Cut-offs and creek shoes. Or Knee deep in Gee Creek

The uniform of this happy kid in Casselberry Florida was cut-off jeans and creek shoes.  I donned this uniform more days then not and remember having a hard time making it through the school day because I was so excited to go “snake hunting” after school.  Snake hunting was catching snakes, well anything really, by hand.  Much of my snake hunting occurred in and along Gee Creek (pronounced like the letter G).  This creek flowed between numerous neighborhoods before emptying into Lake Jessup.

Behind my neighborhood, Gee Creek was mostly sandy bottomed and generally knee deep or less.  Deeper holes existed and the creek contained fish including gar and sunfish.  The water was mostly clear but this varied with water level and other factors.   Alligators and otters were the most exciting wildlife in the creek.

I don’t remember how old I was when I started snake hunting Gee Creek but it was a common activity while I was still in elementary school.  I would get off the bus, change, and put in downstream to wade the creek against the light current.  Always conduct your activities upstream so the water you dirty by stirring up sediment gets carried in the direction you’ve come from, and not where you’re headed.  I lost snakes when they swam into my sediment cloud and developed this rule as a result.

Upstream I’d travel, sometimes with others but I was equally happy hunting by myself.  I scanned the banks and likely basking sites for snakes and was always alert for any movement or sound that might give away the location of an interesting critter.  Brown water snakes like to bask on branches overhanging the water.  When disturbed, they drop to safety.  This made them a difficult capture if you weren’t observant and I believe the behavior accounts for many of the “snake attacks” perpetrated on boaters.  It works like this:  snakes bask on branches above the water and react to threats by dropping safely into the water.  Boaters place their boat in the path of the escaping snake and before you know it people are being attacked by snakes.

I would scan ahead and move quietly or the brown water snakes and others would be gone in a blink.  I also checked under large downed palm fronds for snakes of all kinds.  I developed techniques for catching different species of snakes.  Brown water snakes are one of the biggest bodied snakes I have come across.  They have large heads, big gapes, and a nice pattern of dark squares on a lighter background.  When you catch browns, grab where you can and dunk them in the water fast.  Their bites can be unpleasant but their feces are downright fowl.  And the musky smell doesn’t wash off.  When grabbed, they love to expel as much fowl liquid as possible while flailing their body in your hand.  The result is akin to turning on a garden hose full blast but failing to secure the end.  They spin and gyrate in your hand, their lower body flailing and spraying musk on everything …best to dunk a brown if you can.  Other water snakes were simple, just grab and get the head secured if you could, if not, take the bite.  I remember many days having 2, 3, or 4 snakes in my hands at a time.  This approach makes each subsequent capture more challenging.  Fortunately, even Ill-tempered water snakes “tame” pretty quickly.   I’d hang on to them for a while then turn them loose.

I learned a lot while knee deep in Gee Creek.  Follow strange sounds for example, and you might discover a frog in its last struggle while learning that water snakes swallow prey alive.  Not all turtles are slow, a discovery made after many frustrating attempts to capture speedy soft-shells.  I learned that brightly colored caterpillars can give a nasty sting and a particular black and yellow, stick-like bug can spray a noxious cloud of chemicals in your face.  I learned that yellow rat snakes are beautiful but not to be trusted even after they are “tamed”.  Vines break, friends can’t be trusted around water, clothes dry, wounds heal, non-venomous snake bites are no big deal, old people scream when kids walk in creeks carrying snakes, a butterfly stitch can close most wounds (thanks Mom), if you break certain aquatic plants they make you itch like fiberglass, snapping turtles get huge, gar can be captured by hand, an unexpected otter can scare the crap out of you, and alligators are fast.

Most importantly, I learned that I need nature.  I have been lucky to spend most of my life knee deep in one creek or another, in swamps and coniferous forests, prairies short to tall, deserts and mountains, caves, cliffs and canyons.  My life revolves around wildlife and I have decided to accept this with open arms.  Even in high school I knew.  I would draw, poorly, different outdoor scenes on my papers.  I was fantasizing about the outdoors in lieu of learning history or math (and I can’t draw women).  I am not getting better, quite the opposite.  The more I see and learn, the more I realize there is to learn about the outdoors.  A worthy adversary the outdoors, just try to identify common birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects in one area.  Then learn their annual cycles, all the variation, calls and songs, habitats, behaviors and so on.  I haven’t managed this yet but I’m not about to stop trying.  And I like to increase the challenge by traveling and learning about new areas.

My view of nature continues to change.  I become more observant, I look in different ways, I focus on different things.  I know many of you are similarly afflicted and I welcome you to embrace the madness.  Imagine if we could pass what we know, what we see and hear and understand about nature, to others.  Somehow extract this knowledge and experience and the associated passion and load it into one of those memory erasers the Men In Black use.  One flash and we could pass on a lifetime of passion-fueled outings and observations, research, education, travel, and exploration.  If everyone could see what we see when we’re in nature, conservation would be at the top of every candidate’s platform, there would be no litter, every bit of green space would be preserved…

Maybe we each need our own Gee Creek.  Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the sand building up in your shoes and you won’t notice the itch caused by the elephant ears as soon as you see your first snake.  Gee Creek in Seminole County Florida, I thank you for the many lessons and adventures you provided this swamp rat.

The eyes of Texas are upon you. Yikes!

Actually the beautiful eyes of this pair of great horned owls, the largest owl in Texas, would only be frightening if you came upon them unexpectedly.  Jimmy Walker and I checked in on these owls today in a storage building in Carson County.  This pair has used this same building for nesting for the last several years.  Great horned owls are powerful hunters, taking prey like rodents, rabbits, and even skunks (most birds do not have a good sense of smell) with their large powerful talons.  They have great vision, even under low light conditions, but can rely completely on hearing to locate and accurately target their prey.  They consume small prey whole and larger prey in pieces and later regurgitate the indigestible parts like fur, feathers, and bones in pellets.  These owl pellets can often be found under roosts and some times in large numbers.  If you pick through the pellets you can look into the diet of the owls, or the fate of their prey, depending on your perspective.  I digest the fur and pull out the small mammal skulls to teach my mammalogy students to identify these using dental and cranial (skull) characteristics.  You can have your children look through pellets to get a sense of what these animals are eating or to simply look at these small skulls.  Anything to help get kids interested in nature.  If keen eyesight, super hearing, and sharp powerful talons weren’t enough to give rodents and rabbits nightmares, owls also have specialized feathers that reduce turbulence and flight noise making them practically silent in flight.  I tip my hat to the protective land owner who keeps a watchful eye on “his” owls and sure wouldn’t want to be a rodent living around his place!

Sorry for the shaky video, but the winds were, well, Panhandle-like this morning.