Pat’s Wildways: Warming Up

By Pat Foster-Turley

Turtles line the sunny banks on a cool day on the Greenway.

There is always something to catch my eye when I walk on the Egans Creek Greenway. This time, it was reptiles. Spring is here, the weather is warming up, and the reptiles that live here are catching the rays. These animals are “cold blooded,” but that doesn’t mean they always have cold blood. It means that they cannot maintain sufficient body heat for activity through their own metabolism, but need to bask in the sun to warm up. When you walk on the Greenway on a cool day with bright sun shining on the banksides, that’s when you will see the most reptiles.

Of course, mostly turtles are visible sunning themselves on the banks. Turtles on the Greenway come in many sizes from the size of your palm to the size of a dinner platter. Even though they are sizeable you may miss them when they are covered with algae or blended in with the bankside vegetation. But once you start noticing them, on a sunny cool day, there are lots of them.

Alligators similarly need to warm up in the sun. There are a number of large gators and some smaller ones along the Greenway paths. One, affectionately known as “Mama” inhabits the area along the canal on the south Greenway where a fence has been installed to enable her to safely catch the rays on the bank near people but out of harm’s way for both herself and incautious people passing by. If she isn’t there, one good place to check is at the mouth of her den on the opposite bank. You can see a “path” in the duckweed where she often travels to and from this prime part of her territory. Some years we even see her with her offspring gathered around her or even on her back, a prime photo opportunity for those lucky enough to see it.

A few years ago “Mama” gator harbored her offspring on her back.

On this day I did see one gator, a mid-sized one, sharing the bank with a number of turtles. Yes, gators eat turtles, but they are not often a threat to their neighbors, especially when they are all gathered together, warming up to get enough energy to continue on with their day.

What I really hoped to see, however, were snakes. Like turtles and gators, these creatures need the sun to warm themselves, and on a day when other reptiles are on the banks, maybe snakes are there too. So, for the last stretch of my hike in the south Greenway, I walked close to the canal edge looking for snakes. But I carefully watched where I put my feet.

On one fateful day, when I was walking along a canal in Paynes Prairie State Park in Gainesville, I did not follow this suggestion. I was focusing my camera on birds that were feeding in the canal, walking with my camera in front of my eyes, looking toward the water. A flash of white at my feet captured my attention, as it was meant to do, no doubt. A water moccasin had its open “cottonmouth” aimed at my calf! I was midstride and could do nothing but put my other foot down, but happily, the snake crawled away. Contrary to popular lore, this water moccasin was not out to “get” me, it just wanted me not to step on it. But this close call taught me to always watch my feet in snake territory.

Sometimes gators and turtles share the same banks to warm up.

Most of the water snakes on the Greenway, and in our area in general, are banded or brown water snakes, harmless to us. Yes, there are some water moccasins too, but if you watch your feet and stay away from them, they present no problem either. So I happily walked the canal edge looking over the bank for sunning water snakes. I didn’t see any.

But a bit further down the trail another pedestrian was stopped and looking into the canal. “What are you looking at?” “A snake!” Sure enough, I saw my snake for the day. It was a brown water snake swimming in a sunny area of the canal, weaving between the shoreside vegetation, but too quick for me to focus my camera. The fellow watching the snake was pleased — he walks the Greenway often, but this was the first snake he had ever seen. I told him my trick about walking along the bank and looking down at the edge of the water, and he set off with a new way to walk the Greenway. “Watch your feet!” I admonished as we parted paths, and off we went in our separate directions once again.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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