Spring Break 2018: The Tortuous Art of Looking UP and Looking DOWN

Highway 29, 14 March 2018
Highway 29; Collier county, Florida (14 March 2018). Series: Spring Break 2018.

I’ll photograph and appreciate damn near any organism I can manage to come across, but there are two genera that clearly captivate most of my attention: Nerodia watersnakes and Anolis lizards. There’s a cost, however, of loving these two taxa to the point of near-inappropriateness — namely having to spend so much time either looking up or looking down… without falling down.

Though some anoles (such as the Cuban brown anole, Anolis sagrei) spend much of their time scampering about on the ground, many of my favorite species are typically found a bit higher — either at eye level or much, much higher. Thus, the fine art of looking for anoles often entails walking around with your head tilted back, your gaze aimed upwards towards the canopy and foliage above. The grace comes, I suppose, when you get better at not falling down after tripping on something obviously on the ground. Tripping is to be expected. Tripping is inevitable. It’s a part of the game when you’re looking up, up, up. The game is not falling down when you trip…

Watersnakes, on the other hand, tend to loiter about by the water’s edge, and if you’re looking for them from land, that means you’re probably walking around with your head aimed down near the shoreline off to your side — not on the ground before your feet. Sure, some species will climb a bit into the surrounding foliage (especially the Brown watersnake, Nerodia taxispilota), but much of the time you’ll find them right at or adjacent to the shoreline. Once again, the grace comes in learning how to not fall down when you inevitably trip on something any reasonable human being should have noticed in the first place.

And so this spring break trip was going to be the ultimate mega-challenge for my middle-aged sense of balance: Two and a half days looking down for watersnakes followed by two and a half days looking up for anoles. Down, down, down, up, up, up. Bada bah bah.

Our trip officially began when we hit U.S. 29 heading south through Collier county, As nearly any Florida herp fan should already know, this stretch of road can be particularly active with snakes and gators. A long canal line parallels the eastern edge of the highway,  and much of the surrounding land/water is protected. Because of this, watersnakes and cottonmouths can be somewhat abundant along Highway 29 from time to time. Sometimes the snakes are easy to spot; other times they’re more hidden. As an example, take a moment and check out this hastily composed iPhone picture. Can you see the snake while looking down from the edge of the canal line?

Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, 14 March 2018 (1).jpg

The snake is there — hidden in plain sight. Zoom in on the crumbled, drying palm in the middle. Can you see it now?

Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, 14 March 2018.jpg

Ah, yes, there it is. This a young Florida banded watersnake, Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, biding its time along the Highway 29 canal line of Collier county, Florida. This snake served as the first of approximately 53 snakes Eric and I would come across in the first 48 hours of our trip. It also served as a lovely reminder that you’ve got to focus in and look closely to find the wee critters hidden in plain sight. Focusing in can have its costs, though…

Of note, and I’ll spare you bloody pictures, I crashed and burned soon after this inaugural snake spotting. Tracing the canal line on foot, I —of course— tripped and wiped out spectacularly, landing on and mangling (yet again) my right knee. I even managed to take off some toe skin. Good god. The subsequent bleeding was extraordinarily impressive (I’m easily impressed), but it was to be expected, I suppose. Indeed, when I’m hunting for snakes or lizards, I don’t worry so much about the organisms themselves. I worry more about myself crashing headfirst into a gravity-and-inertial double-play. I don’t worry about animals. I worry about basic physics.

Needless to say, as I write this, the trip is officially over, but I’m still very much feeling it. My knee is still quite sore, and so too is my neck. Down, down, down, up, up, up. Fortunately, however, though I tripped at least three other times during this particular, um, trip, I managed to keep myself upright the rest of the weekend. At least when I was out looking for wildlife. I’m not sure I can say the same for Saturday night in a South Miami bar… but that’s another story for another time.

In our next post, we’ll check out another Highway 29 snake — only this one will be a slightly easier one to spot.

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