Snakes and Tigers At the Doorstep

After a memorable day of hiking at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Michael and I decided unanimously to postpone our earlier plans of photographing keeled earless lizards at Boca Chica for a taqueria and an evening of writing back in Harlingen. In all honesty my still-healing left foot had traipsed across another three miles worth of trails, and I was only a few steps away from dragging it along behind me like a zombie. But by the time the thirty minute drive from Brownsville was over (after some gorditas con nopales,of course) my tense, puny atrophied muscles were given ample time to relax, so I decided to hit a little board pile I had noticed along the fenceline behind the Darling house Sunday evening as the caretaker was giving us the grande tour. With snake hook in hand (albeit more of a cane since breaking my original one the day yesterday) I strolled across the lawn, my eye already set on a lone wolf board that lay some distance from the pile, its edges overgrown with sprigs of grass. 

  It had been a hard trip for herping so far. With nighttime temps falling too quickly for nocturnal road cruising, we had been restricted to diurnal forays into the field, where, as every herper knows, sightings usually come fewer and further between. The payoff is seeing the creatures that have so long captivated you in their essence, as opposed to the black tarmac of the roadway. I had caught but a glimpse of a big Texas indigo, that iconic serpent of the Valley, at Sabal Palms; five feet of satiny-black smooth polished scales, as big around as my wrist, sliding effortlessly amidst the brown dried leaves of a fallen branch near the bird blind. While I scrambled for the camera the snake slowly made its way toward the dense tangle of vegetation growing beneath the massive, statuesque palms. In the span of a moment it would be lost in the network of ankle-deep dried fronds that make up the forest floor. The best I could manage was a shot of the trunk of the snake entwined amidst the greys and browns of the dead foliage on the dry resaca bank eight feet or more below me and separated by the tunnellike blind. 

But that was ancient history now, with the sun once again beginning to drop behind the big live oak in the front yard, and two days in south Texas= 1 live snake was improper math. That long, isolated weathered wood plank I had now reached looked like it may very likely be able to solve for y. 

I slid the hook under the board and pulled towards me, and was instantly rewarded by a small, coiled snake marked lengthwise in alternating ribbons of tan and black. My first thought was ‘black-striped snake’, as this state protected south Texas native turns up frequently in residential yards, but this was no black-striped snake.  It was a juvenile Texas patchnose. 

Patchnose snakes are splendid animals, built for stealth and speed. They have large eyes with the round pupils characteristic of most diurnal, vision-oriented species. Thin and wiry, with a physique similar to that of whipsnakes and racers, they are also striped, which aides them in escaping from predators by creating an illusion of motionlessness as they make their getaway.   Their lightweight body and diurnal habits ensure the patchnose must maintain a high metabolism, and it does so by chasing down lizards and raiding the occasional mouse nest. This one, however, was just sitting tight waiting to shed its skin, as was evident by the milky blue haze under its eye caps and the dull, dusty wash over its normally vibrant pattern. Michael and I photographed it, then put it back under the board to resume its wait. It was an unexpected find, but something about that first piece of cover always seems to hold a little magic. Many has been the time I have flipped some magnificent creature up beneath that first piece and then spent the rest of the day breaking my back over bark scorpions and fire ants.

 As it turned out, the next board (this one on top of the pile) yielded a juvenile short-lined skink that instantly wriggled back into the substrate with the last of the sunlight glinting blue-black off of its smooth, iridescent scales. But that was where my luck ran out. My intrusion into the board pile had unknowingly declared war on a nest of tiger ants, impressively large olive and brown mottled beasties that apparently run rampant across the Rio Grande Valley.  The caretaker, Gabriel, had informed us of their painful, nauseating sting, which he described as hot pain followed by flu-like symptoms and weakness and tenderness that lingered for several days. Sure enough, a quick check at confirmed that this was not an ant to be trifled with, comparing its sting to that of a “hot needle”. The duration of intensity was said to last a half hour, with additional soreness persisting for over 24 hours.  And here I was standing in their midst, with several of the soldiers already storming the edges of my boots.  So I did the ant dance that everyone does when they suddenly look down to find their feet being swarmed, and this luckily dislodged the defensive warriors. I then beat a hasty retreat back to the house, leaving the tiger ant army with the task of rebuilding their disturbed fortress of rotting wood and detritus. It was almost dark now, and there were blacklights to set up and Inaturalist sightings to post. As I headed back across the yard for the veranda a green jay called along the fenceline, its lime-green plumage visible for only a second in the final fading rays of the sun. There were hikes to be hiked, taquerias to be plundered, and herps to cross paths with on the morrow, but here and now the cool breeze ushers in the coming night. It is good to be back in the Valley. 

Tiger ant, with business on both ends


One thought on “Snakes and Tigers At the Doorstep

  1. Great tour guys. Brings back great memories of my Valley trip a few years ago. Boca Chika was fun drive but didn’t see lizards or Ocelots :). Did find a Kemps Ridley intern looking for nests.

    Also found Bufo Marinus and Alligators at either Resaca de la Palma or Estero Llano Grande state park. I forget which one. Both have great trails. Hope you get to see Green Jay at Bentsen but you will be very disappointed to see the retirement village across the street. Bentsen also have workers with little carts that they can drive you around so you can rest your legs.

    Happy herping


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