Nature is full of surprises. It is one of the most intriguing reasons for getting out in the field. You never know what you might find; what small portion of another organism’s life you may get the privilege of being witness to. Even simple, common events such as territorial displays and the wonderful efficiency of camouflage can bring little moments of awe. For those of us who are inclined to get out more often than most, we become accustomed to much of this, and take a lot of it for granted. Squirrels chattering from the boughs of a post oak, crows cawing at our presence, nature’s alarms that warn other creatures that danger is near. A caterpillar munching on its host leaf, a chorus of frogs, a basking turtle. We see these things so often that we forget how fortunate we are to be able to share our world with such a diverse and magnificent spectrum of living things. But take a child who has never been out in the woods (or an inquisitive adult, for that matter) and watch them become immersed in this new world of birdsong and greenery and vibrance that had always gone on somewhere in their own background, formerly unbeknownst to them, and it will serve us as a good reminder to remain grateful for the chance to be out in those wild places for the simple sake of being there, even if we don’t happen to find that sought-after holy grail species we’re targeting.
Such a realization dawned on me yesterday as I was searching for buprestids around a brush pile on my property in Parker county. It was late afternoon and as I was walking through the high grass, my eye on a dead Craetegus branch that would hopefully harbor one of my constantly coveted jewel beetles, I saw a flash of black raise up above the grassline. This was followed by the high pitched squeak of a rodent in distress. As I walked up cautiously to further investigate this unexpected new mystery, I was delighted to find the coils of a large Texas ratsnake in the process of constricting a rat. The snake’s head was covered by a thick loop of its muscular trunk, and thus I was able to observe it at close range without alerting it to my presence. From such a front row seat to nature’s theatre I could see the last dying gasps of the rodent as the snake’s body squeezed tighter and tighter, a tiny drop of blood forced out of the nose as the lungs collapsed, welcoming it to the impartial food chain. The muscles beneath the snake’s keeled black and orange blotched scales seemed to flex, forcing the final breath of life from its victim. As if sensing it had expired, the snake then poked its head up and looked directly at me, the pearl white chin graced by its red and black forked tongue as it tested the air to identify this interloper. I quickly backed up, not wanting to disturb its hard earned dinner, and resumed my search for beetles on the other side of the brush pile.
I didn’t find what I was looking for, but in fact came away with a much greater feeling of satisfaction. The Texas ratsnake, while one of the most common of finds for a cross timbers naturalist, was a delight and highlight of my day. It is a rare treat to be able to witness one kill and constrict a rat, and I felt blessed by the fact that I had happened to be in the right place at the right time to see it go down. These are the moments naturalists really live for, or really should live for at least. For all the time and thought and attention to the minute details of an individual species’ natural history that go into searching for the rare and obscure, it was a refreshing and eye opening experience to see two very common organisms engaged in such a rarely witnessed part of their lives that goes on all around us and yet we seldom get the opportunity to see. And while I didn’t have a decent camera onhand and was able only to get a few shots with my phone, the memory I took back with me was irreplaceable.