Since my first visit to St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in 1998, I have been smitten. To me, a man born in northern climes with an obsessive interest in amphibians, reptiles, turtles and crocodilians, St. Vincent Refuge on the Florida panhandles Gulf Coast is a fantasy fulfilled. It is a place for my kind of wildlife to live in its natural environment, largely undisturbed.
For 14 of the past 15 years, I have visited the barrier island refuge to conduct herpetofaunal surveys under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. My colleaguesincluding my wife, photographer Suzanne L. Collinsand I have amassed data on the diversity, distribution, abundance and microhabitat preferences of amphibians, reptiles, turtles and crocodilians on St. Vincent Refuge, which is accessible only by boat.
We have found that most snake species are active in winter, despite cool temperatures. We have determined that pygmy rattlesnakes are so pervasive that we must watch our step for fear of crushing them. Our main objective, though, has been to determine if the endangered eastern indigo snake is present. The species had never been recorded on the island refuge, but the Service released a large number of them there in the 1980s as part of a patriation effort. Since 1998, we havent found any of them, and, as long as a decade ago, we reported that the patriation had failed. But we remain ever vigilant for eastern indigos, in case we were wrong.
My most memorable moment at St. Vincent Refuge occurred in January 2002, when I was searching for eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. The eastern diamondback, a denizen of deep palmetto thickets and gopher tortoise burrows, is the refuges largest snake. It can grow up to eight feet long and weigh up to 10 pounds. Yet, it is extremely difficult to detect unless it rattles, something it does only when you are much too close to it.
On that warm January day, I spied a large, hollow log. Guessing it might contain a diamondback (or a cottonmouth), I crouched down and quietly approached it. I looked in, using the sunlight off a small mirror. Nobody was home. I stood up. Behind me, not more than three feet away, a fivefoot eastern diamondback began to rattle. Apparently, my lowlevel approach had not alarmed it, but, when I stood up, it became agitated, apparently thinking I looked like something out of Jurassic Park. I bagged the snake and took it back to the boat ramp at Indian Pass, where I was scheduled to give a presentation to two dozen wildlife enthusiasts.
With the visitors seated on benches on an open trailer hooked up to a truck ready for a tour of the refuge, I explained the importance of herpetofauna to the island. When I took out a beautiful scarlet snake that my colleagues and I had found earlier, the visitors were awed by its orangeblackandcream colors and pattern.
After they got back onto the trailer, I emptied the eastern diamondback rattlesnake out of the bag and let it stretch out on the ground. First, there was silence. Then, the snake rattled. This brought a sharp intake of breath from many visitors. Soon, most were excitedly taking photographs, albeit from the elevated safety of the trailer. Afterward, the tour guide who showed them the island told me it was his fastest tour everbecause nobody got off the trailer.
Our work on the island has convinced my colleagues and me that St. Vincent Refuge is one of the most valuable jewels in the National Wildlife Refuge System. It provides the kind of isolation that ensures the longterm wellbeing of its flora and fauna. And that isolation permits the kind of longterm biological research so sorely needed to provide current information for use in wildlife management programs across the southeastern United States.
Joseph T. Collins is director of the Center for North American Herpetology. He, with Suzanne L. Collins and Travis W. Taggart, is coauthor of A Pocket Guide to Snakes of St. Vincent National Wildlife RefugeFlorida, published in 2011 by Mennonite Press.