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Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Study in Scarlet

Herping the Sandhills Gamelands is a totally unique experience, and not just thanks to the range-restricted fauna you can find there. Because the military uses the area for active-duty training, the floor of the pine forest is littered with what looks like the remnants of a long-forgotten war.

Strewn beneath the pine straw are MREs, bullet casings for sniper-grade rifles, and discarded det cord. Dodging rusty coils of barbed wire and camouflaged foxholes, we also found an ammo clip, a pair of army-issue boxer shorts, and what was possibly a deactivated land mine. It’s hard to believe snakes thrive in this environment, but given the right set of circumstances, you can unveil a real beauty. That’s when Mark flipped over a log, causing some of the bark to rip off in the process, only to find perhaps the most beautiful snake in the world resting underneath.

I dare you, I double-dare you, to find a more beautiful snake in North Carolina!

We’d found a Scarlet Kingsnake, a tiny little one, not more than eight inches long. It was feisty for such a small creature, constantly trying to wriggle out of our grasp and even raising up to strike once or twice. Apparently this species gets confused with the venomous Coral Snake, and after seeing it in person it’s hard to see why – the pale bands are a stark white, a far cry from the yellow on a Coral, plus the head is nice and red. Like the old adage goes, red on black, friend of Jack. Not that I need a rhyming pneumonic to identify my snakes.

Red on black, kills Jack; red on yellow, probably a different snake. Wait, that's not right...

After our elation at finding an elusive Scarlet Kingsnake, the rest of the trip was pretty much a giant bonus. We walked through some more pine forest, which is basically the only thing to do in the Sandhills. Unfortunately, we weren’t finding much – a Southeastern Five-lined Skink here, an Eastern Fence Lizard there. Mark and I were talking about the possibility of finding Coachwhips when he stopped mid-sentence and yelled out: “Snake!”, for he’d almost stepped on one!

If you look closely, you can see the reflection of the three of us in its eyes, which is kinda awesome!

Lying at his feet was a good-sized Eastern Hognose, but not like the black ones I’ve seen around the Triangle. This guy was beautifully patterned, with blotches of brown and black intertwining with ochres and tans. He looked like a two-foot long cob of Indian corn! As often happens with snakes, we tried to hold it a bit, but the Eastern Hognose wasn’t having any of it – as soon as I lifted him up, I saw his cloaca evert and dropped him just before he squirted a fowl-smelling musk on me. Immediately, the snake turned over, mouth ajar and tongue hanging out – the perfect amalgam of a dead animal. Luckily, this is just a defense mechanism, but it was super cool to see!

We flipped him over and he flopped right on his back again. You're not fooling anybody snake!
Photo thanks to Ali Iyoob.

On the way back, Ali did that thing he does where he randomly jumps down a hillside when he sees a herp. This time, he stuck his hand into a random creek and pulled out this exquisitely patterned Common Musk Turtle. A couple weeks ago, we found another Musk Turtle, but because it was a big adult its stripes were faded and it refused to musk. This young one had bright white lines around the eye and smelled awful – truly living up to its colloquial name of ‘Stinkpot’!

At least he didn't bite me like that stupid Mud Turtle. Stupid, stupid Mud Turtle...

Our next stop would be the terribly-named 17 Frog Pond. In the best of times, it’s a bad name because there are actually 21 species of frog living in the shallow pool. In the worst of times, as today, there aren’t any frogs to be had, as the pond dried up over our mild winter. Hopefully it’ll fill up with some strong summer rains and the frogs will return, but for now I’ll have to live with this small Corn Snake Ali found under some loose bark – honestly, more than one hell of a consolation prize!

At least he sat still long enough for one photo... that's all I really care about!

Maybe it had been a cold morning, and the snake was sluggish for a bit, but after being held in our warm hands the Corn Snake was incredibly active, darting into the leaf litter the moment we let go. Of all the snakes we found in the Sandhills that weekend, he was by far the most difficult to photograph. The same can’t be said for this stately Southern Toad we found under some nearby cover – he just sat like a statue while we shot him!

You can tell it's a Southern Toad because of the giant post-cranial ridges...
otherwise I find toad ID next to impossible!

After all the rare and beautiful herps we found that weekend, it would be a shame to leave without finding one of its more common denizens. We heard them everywhere, like insects in the reeds – Southern Cricket Frogs, probably the most abundant herp in the area. We found a ton, but every time something was wrong – either we’d find an abnormally dull individual, or it would hop away just as I snapped my shutter. Finally, we found a small pond full of them, and I could do nothing but take my time.

Not so bad! Even the baking evening sun can't stop the Southern Cricket Frog!

It’s honestly hard for me to believe that traveling just an hour south of where I live can have such a dramatic change of the biota I find. I’m lucky to have such a unique habitat as the Carolina Sandhills in my fair state, and I think I’m going to take full advantage of it every chance I get. There’s no telling the weird and wonderful wildlife you’ll find when you’ve got pitcher plants blooming in your backyard.

These pitcher plants, as a matter of fact!

Yeah, that totally happens down there. The Sandhills are awesome.

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