The air has a surprisingly unspring-like chill for the first week of April—more reminiscent of early March or even late November—as we head to southern Illinois for a weekend of herptile-viewing with colleagues from Maryland.
While we have promised them an "abundance" of reptiles, we exchange worried looks as the forecast for the weekend weather slides deeper and deeper into "no snake would be caught dead in this..." end of the spectrum. But schedules are often inflexible and as we wend our way south through the spitting snow, our capacity to rationalize away the cool temperatures increases. After all, have we not conducted reptile and amphibian classes in worse weather than this?
We spend four hours on the legendary "Snake Road" in LaRue Swamp/Pine Hills Ecological Area with only a single encounter with a small cottonmouth. While the day was sunny, and the temperature crept into the low 50s, it was not looking good.
The next morning is a chilly 38oF and our guests are scheduled to arrive around noon. With a free morning, we head to Mermet Lake Conservation Area, our favorite wildlife photography venue in Illinois, but our wildlife viewing skepticism is off the charts.
The first few miles of the five-mile driving circuit are uneventful, but then we spot a distant, white reflection on the far lakeshore—white pelicans! Drifting along and feeding against the gray, wintry cypress, they present a nature photographer's dream, and we didn't have to leave the warmth of our vehicle!
Later in the day, after a hearty lunch to fortify us for the 40isho F afternoon, we meet local herpetologist Tony Gerard and head to his home on Wildcat Bluff, but not before making a convincing argument that Snake Road would be a fruitless (aka, snakeless) pursuit.
Tony's yard is full of sheets of tin, slabs of wood, and old carpets that are usually rife with snakes... but not today. We find nothing.
Perhaps a hike to a stony talus slope high above the Cache River might be productive. The habitat is sparsely wooded, with large rock slabs piled on the slope, making footing treacherous. The area is around a hundred yards in extent, and we initially see nothing.
Sue is the first to determine that we are not alone on this cold, windy day, as she spots a small cottonmouth diligently trying to sun on a flat rock above its den! Bingo! and success as our friends from Maryland are impressed.
Soon, another cottonmouth appears, this one featuring its signature fangs as it displays for us.
A nearby rock shows off the vibrantly colored coils of a first year juvenile.
A few yards downslope another appears. While marveling at this creature, Iain (our colleague from Maryland) jumps aside as the snake slips off its perch and tumbles downhill like a slow, scaly avalanche. He lands less than a foot away from yet another cottonmouth! His expression of glee and jubilation turns to a look of concern—to our amusement—as he realizes that we were not kidding.
Southern Illinois, in certain spots, is rife with snakes, and today's eleven cottonmouths within 45 minutes is a truly memorable experience.