Monday, March 3, 2014

Two Great Weekends in the Woods

Part I. Talladega National Forest

     Last Saturday I spent in Cheaha State Park which is right in the middle of T.N.F. The park is about an hour east of Birmingham, Alabama and should be visited often and extensively. The first rays of spring (technically still February, but in the south spring sometimes starts near the end of January) had sprung. I was on an adventure with two friends, Lenora (wildlife graduate student who has a thing for road kill and fruit roll ups) and Cody (soon to be Ph.D wildlife student who has has a thing for butterflies and annoying Lenora).

         We walked somewhere between 83 and 4 miles near the Devil's Den. The trails were fantastic. There happened to be a race that day. We were constantly being passed by complaining trail runners. I only badmouth them because they littered little used energy packets all along the path. Other than that the day was great. The following is a list of just a few of the critters we saw. I am notoriously good at misidentifying things, so if you see something wrong, please comment, or just comment because it's fun for me... (Cody took the pictures).

Lenora and Cody being awkwardly awesome (as usual).

Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis)

Googled the stump, but just for the picture. (Dorkus miggidy-pastyus)

Ring-neck Snake (Diadophis punctatus)
Cute snake that generally lives in leaf litter.

Webster's Salamander (Plethodon websteri)
Found a bunch of these. This one is full grown, by the way and has no lungs.

Big freaking (possibly European) hornet (Vespa crabro)

A few memorable quotes from the hike (all by Lenora):

"Ow! I just poked myself in the eyeball with a tree!"
"Like my buds? They're like the buddiest buds ever!" - in reference to a stick she picked up with apical maristems. 
"My pants have fake pockets. That's why I hate society."
"Nature is making me bleed." - in reference to walking into a thorn.
"It's not as much of a hole as I thought it was gonna be... hmph!" - in reference to an imaginary hole.

Part II Conecuh National Forest

     Yesterday I went to the land of Jimmy and Sierra Stiles to wrangle some Eastern Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon couperi). The Conecuh National Forest is located in southern Alabama, on the border of the Florida panhandle. It's one of the largest remaining chunks of the long leaf pine ecosystem. A quick background. I've been lucky enough to take part in reestablishing a population of Indigos in Conecuh National Forest. They once lived there but were extirpated due to habitat loss and fragmentation, burrow gassing, and over-collecting. The project has been going on since 2007ish. I signed on in 2008 and had the great fortune of hatching a lot of the snake eggs. 

     This trip was a little different. I brought an honors organismal biology class down for the day. I am the lab GTA and like to use undergrad students as free labor. Jimmy and Sierra (who do most of the field work, AKA snake chasing) wanted some help looking for the previously released beautiful beasts. There were other groups helping out, too. Dr. Guyer's lab (which I am the lab mascot) found several critters. Many enthusiasts from a field herp forum came for a peek at the rare cuties as well. So our chances of finding one were good. 

     The plan was to line all the students up and walk a straight line across a fantastic stand of long leaf. We were to stay about ten meters apart from each other, so as to cover as much ground as possible. It was a good plan and had worked many times in the past. However, over the years of attending school, most of the students could only walk in single file... or in groups. Dr. Zanzot (the co-bio professor teaching the class) is a mycologist. He often gathered the students to pounce upon a wild fungus. So the kids did learn some things at least.

     After initial failure we decided lunch was needed to liven our snake-hunter spirits. On the way there, one of the students came upon the largest Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) I had seen in the wild. Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures of it before it crawled down a stump hole. I included a picture of one I had previously seen in the Conecuh, however. As for the Indigo, I finally found one, when describing where one would be in relation to a gopher tortoise burrow. It was right where I said it would be (I was saying the exact same thing Jimmy had said earlier and can't take as much credit as I'd like). The snake was one that I had hatched three years prior, so it was a special feeling to see it. It was doing well and I felt like a proud papa.
Jimmy and Sierra Stiles (Biologist maximus sasquachii

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)

Cute donkey at a gas station (Alabama mule-maker)

Me with an old friend (Drymarchon couperi)

Dr. Zanzot with the same Eastern Indigo Snake

Ground Skink (Scincella lateralis)

A few memorable quotes from the day:

"#$%@&*#!!!! It's like herding cats!" - Me while attempting to get undergrads to walk a straight line.
"This is just like the Hunger Games!" - 3/4 of the students after 30 minutes in the woods.


  1. A method to get your students to walk in a straight line may be found in the techniques used in mountaineering. First, get a 70-meter length of 10.5mm-11mm of static climbing rope. In 10-meter increments, tie a series of 14-inch loops using an alpine hitch. Place each of the students heads through each loop. Next, choose your favorite student and have them hold one end of the rope while you pull the other end. Then you and your favorite student walk parallel to each other at a distance of 65- to 70-meters.

  2. Fantastic idea! I'm going to try that next time, but with copper barbed wire. That way I can send a bolt of electrons down the chain every time they stop for a selfie.