When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Oklahoma (back when I had more hair on my head and less on my back), I got my ass handed to me by a Western coachwhip snake, Masticophis flagellum testaceous, at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in south/southwest Oklahoma. This would’ve been in the late 1990s or so, near the Lost Lake area.
At the time, my active engagement with reptiles was mostly diminished — I was far too busy doing creative writing, blathering on about postmodernism, socializing, and/or drinking (and drinking, and drinking, and drinking). I’d head out camping or hiking from time to time, but most of my time was spent living the fuzzy undergraduate dream of glitter n’ buzz. Still, from time to time we would all pull ourselves out of our respective bottles and venture into the outdoors, as was the case this one sunny day at the Wichitas. A group of us headed down, bobbed our heads and chirped at the prairie dogs, talked about the probability of success in “tipping bison,” and hiked through the narrow creek canyons, flirting with gravity and disaster. Toward the end of the hike I was suddenly face to face with a beautiful, darkish western coachwhip.
The coachwhip (darker than they usually are in Oklahoma) took to a low-but-broad tree in a hurry. I followed. For about twenty or thirty minutes this coachwhip played me for a fool. I kept climbing around the tree, trying to get to the snake, as my friends watched with continued impatience. I’d go one way, the coachwhip would go another. That tree tore me up, right and left, up and down. Blood on the arms, blood on the legs. Thank god I had hair back then. It was not graceful.
Finally, after getting jabbed and cut by this tree repeatedly, I somehow caught the snake during a moment of confusion, taking quite a number of bites in the process. I admired it for a few minutes then let it go. No camera, no photos. Just a few awkward moments with a snake who must’ve thought this day was beyond strange. You and me both, serpent. And so it goes.
That’s how I learned how kickass coachwhips can be. They’re extremely fast snakes with excellent visual acuity. They climb as easily as they run. They know where to go to get away from you. They know how to make life extremely difficult for a predator (regardless of whether the predator wants to eat the snake or simply hold it).
This vivid encounter burned through my memory when I finally spotted an Eastern coachwhip, Masticophis flagellum, on the edge of my Sorrento, Florida yard on 12 July 2004. This species had been at the top of my “holy grail” (must-find) snake list in the summer of 2004.
I’d seen one previously not too far away from our neighborhood, but that individual had easily left me in the dust. I think I heard it laughing at me as it disappeared into the scrub of Seminole State Forest. This day, however, I was a bit luckier.
I was walking to our mailbox in Sorrento –a tiny town just south of State Road 46 in Lake County, Florida– when I spotted a long, tan, braided tail disappearing under the blue fence separating our yard from our neighbor’s. I immediate thought, that’s a gosh darn coachwhip (to paraphrase). After grabbing my camera/tripod from inside, I walked the long way around to my neighbor’s door to ask permission to root around her yard. Folks in rural Florida don’t take kindly to uninvited trespassers and everybody’s itching to shoot their guns. After a long and silent WTF stare from my neighbor, she told me sure, yeah, you can, um, look for a snake in my yard. I might have giggled. My neighbor seemed both horrified and confused.
With my camera and tripod at the ready, I slowly walked back toward the fence line where the snake had disappeared from my yard earlier. There was a small tree, but other than that, not much but grass. Oh shit, another tree, I thought. Images of Oklahoma blood, sweat and tears popped up in my mind’s canvas. It’s probably already in the god damn tree... But then I saw the smooth curve of a snake’s torso. Trick was it wasn’t a coachwhip. It was a southern black racer, Coluber constrictor priapus.
I was confused for a moment. I thought for sure that tail had been lighter and braided, like a coachwhip’s… The southern black racer periscoped and stared at me. I stared at it. Then my eyes shifted to the right. And there was another snake, the coachwhip I’d seen earlier, looking at me, then over at the racer, and then back at me. I looked back at the racer. The racer looked at the coachwhip. The coachwhip looked back at me.
After a few seconds of everybody looking at everybody, the racer effectively dropped off my radar. I was totally focused on the coachwhip. But how was I going to catch the damn thing? Both the fence and the tree were only three or four feet from the coachwhip. If it made it to either, I likely wouldn’t catch the snake. Maybe if it gets to the tree, but man… Odds are slim. Like racers, coachwhips are extremely fast and agile climbers.
Then I had an idea. I unhooked my camera from the tripod –slowly– and then tossed it through the air, up and over the coachwhip. It landed on the ground between the coachwhip and the fence. Both snakes immediately took off, the racer toward the street, the coachwhip toward the tree. I was banking on this trajectory and had immediately started bolting toward the tree. Just as the coachwhip was hitting the bark, I caught up and managed to grab the snake.
This is one of my prouder snake moments in Florida. And also one of the more ridiculous. You ever caught a snake with a tripod (in a manner of speaking)?
The coachwhip ended up being a total champ for me. Extremely cooperative and not too defensive. I spent about fifteen minutes in my yard photographing it, admiring it, feeling those smooth, tan scales braid and thread around my arm. It was much lighter than most of the Florida coachwhips, sort of the inverse of the individual I’d seen all those years before in Oklahoma. Such a long, slender, and elegant snake, the coachwhip. And those eyes? My god those are the eyes of an alert animal. Such an intense gaze, such piercing eyes. There was a moment when I seriously considered keeping the snake… But this is not an animal to be caged up. The coachwhip needed space. It needed the ground beneath its scales so it could sojourn through the brush of central Florida.
A great snake, a great day. Definitely more graceful than the one back in Oklahoma…