be most welcome to visit Texas. I think you’d enjoy it. With 11 distinct ecological regions in the state, it’s easy to get lost trying to see all the natural wonders.

      And thank you on House of Herps! Amber deserves the credit for getting me involved and seeing it through to fruition, but I was certainly more than happy to support the effort.

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