Trail to a bird blind
In south Texas, about as far south as Texas gets, the Rio Grande nears the ocean. Before the advent of civilization, the floodplains along the river were sprinkled with thick stands of Sabal Palm, the only palm tree native to the area. These palm 'groves' or 'forests' were thick with vegetation, and provided habitat for deer, birds, ocelots, jaguarundi and the occasional jaguar.
The palm forests also provided a home for one of Texas' most stunning serpents, Drymobius magaritiferus. A tropical species found far down into Central America, the Speckled Racer's range also reaches up into south Texas, but not very far past the Rio Grande's original floodplain. Drymobius prowls among the thickets and fallen palm fronds near the water's edge, preying on frogs for the most part. Rodents, small birds and lizards are also eaten.
Much of the palm forest habitat was cleared away during the last century. Only a few small pockets are left. The jaguar are gone, and the ocelot and jaguarundi thinned in numbers and pushed back into the thornscrub. There are few Speckled Racer as well; it is one of the rarest snakes found within the United States.
While vacationing on Padre Island in February, 1997 I was resolved to find a Speckled Racer, if there were any to be found. February is not exactly the best month for herping, even in neo-tropical south Texas, but a few successive sunny days will bring out amphibians and reptiles.
I headed for Brownsville on a cool but sunny morning, accompanied by my father-in-law, Bill Sielschott. Bill has been a great companion on many a south Texas herp expedition. Our destination was one of the few remaining palm forests on the Rio Grande, now a sanctuary run by the Audobon Society and protected by the state of Texas. The temperature was in the upper fifties when we arrived, but I wasn't disheartened - the sun would bring out the herps.
Traveling up the dirt road, we could see a wall of green in the distance, and as we got closer, the palm trees became distinct. I was excited - this was the closest I've ever been to anything remotely tropical. We spoke to the naturalist on-duty at the sanctuary headquarters. I asked if the Speckled Racer was found on the sanctuary. "Oh yes, there's always one or two over by the pump house." He gave us directions. "We also have a good-sized Indigo Snake that comes right up to the station here to drink from the bird pool, and we see a Coral Snake every once in a while." Cool! The day seemed full of promise.
Heading up the trail we figured out that a palm forest was not a lush, tropical jungle, but more of a dry place, with plenty of the flora associated with the more typical Tamaulipan thornscrub habitat. In open areas between palms were other trees like mesquite, texas ebony, and huisache. Under the large palms, in partial shade and in cooler temperatures, nephitis (an introduced tropical species) and small flowering plants flourished.
We arrived at the pump house, a wooden structure with boards lying about, along with some black plastic used to line irrigation ditches. Sure enough, we found a Speckled Racer, lying under a bit of the plastic! We hadn't been there twenty minutes, had been given precise directions, and the snakes were exactly where they were supposed to be! How often does that happen? Here was another one of those creatures that I had wanted to see all of my life, and how easily it was done! It was unnatural!
The snake was still a bit addled from the morning's chill, and did not attempt to struggle very much, or to bite. The colors on the animal were astounding - the field guide illustrations and photographs I had seen fell short of the real thing. They are not truly 'blue' serpents; each scale on the body has yellow, black, and almost a turquoise blue with a hint of green to it. The snakes look 'bluer' when they move, owing to more of each scale showing as the body bends. The yellow disappeared at the tail, which made the blue much more apparent. The chin and the underside of the 'neck' also had a lot of blue.
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