Texas Ratsnake

“Hold on!”, I exclaimed to my wife on a warm spring afternoon during a trip to our local wildlife refuge.  I didn’t have to look at her to realize she wasn’t quite as enthused as I when I brought our SUV to a fairly abrupt stop on the side of the gravel road.  “What?”, asked my wife as I put the vehicle in park.  I was oblivious to her question-not even stopping to realize that she had asked me something.  I grabbed my camera and flung open the door in one motion, and began the approach to what had caught my eye seconds ago.

There it was.  A beautiful Texas Ratsnake (Pantheropis obsoletus, formerly Black Ratsnake, Elaphe obsoleta) who lacked only a few feet from safely completing his journey across the gravel road.  He stopped to see what was checking him out, and I immediately positioned myself in the road to document this specimen.  Image

He posed for me for several minutes-stone still at the edge of the road ditch.  I’m not quite sure as to the logic behind their “kinked” posture when approached, but it must work in their defense.  Most specimens I find along forest edges exhibit this same behavior.  The light was partially diffused through some afternoon clouds, and couldn’t have been much better.  After a minute or two of photographing him in profile, I decided to make an image of his head from another angle.  He still hadn’t moved, as if I had ordered him to remain where he was.

A close-up of the top of his head. The scale pattern can be a useful tool in distinguishing between some species of snakes.

After a few seconds of photographing him here, I decided it was time to head on back to the vehicle and head towards the house.  I decided to give him a hand completing his journey, but his defensive posture immediately informed me that he didn’t need or want my help!  It wasn’t my intent to agitate him, but I decided to take advantage of his behavior and make a couple of images for the sake of documentation.  I returned to my original prone position, and began to photograph him once again.  He cooperated, and presented me with the opportunity to make multiple images, which I readily took advantage of.  After several minutes, I decided to let him get on his way, and rejoin my family in our vehicle.

Note the defensive posture exhibited here after my attempt to help him finish crossing the road.

I thanked him as I walked back to my vehicle, silently hoping that this journey across the road wouldn’t be the last for him.  Sadly enough, many of us would have went out of our way to run him over with our vehicle.  I guess I get it-I was taught as a child that a snake must be killed immediately-but why?  Could it be that we don’t understand these important contributors in the ecosystems they inhabit?  He was simply out doing what the Lord made him to do-trying to make a living, if you will.  Hunting for the next rat, vole or mouse to cross his path and sustain him for another day, as he gave everything each day to perpetuate his species.  I must ask myself this question-am I doing what I was designed to do each and every day?  What if I could be more like this Ratsnake, and worship my Creator with my every move?

As I re-entered my SUV, my wife appeared glad to know that we were headed for home.  “What was it?”, she asked as I set my camera body back on the seat.  “Ratsnake”, I replied, and showed her a few of the images on the camera’s LCD screen.  She shuddered as I turned the camera off, and we headed back towards the house.

When nature gives you a flood

This spring has seemed unseasonably cool-of which I won’t complain.  Along with the cool weather, we have received what seems to be an abundance of rainfall this year.  Perhaps it is normal, but it seems atypical to me.  I’m confident that in a few months we’ll be begging for just a drop of rain to fill the rivers, creeks, ponds and lakes.

Floodwaters cover a bottomland hardwood forest near Deep Slough on Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.
Floodwaters cover a bottomland hardwood forest near Deep Slough on Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.

The abundance of water during spring would typically be a good thing for my attempts to photograph herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles), but they haven’t been calling too much just yet.  So what’s a photographer to do?  Shoot what you have, of course!  The rain had forced the Ouachita River out of its banks, leading to road and boat ramp closures, and water in places it normally wouldn’t be found.

The river had risen more than I thought-and presented some interesting navigational challenges. I opted to head out with a friend in his boat instead of my trusty kayak, and immediately was glad I did.  Places that one could walk through with ease a week prior were several feet under water, which led to some interesting compositions.

The message I took home from this trip was to get out and go-even when the conditions aren’t optimal!  You may well witness something for the first and last time (likely), and in my case capture a unique image that might land you a spot in a publication or something even bigger!

This cypress tree thought its branches were safely above the water-which proved not to be the case!
This cypress tree thought its branches were safely above the water-which proved not to be the case!

When I was a young boy, my grandfather would carry me with him to the barber shop to get a haircut. His barber was a shaky-handed, well-aged gentleman who happened to be an excellent fisherman.  I would listen to his fishing stories in awe, always walking away with another potential adventure in my mind.  One day I decided to ask him a simple, but profound question-when was the best time to fish?  I sat eagerly awaiting a detailed, scientific explanation that I never received.  His response was simple.  “Son, the best time to go fishing is any time you can.”

I believe I’ll take that and run with it.