Footsteps in the Forest

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More Unexpected Encounters

I usually spend Sundays alone (aside from my beloved sidekick).

I hit the trail with the pup early and don’t stop until she’s exhausted. Afterward, we often stop for a treat before I drop her off at home and set out on my own.

In the spring and summer, I usually keep my eyes peeled for critters.

In the autumn, I’m usually focused on the fall color.

But in the winter, there’s not a whole bunch to look at.

The scenery is generally pretty “blah,” and most of my favorite critters are sleeping away the season.

This means Sunday hikes in the winter are generally for exercise and mental health purposes. Plus, it’s just fun.

As the saying goes, a bad day on the trail is better than a good day doing just about anything else.

The point of all this is that I don’t really look for critters during this time of year.

But sometimes, they make an appearance anyway.

This is a midland water snake, known to biologists and snake nerds as Nerodia sipedon pleuralis. They’re incredibly common throughout the metro Atlanta area, and I see them all the time. I’ve surely encountered more midland water snakes than any other large snake species over the years.

But I almost never see them this late in the year. Scratch that – I’ve never seen one between December and late January, save for the one that regular readers may recall I spotted about two weeks earlier.

Once again, the sighting was assuredly due to the unseasonably warm temperatures we’ve been experiencing lately. When the temperatures climbs high enough for “cold-blooded” critters to move around effectively, they often take advantage of the opportunity, as this little fella did.

Pleasantly surprised, I carried on along the trail. And now that I knew at least one snake had found it warm enough to crawl out into the open, I kept my eyes peeled for others.

As it turns out, I didn’t spot any others over the duration of the 6-mile-and-change hike.

But I did spot two little green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) hanging out on a log. This certainly isn’t a routine encounter, but I have occasionally spotted other anoles in December a time or two.

I didn’t see any other animals of note during the trek (birds were obviously everywhere, but I only noticed the usual suspects).

However, I did run into a lovely family while out in the wilderness. I’m usually quite friendly with others I pass on the trail, but I rarely strike up full-fledged conversations.

However, mom and dad were trying to identify some trees with their three kiddos. And while I may not have much wisdom to offer the average person, I do have a bit of experience teaching children to identify trees.

They were admiring a grove of trees that still possessed limbs full of dead, pale brown leaves – a particularly helpful identification clue.

B. Team

These were, of course, American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia).

So, I explained what they were, pointed out how to distinguish them from some of the oaks that also retain their leaves and listed a few other species the kids could learn that day (primarily ironwoods and hollies). And with that, we went back along our separate ways.

For those who don’t spend their time reading the bios of randos on the web, I was a boots-on-the-ground environmental educator for about 15 years. I led roughly 10,000 miles worth of guided hikes, and introduced people from all walks of life to the natural world during this time.

Without question, I loved it.

But eventually it was time to move on to other things, like publishing the website you’re reading right now.

This has often caused close friends and family to ask me if I missed working at a nature preserve and doing this kind of thing all the time.

“No,” I’d almost always reply.

Running a nature preserve or working as a member of the staff is certainly fun, and you do get to lead hikes, play nature-themed games with young students, and do other stuff that’s simply a blast. But you’d be amazed at home much time is spent on administrative tasks, clerical duties and political schmoozing (often in the name of fundraising).

I obviously don’t miss any of this stuff at all. In fact, it was trying enough that it caused by to seek greener pastures.

But I am pretty sure I will always love helping youngsters and their parents to better understand the natural world.

I may just have to take it one unplanned encounter at a time.

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