Category Archives: Nature

I got a ruling from Rudy Mancke: It’s a copperhead

We went back and forth on that last post about the snake — here and on social media. We were starting to stagger toward a consensus that these creatures all over my neighborhood are indeed copperheads. But we were far from certain.

And you know, when I’m practically stepping on these things right in the middle of the street, I kind of want to know.

Rudy Mancke

Rudy Mancke

So I stopped fooling around. Last night I wrote to Rudy Mancke himself for a ruling.

I hated to bother him with something so common. On his segments on public radio, people have usually sent him a picture of something rare and interesting. But based on what I’ve been seeing, these snakes are as common as Republicans in my precinct — maybe more so.

But Rudy got right back to me, and I’m very appreciative:

Brad, The photo you sent is of a Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), the most common venomous snake in SC. The dark, wide-narrow-wide bands across the body and the copper-colored head are diagnostic. They are found throughout SC. I have seen more of these snakes this year than I normally do. They feed on any animal small enough to eat. During hot weather they are active mostly at night…

I thought that was really nice of him, especially since as he himself mentioned, these critters are, you know, common.

Which brings me to another subject…

Look at us. We’re pretty smart people, generally speaking. We have a lot to say about a lot of things, and we flatter ourselves that what we have to say has value.

But when it comes to something as simple as staying alive while walking down a suburban street — much less in the woods, or tall grass — we are shockingly ignorant. With the exception perhaps of Jim Catoe, who owns some land out in the country that has a crowd of snakes on it, we’re kind of a bunch of dummies.

What’s happened to us, people? Our ancestors used to know the creatures around them, and the names of the trees, and what was edible and what wasn’t (to us, “edible” means packaged for sale in a supermarket, but not on the detergent aisle).

But when confronted by an animal that can kill us — a common animal, in fact the most common venomous snake in SC — we are clueless!

In those books I love — as do Bryan Caskey and Mike Fitts — there are certain things Jack Aubrey assumed any man knew back 200 years ago. And when the smartest person he knows — physician and naturalist Stephen Maturin — asks him something any ship’s boy would know, such as, “When is the dark of the moon?”… Jack hesitates to answer, hoping that Stephen is making a joke by asking such a thing. (But he never is. Stephen’s more like us.)

Personally, I have no idea when the dark of the moon will be. Occasionally when walking with my wife at night, I’ll look up and recognize Jupiter in the sky, and Saturn off to the left of it, and I’ll say so in a vain attempt to be impressive. But she knows I only know that from wondering “What’s that bright thing in the sky?” and looking it up on my phone’s astronomy app. And she’s tired of my mentioning it.

The problem is, if you’re walking at night and holding up your phone to the sky to figure out what that bright thing is, you’re likely to step on a small creature that can kill you.

Sheesh.

Anyway, thanks very much, Rudy!

I think the snake made me forget the rules

The distracting creature.

The distracting creature.

I kind of lost my head last night. I walked up to two people, and got right in their faces, and none of us had masks on. My wife witnessed this, and said she was really surprised to see me do something so careless.

I blame it on the snake.

We were out walking around the neighborhood, at dusk. There was still enough light to clearly see the snake on the road right in front of us, but I didn’t, until my wife warned me to watch out. Which is weird. My brain must not have been functioning right, because I don’t like snakes at all, and the sight of one, even a photograph, usually sets off alarms. Any such movement — and there’s nothing else on the planet like the movement of a snake — in any corner of my field of vision should have had me on full alert.

It was interesting that we saw it right there, because it was only a few yards from one that had been run over a couple of days earlier. Its flattened carcass had still been in the street when I had walked that way earlier in the day.

But this one was very much alive. And we stopped to observe it and debate its nature. I immediately said “copperhead,” but admittedly I tend to call almost anything that has a visible pattern of those colors a copperhead. My wife said its head lacked the menacing triangular shape we tend to associate with pit vipers. I acknowledged this, but stuck to my standard policy of treating it as a copperhead until proved innocent. Which meant staying away from it.

I assure you, I used the limited zoom feature on my phone to take the above photo, which I thought came out rather well, considering the low light. I still don’t like looking at it.

Anyway, about a block and half past that, with the light further dimming and the shade of trees lowering it further, we saw a blackness in the middle of the road that looked remotely like it could be another snake, curled up. A bigger one.

As we cautiously approached and debated, and I had just about decided it was a clump of foliage of some kind, someone asked what we were looking at. It was a teenaged boy who I think had just rolled a garbage bin out to the street. I told him. And I told him about the snake just up the street — well, the two snakes, counting the dead one. And he seemed interested. And I thought, Maybe this is one of those people who are into snakes, and maybe he knows something…

So I said, “I’ve got a picture. Want to see it?” When he nodded, I walked straight over and showed it to him on my phone. Only when we were looking at it with our heads about a foot apart did I realize we weren’t wearing masks.

Then a woman — possibly his mom — arrived and asked what it was, and I immediately forgot what I’d just realized, and went over the show it to her. Only this time I handed the phone to her rather than standing next do her. Still, too close, not to mention handing the phone back and forth.

I don’t think either offered any expert advice. I didn’t get a ruling on the type of snake it was.

Do y’all know? I’d send it to Rudy Mancke, but I don’t think anything this common would interest him.

Anyway, I waited until we were about half a block away before expressing to my wife my surprise at myself for having forgotten basic COVID precautions. She said she was pretty amazed, too. I don’t think she had fully realized what an idiot I can be.

I blame it on the snake….

‘Where are all the birds?’

'We're after eatin' all of dem," he said, without missing a beat.

‘We’re after eatin’ all of dem,” he said, without missing a beat.

We were on a carriage ride through the beautiful Killarney National Park on March 19, and our driver was a guy who had no problem playing to tourists’ expectations. He was a burly guy in a cloth cap whose previously broken nose made him look like an ex-boxer — an Irishman who embraced all stereotypes, cracking a steady stream of jokes that prominently featured Guinness, leprechauns and Irish whiskey.

And he did it in such a natural, unstudied way, and seemed to be enjoying himself so, that it was for me a highlight of our trip to Ireland.

As we rode through the park admiring the scenery, the medieval ruins, the miniature deer and other attractions, one of the ladies in our carriages noticed something I had not. She asked the driver, “Where are all the birds?”

He didn’t miss a beat. Looking over his shoulder with a smile, he said “We’re after eatin’ all of dem.”

As I tweeted at the time, I hadn’t kissed the Blarney Stone, but someone had…

My wife later said she would have liked a serious answer to the question. Me, I was delighted because I’m pretty sure that’s the only time during our almost two weeks in the country that I heard someone use that famous Irish construction of “after” followed by a gerund. Word guy that I am, it made my day.

So much for the anecdotal lede.

For those of you still after wanting a serious answer to the question, I’ll be after giving it to ye, soon as I finish me Guinness…

OK, here you go…

It was in The New York Times today, an opinion piece headlined “Three Billion Canaries in the Coal Mine:”

A new study in the journal Science reports that nearly 3 billion North American birds have disappeared since 1970. That’s 29 percent of all birds on this continent. The data are both incontrovertible and shocking. “We were stunned by the result,” Cornell University’s Kenneth V. Rosenberg, the study’s lead author, told The Times.

This is not a report that projects future losses on the basis of current trends. It is not an update on the state of rare birds already in trouble. This study enumerates actual losses of familiar species — ordinary backyard birds like sparrows and swifts, swallows and blue jays. The anecdotal evidence from my own yard, it turns out, is everywhere.

You may have heard of the proverbial canary in the coal mine — caged birds whose sensitivity to lethal gasses served as an early-warning system to coal miners; if the canary died, they knew it was time to flee. This is what ornithologists John W. Fitzpatrick and Peter P. Marra meant when they wrote, in an opinion piece for The Times, that “Birds are indicator species, serving as acutely sensitive barometers of environmental health, and their mass declines signal that the earth’s biological systems are in trouble.”

Unlike the miners of old, we have nowhere safe to flee….

It’s an ominously interesting piece, so I thought I’d bring it to your attention.

And now this picture I took last year of a dead bird on a street in my neighborhood comes in handy:

I was struck by the beauty of this dead bird. Can anyone identify it for me?

I was struck by the beauty of this dead bird. Can anyone identify it for me?

Joel Sartore photographs his 8,000th species

The Pyrenean desman, which on Friday became the 8,000 species photographed for the Photo Ark.

The Pyrenean desman, which on Friday became the 8,000 species photographed for the Photo Ark.

Y’all remember my old friend and colleague Joel Sartore, the National Geographic photographer who for more than a decade has been trying to photograph every animal species currently in captivity before they can disappear?

Well, in the last few days he added his 8,000th species to his Photo Ark!

And he’s celebrating that putting forth a special offer:

As announced Friday, the Pyrenean desman marked the 8,000 species for the Photo Ark.

To celebrate this momentous milestone, this week I am giving away eight, signed 8×10 prints, one print of each milestone species that brought the Photo Ark to 8,000.

Four winners will be chosen from Instagram and four will be chosen from Facebook.

Each person may only win once per platform. Due to the limited number of prints, selection and winners will be chosen at random.

Winners will be announced on my Instagram story and my Facebook page Wednesday, May 9th.

How To Enter:

Follow me on Instagram @joelsartore or on Facebook at Joel Sartore, Photographer.
Tag three friends on my Monday contest post on Instagram or Facebook.

Good luck!

Take him up on the offer, and help promote the Photo Ark…

This Persian leopard at the Budapest Zoo was the 5,000th animal on the Photo Ark.

This Persian leopard at the Budapest Zoo was the 5,000th animal on the Photo Ark.

I’ll call this one ‘Cardinal Wolsey’

Cardinal

Christmas before last, my wife received a bird feeder for our deck. Things were going pretty well with the Wagner’s Eastern Regional Blend, except for the squirrels.

Initially, we defeated them by swinging the boom holding the feeder out over open space off the deck, but a few months back they figured out how to defeat that, and basically whenever we weren’t looking, they emptied the thing. I don’t know what it was they were so crazy about; maybe the sunflower seeds.

So a month or so ago I bought some seed at Lowe’s that would only attract smaller birds — and cardinals.

So what’s happened? The cardinals tend to hog it, and run the sparrows and wrens off.

And some of them have gotten pretty fat.

Get a load of this guy. Yeah, his feathers are kind of fluffed out, but he’s still rather large.

And he’s not even eating. He’s just sitting there, staking out territory. Very political, very wordly for a bird of the cloth.

I think I’ll call him “Wolsey”…

Hear Joel Sartore and Photo Ark tonight at Harbison Theater

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I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of talented people over the course of my career, and no one fits that description better than Joel Sartore.

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Joel Sartore

Joel was a photographer at The Wichita Eagle-Beacon back when I was news editor there, and I knew he was something special then. Part of my job involved deciding what went on the front page, and I had the privilege of using his work a lot. The times I spent with him at the light table peering at negatives through magnifying glasses and discussing them persuaded me that here was an all-around fine journalist, far more than just another shooter.

And he had an incredible eye for exactly the right shot. I’ll post a couple of prints he gave me back in the day when I’m at home. Amazing stuff.

Well, he’s not in Kansas anymore. Not long after my stint in Wichita, Joel started working for National Geographic, and he’s been with them ever since.

Lately, he’s been working on a monumental project called the Photo Ark, which The State described thusly in their story about his appearance in our community tonight:

National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore is trying to save the planet with his camera….

The project is called Photo Ark, and his goal is to take studio photographs of the roughly 12,000 species in captivity.

“My job, my passion, or what I’m trying to explore and share is the fact that we are throwing away the ark,” Sartore said, adding that he wants “to document as many of the world’s captive species as I can before I die.”

In the past 11 years, he has photographed about 6,500 of these animals. He estimates it will take another 15 years or so to photograph the rest….

So, you know, a herculean task. But Joel’s up to it, I assure you.

He’ll be talking about his work tonight at 7:30 at Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College.

I hope to see you there…

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Life, clinging…

clinging

See this photo I took of scraggly trees desperately clinging to a clump of fertile soil on a bleak, muddy, flood-swept landscape?

Actually, it was a tiny weed, about four inches high, in the driveway next to the ADCO building on Pickens.

I was amazed that none of us had run over it. I thought I’d immortalize it before that happened. The very essence of fragile life, clinging on against the odds.

That’s all. No political message…

driveway

A wild, beautiful vision in the heart of downtown

I’ve got this thing about hawks. Whenever I’m driving through the countryside and I see one gliding above the road or the woods and fields to the sides, it’s special to me. I’m like, “Look! A hawk!” And my wife is like, “Yes, I see that — yet another hawk…”

Well, she would have been impressed had she been with me a few minutes ago.

I was eastbound on Lady Street, waiting at that light (which must be one of the Top Five longest red lights in Columbia) to cross Bull. The light finally changed, and as I put the truck in gear and started to move, a hawk came swooping across the street at me, no more than four or five feet off the ground.

It was carrying something furry and rather large — maybe a big squirrel, smaller than a ‘possum or raccoon — and I think maybe that was retarding its effort to gain altitude. It passed my window, almost within arm’s reach. I saw the working of its wings, its fierce, proud visage (which would never show that it was having a hard time), close-up and in action.

As I rolled across Bull, I glanced in the rearview and saw the hawk glide around, rather than over, another vehicle behind me (anything but let go, in keeping with the First Law of the Foot). Then I saw it rise, maybe 12 or 15 feet, toward a tree branch. Then I lost sight of it.

But what I did see was a treat. If you have a thing about hawks, the way I do. I wish I could have gotten a picture. But even if I were wearing Google Glass, it was probably too quick to get the shot — unless I just happened to be shooting video, and it’s hard to imagine why I’d have been doing that at the most boring intersection in Columbia.

I’m sure it was less of a treat for the furry thing. But that’s nature for you. As Woody Allen observed in “Love and Death” (in answer to Diane Keaton’s observation, “Isn’t nature incredible?”):

To me, nature is…I dunno, spiders and bugs and big fish eating little fish, and plants eating plants and animals eating…It’s like an enormous restaurant.