Dirk Stevenson (Altamaha Environmental Consulting)
Keep reading to join Dirk Stevenson on a trip into the Florida Everglades.
An eight foot male Burmese python found in January in south Florida. Photo by Dirk Stevenson.
Leaving Homestead we pass a sign for a pest control company, “GOT IGUANAS?” and roll beneath the bright white breast of a soaring short-tailed hawk.
It’s exciting to be in the Everglades. Always a horizon, a backdrop of sky, clouds, the gnarled forms of dwarf cypress. That faraway tree island is actually a forest of tropical hammock with mahogany and gumbo limbo. Wading birds float between gentle wingbeats. The countless creamy starfish dotting the marsh are the flowers of string lilies.
As the temperature climbs a map is produced and pored over. We will walk 4.5 miles one way, then return on the same path. We dress for the water (our quarry is semi-aquatic) and pack heavy, carrying energy bars, big jars of water and Gatorade, sunscreen, binoculars, cameras, phones, snake hooks, and, in my case, an extra Celebrex. Today is January 5, and we have linked up with a team of professional python hunters to look for snakes.
We walk a faint path atop a narrow berm that bisects endless freshwater marsh. Pine-pink orchids will bloom here in April. We learn from our guides that the gorgeous brooksi phase of the Florida kingsnake, heavily salted with white and sometimes pushing 6 feet, occur here. Their one-day record for cottonmouth encounters at this site is 82, a stat that puts spring in one’s step. Soon enough, we locate three trap-jaws (another name for the cottonmouth), a ribbon snake, an Everglades racer, and a yellow rat snake. But no pythons.
A Florida cottonmouth relaxes on a cypress log. Photo by Dirk Stevenson.
On our return walk one of the guides exclaims, “SNAKE AHEAD, CROSSING ROAD”. Even though it’s another racer, my friend sprints and halfway there he slams on the brakes when he comes close to stepping on the still wet form of a 10-foot alligator that has just emerged from a bonnet-clad pool and is now basking on the berm. And when he brakes he slips on the moist sheen coating the limey trail and his feet lurch skyward and he falls hard, landing on his back which carries an enormous backpack swollen tight as a blood-drunk gopher tortoise tick. Unable to right himself, limbs feebly wriggling, he resembles a terrapin in need of a flip.
Twenty minutes later, we hear the gentle crunch of leaf litter. Those who look for snakes know the sound well as the noise made by a slowly-moving snake. It seems to come from beneath a small grove of cocoplums. In the dappled light we spot a shiny coil.
A newly-found Burmese python is cantankerous and launches a number of wild, sweeping strikes. Soon, the snake tires and takes on the personality of a sleepy pup, at which point it can be easily handled and photographed. This snake, an 8-foot male, has pronounced toothpick-like spurs (vestigial remnants of legs found on some snake species) and contains a just eaten American coot in its belly. A gorgeous animal with soft scales and brassy eyes, the watercolor pattern on the snake almost seems to belong in the bromeliad-festooned, semi-tropical Glades.
What is the oddest wildlife species you have found using a gopher tortoise burrow? In addition to the 350+ wildlife species reported from burrows (including the dozen or so invertebrate species which are found nowhere else on Earth) I am aware of banded watersnakes and timber rattlesnakes being found in gopher burrows in Georgia, and remember the biologists at the Jones Center at Ichauway documenting an ambystomatid salamander in a burrow.
Curiously, an alligator from the Ohoopee River in Georgia has wintered in the same burrow atop an aeolian sand dune three years running ꟷ and this burrow is over 200 yards from water. At a site in northern Florida, a snake detector dog displayed profound interest and adopted an odd posture ꟷ a posture which heretofore had not been in his canine repertoire ꟷ of I smell somebody in this tunnel and it’s most certainly not a tortoise. Subsequently, a momma river otter and her pups were observed while scoping this burrow. Nonplussed with the antics of herpetological surveyors, Momma Lutra attacked and damaged the camera. According to Kevin Enge of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in much of Florida the nonnative greenhouse frog is now the most common and numerically abundant vertebrate tortoise burrow commensal.
After getting established near the Everglades National Park region around 2006, Burmese pythons slithered north, making their way to Rookery Bay Estuarine Research Reserve south of Naples by ca. 2007-2009. Here, the giant constrictors invaded upland scrub habitats, where some individuals began using gopher tortoise burrows for refugia. A breeding aggregation of seven pythons was found inside a single tortoise burrow in 2015. Indigo snake predation on a juvenile, telemetered python was reported about the same time.
On Day 2 we visit special places in the southern part of Everglades National Park, close to Flamingo. Purportedly, indigo snakes have declined in the park. Archie Carr wrote of bull indigos in the southernmost parts of Florida reaching tremendous sizes. Salmon-orange pigment is extensive on the lips, chins and necks of some specimens.
A large male eastern indigo snake encountered in Everglades National Park. Photo by E. Pierson Hill.
We breathe sulfurous air as we canoe through a tunnel of mangroves, moving over warm grey water alive with splashing fish. Soon, we stash the canoe to hike a trail through tropical hardwood hammock, the trail shadowing a salty canal. Looking close, we spot handsome tree snails, a Florida box turtle, and several hatchling crocodiles. The toothy reptiles seem to be tightly embracing prop roots as they bask.
A 2022-hatchling American crocodile from near Flamingo, Everglades National Park (note the mosquitos!). Photo by Justin Oguni.
As part of a field biology course, New Years Eve, 1980, found me in a tent on Cape Sable (Everglades National Park), the southernmost tip of the continental United States. The beachside dunes here support the southernmost known population of gopher tortoises. Experts are undecided as to whether this population represents a colony of gophers introduced by Native Americans; no tortoise remains have been found in middens here.
A shy high-school senior, I carefully chose my moment and snuck away from the class, moving inland from the beach campsite with rich fantasies of eastern diamondbacks curled under cabbage palms in tow. Fear and mosquitos, but not the possibility of walking up a 16-foot constrictor, sent me back to the group after a few minutes. I may have seen a raccoon or a marsh rabbit, formerly abundant denizens of the Glades. Are pythons now sometime-inhabitants of the tortoise burrows on the Cape?
Later, we do a ride-along with the python hunters. Outside the national park and close to Highway 1 are numerous wide seabound canals, many lined with hirsute Australian pines. Long straight gravel roads run atop the berms created when the canals, home to clear bluish water, were dug. We take turns manning the python perch, a mini-tower mounted on the bed of a pickup truck that allows the occupant to be 15 feet above the ground. As we cruise slowly we look not just for actual snakes, but for telltale sign. Veteran python surveyors like the two we accompany (between them they have recorded over 1,500 python captures, including an 18-foot female) have a finely honed sense of what constitutes a trail or a basking pad made by a python in thick grass and ferns. A fresh basking pad is a microsite the hunter will keep coming back to until their quarry is captured
The handsome "brookski" morph of the Florida kingsnake. Photo by Daniel Parker.
Due to abnormally warm weather, the python hunting is slow. We spot what appears to be a watermelon on stubby legs crossing the road two hundred yards to the north. It’s a Peninsula cooter looking to nest. We briefly explore the jungly growth of disturbed habitat above the canal, where we flip trash and discover a forgotten Hav-a-Hart trap, and nearby, eggshells – remnants of the chicken eggs used as bait by biologists working to eradicate Argentine black and white tegus. South Florida is surreal – we learn that the landscape we explore supports a veiled chameleon population, but also the mother lode of eastern coral snakes and corn snakes. The canal is home to snook, tarpon, and largemouth bass, as well as tons of cichlids and a monstrous species of non-native carp.
Then, from the tower, comes, “PYTHON!”
A good 60 yards into the marsh, bathed in sunlight and propped up several feet above the water on a fat mat of black needlerush, is an 8-foot python. From the tower it looks like a thick shiny ribbon of steel.
Excitedly, we follow the python men into the marsh, momentarily putting aside the recent comment “crocs are pretty common here”. Pythons swim well and are very much at home in the water, and we fear this one will attempt to escape by diving into the marsh. Alas, the mammals win this one.
Specialized tools or other technical herpetological equipment do not factor into a python capture. We are told, “Whoever gets to the head first grabs it”. The snake, another male, squirts a copious load of musk from his cloaca post-capture. As snake smitten folks are prone to do, we discuss the powerfully pungent but not entirely disagreeable musk. One of the hunters says, in reference to his many successful outings, “Ah, that first whiff when you wake up the next morning, oh yeah, that wasn’t just a dream, it did happen”.
So yes, at that moment, happy to be alive, afield, and finding snakes, we all smile.