A Snake! (and other animals that cross my path)

No, that crooked black line is not a crack in a tree trunk. It’s a snake climbing up a tree across the street from my apartment building. I may be a mediocre photographer, but I carry a camera just about everywhere and I try to get better all the time. When I’m on a plane, I use a zoom lens to photograph other planes flying nearby, or clouds, or sunlight reflecting in river tributaries that look like a sunset-colored octopus. When I walk to the university, I carry a camera just in case one of the local hawks puts on a show. I bring my camera so I can show my friends the things I see, but also because I will always need more practice. In that way, photography and writing are similar. Both are crafts that require a lifetime of regular, attentive exercise and application, resulting each month or each year in “better” photos and sentences rather than “great” ones. But that’s the idea behind a craft.

That said, I recently finished my thesis, and before I get back to practicing the craft of writing, I thought I’d give my other craft a little fresh air by sharing a few photos of creatures I’ve happened upon in the last few years. Minimal research. Just a few pretty things to give the mind a rest, starting with the biggest snake I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo.

Across from my apartment building is the lovely Wyman Park. It’s 20 or 30 acres of woodland that serves as the backyard of Johns Hopkins University. The park is a narrow but lush oasis of green where people from Baltimore’s Hampden and Charles Village neighborhoods run, bike, sit on rocks by the stream, and walk their dogs. Basically, Wyman Park is your typical city park — not a wilderness, but still home to some surprising creatures.

I met a member of Wyman Park’s wildlife community this Tuesday around 4 p.m. That would be the snake you saw in the above photo. My car was parked along a mowed field, the doorstep to Wyman Park. I was digging through my trunk for a quart of oil or something when a lady walked up and warned me that there was a huge snake under the car parked two ahead of mine. Just in case I were to walk that direction she wanted me to be aware. A HUGE snake? Yes, in fact. It was the longest snake I’ve ever seen in the wild. By the time she warned me about it, the snake had already mounted the curb and was halfway hidden in the grass of the park. It reached a four-foot-diameter tree and began to climb. Steadily, the snake moved upward — a funny thing to watch since a snake has no familiar limbs, claws, tentacles, or anything visible to propel it forward, let alone straight up. Yet it climbed without slipping once. Only a few minutes passed before the snake silently slithered into a hole in the lowest branch. The hollow space must have been small because the snake ended up bunched up and folded over a few times. You can see its midsection kinked like a two-inch hose in the shadow behind its head if you click on the photo to enlarge.

After scanning the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website and elsewhere, my best guess is it’s an eastern rat snake (a.k.a. black rat snake). Maryland’s biggest snake, the eastern rat snake often grows to six feet long (the DNR says the official record is 8 feet 5 inches). The one in my photo is probably five feet long at most.

Snakes are charming, but I’m more of a bird guy. In April 2011, I visited a Catholic high school in Baltimore County to write a story about the school’s plan to provide iPads to all of their students the following school year. In the parking lot near the school’s athletic field, however, I stopped to capture an aerial battle. Something small and furry was dead, innards exposed, at the edge of the grass, and a red-tailed hawk was perched atop a wooden fence post a few feet away. A couple of American crows or fish crows were also interested in the meal, but neither the hawk nor the crows could get more than a nibble of meat at a time before the other species attacked to fight for the meal.

Here the crows frantically chase the hawk:

Then one of the crows looks like it makes contact:

I don’t know how the fight ended because I had to go cover the iPad thing, but a few months later I got a far richer taste of wildlife when my girlfriend and I visited friends in Portland, Oregon.

I’ve lived in or visited probably 20 states in the U.S., but I’ve never seen another place as richly green as the woodland around Portland. Florida is lovely too, but it’s a different kind of green — low palms of light green, tall Australian pines with segmented needles, and lots of sand, sunshine and heat. Oregon, however, is on the opposite corner of the U.S. and is ruled by towering pines, cool damp air, and moss on everything.

From our visit to Multnomah Falls in Oregon.

Moss grows on trees, rocks, and probably even on other moss. In the thick parkland, sunlight filters through the dark green vegetation and causes the moss below to glow. The natural beauty is so intense that it looks almost handmade, as if every moss-covered tree and stone were part of a movie set, a caricature of life at its most vibrant. During our visit, we went on a couple of walks through the wet green wonderland. On one walk, one of my dear friends spotted a slug, a relatively common one for the region, but still gargantuan, and yellow. I’m pretty sure it was a Pacific banana slug. I took a few photos, of course, and here’s the slug with its body contracted:

Now here’s the same slug a minute later, now six or seven inches long and zooming along the forest floor at hundreds of millimeters per hour:

But, in case you’re about to eat something, I’ll try to supplant the image of the slug with something slime-less. Last year I was in Chincoteague, Virginia, and I took scores of photographs, but rather than overload you with all of my favorite animals from that trip, I’ll offer just one. Unless I’m mistaken, this is a laughing gull:

See? It’s “laughing.”

My girlfriend and I found this noisy guy while sitting at an outdoor bar and restaurant on the waterfront. The laughing gull sat on a dock-post about 10 feet from our table. All while we drank and ate, he remained on the post. Whenever another gull approached the perch, our gull would call and flap and fight to keep the spot. We soon learned why.

When I failed to eat all of my dinner (I know we’re not supposed to do this and I’m ashamed of myself) I decided to feed the gull. Apparently, he recognized my body language from experience with other people. After I tore a piece of bread from my plate, I turned back toward the gull. Before I knew what was happening, he had perched on the windowsill next to me, taken the bread from my hand, and returned to the dock post to eat it. He knew! He knew what I was doing before I’d done it! Animals. What the heck.

An interesting little tidbit from the laughing gull experience was something about his beak. I didn’t notice until looking at my photos later, but you can see straight through his beak via his nares (nostrils).

That’s all for now. Hope you enjoyed one or some of the animals. And to any other students or instructors out there, Happy End of the Semester!

If I incorrectly identified any of the animals above, please let me know. Thanks!