METTER, Ga. -- Dirk Stevenson tromped through the scrubby sand hills near Metter, pushing aside branches of turkey oaks clinging to a few brown leaves, his eyes scanning and his memory searching.
In minutes he fixed on his target, a 2-foot wide hole in the soft earth. He peeked into the burrow’s entrance, flashing sunlight in with a hand-held mirror. Then he flopped on his belly for a closer inspection.
This is how you survey for the federally listed Eastern indigo snake, a big snake holding its own in southeast Georgia. Indigos, the longest snake in North America, are not venomous; in fact, they rarely even bite. They share winter quarters with gopher tortoises, which dig these holes.
But that’s not all that can be hiding down there. Eastern diamondbacks like these pre-fab houses, too.
“It’s the world’s largest rattlesnake and one of the most dangerous vipers on Earth, so we respect Eastern diamondbacks,” said Stevenson as he lay on the ground, his face inches from a snake’s likely front door. “Before we get on our bellies and noodle in the hole we tend to look really hard. Many times. They’re so cryptic — they’re evolved to look like the ground — so sometimes we have our head in the hole and there’s a rattlesnake sitting just on what we call the roof.”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said in an unconvincing afterthought. “They’re not here to kill us, but it adds to the excitement of indigos.”
Stevenson is Georgia’s, and maybe the world’s, best authority on indigos, said John Jensen, a herpetologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division who was along for the survey.
And Georgia, particularly this part of Georgia, is prime indigo country.
“It’s been eliminated from Alabama,” Jensen said. “The only two states it occurs in are Florida and Georgia, and probably the greatest hotspot for them rangewide is this lower Altamaha region. So to conserve the species Georgia’s got to be at the forefront.”
Protected on private land
Stevenson, a 57-year-old herpetologist with the nonprofit Orianne Society, heads up that conservation effort as director of Orianne’s fire forest initiative. DNR contracts with Orianne to keep tabs on trends in the state’s indigo population.
The Metter site is one of about 40 he regularly scours for signs of indigos. Local car dealer Tim Redding bought these sandy rolling hills along the Ohoopee a few years ago and agreed to put more than half of the 1,250 acres in a conservation easement after wildlife officials approached him about what high quality habitat his land provides for Eastern indigos and gopher tortoises, both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
A controlled burn he allowed last spring enhanced the habitat, allowing native species such as wiregrass to produce seeds, which they’ll only do after a fire.
Like many, Redding grew up thinking the only good snake was a dead one. But he’s grown to appreciate the majesty of indigos. He phoned Stevenson excitedly one day to share one sighting. Riding an ATV along a sand ridge, he saw an indigo sunning itself behind a gopher tortoise hole.
“He was not scared at all,” Redding said. “It was a monster, one of those 7-footers.”
Indigos have something to offer even those who hate snakes: They eat other snakes, as was evidenced later in Wednesday’s survey of Redding’s land.
Snake for snake’s dinner
Hundreds of gopher tortoise burrows dot the landscape here, which is crisscrossed with sandy dirt roads. Stevenson and his colleague Kevin Stohlgren have GPS coordinates on each hole, but rarely need to check where they’re headed next. They remember where they’ve seen indigos before.
They work quickly, flopping to their bellies on the sandy apron of the gopher tortoise burrow again and again. After dozens of no occupancy holes, Stevenson found a promising burrow. One glance told him a snake had slunk through it recently.
He could see the track, like a bald bike tire had wheeled through. But what really excited him was just a few feet away: a pile of snake poop. Dry and ashen-looking, the pellets read like last week’s menu to Stevenson. Out of the scat he flicked a snake scale, a sure sign the diner had snacked on something quite like itself.
“It had a sizable snake meal within the last month because this is a pretty fresh dukey,” Stevenson said. “We’re intrigued. We’re thinking coachwhip, pine but maybe indigo. They do show cannibalism, so it’s not impossible.”
Sometimes, though not this time, the researchers find a rattle in the scat.
Poking a flashlight down the hole, Stevenson could see only the back end of a gopher tortoise six feet down. To get a look around that living cork he called for the burrow scope, a flexible tube with a lighted video camera and a display monitor. Stohlgren threaded the camera into the burrow, expertly squeezing past the tortoise. Suddenly the snake’s face filled the display monitor.
“There it is,” said Stohlgren, peering at the monitor while feeding the tube in. “Oh, he’s in shed.” The snake’s cloudy white eyes indicated it was about to lose its skin.
Mark that a positive ID.
Altamaha population thrives
Stohlgren removed the camera and smoothed the entrance to the burrow so the snake would leave obvious tracks if it came out later.
It didn’t. The weather was too cool and cloudy. If it had, the researchers would have captured it, checked for a tag, (about 500 Georgia indigos are marked with the same under-the-skin tags used on dogs and cats) tagged it if none existed and taken some measurements, including length, weight and temperature.
Instead, among the more than 100 burrows checked, the researchers found definitive signs of two indigos but didn’t lay their hands on a live one. Last year the Orianne Society found five indigos at this site in one day. But the researchers will be back to survey again another day.
The Eastern indigo was the first snake to appear on the endangered species list, but after that start, it “fell through the cracks” and wasn’t always fully considered when land was developed and it wasn’t well studied until recently. More than three decades after its initial listing it remains threatened and hasn’t sunk into endangered status.
It’s unclear how many indigos remain in Georgia. For comparison, Stevenson says there are probably 40 times as many Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. Individual indigos have a large home range, making them hard to inventory but sadly easy to run over as they cross roads in search of a meal or a mate.
That makes habitat fragmentation a big problem for indigos and private landowners like Redding so important to their long-term survival. More habitat is needed. But the Athens-based Orianne Society, which focuses on conserving reptiles and amphibians, indicates the Georgia population is thriving in portions of the Altamaha, Alapaha, Satilla and Ogeechee river drainages.
“So this remains a great area for the snake, but a lot of work remains to be done,” Stevenson said.