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.
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.
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 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.
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.