You all know, no matter how well we are acquainted, that I am obsessed with wildlife and the outdoors. I have been a student of wildlife since I was in my single digits in the 70s, splashing around swamps and creeks in Florida. Add to this my training by great faculty, colleagues, and students (I have learned a great deal from students, both my fellow undergraduate and graduate students and my past and present students) and the result is 20/20 wildlife vision. I see things in the outdoors that people less practiced may miss. Amazing events, wondrous sights, and chance encounters are pretty common occurrences for me.
I believe that everyone would be conservation oriented if they could see and understand the natural world like I do (and of course my many colleagues, both professional and amateur, who are similarly afflicted). I have been educating others about wildlife as long as I have had an interest in the outdoors. My partner in this endeavor and the second member of our team of two is Jessie, an artist and former art major turned wildlifer. Jessie is as responsible for this announcement as am I. My first discussion of my interest in using quality HD video in wildlife education found me listening to Jessie tell me how we weren’t going to do this half-way, we were going to do the best possible job we could with the resources at hand (Thanks Dr. Spaulding for the resources!) and it was quite clear that it was her way or the highway. She has donated an incredible amount of time and effort to this endeavor over the last 12 months, commonly working 90 hours a week in the field, working on equipment, editing video and keeping this absent-minded professor on track as best anyone could.
Our news is that KACV, Amarillo’s PBS station, has asked us to film, write and appear in a series on the southern Great Plains focusing on the wildlife found in this region. We sent them a 9-minute montage and they arranged a meeting and suggested the series. We expected to have to beg to get them to air a single documentary. I wonder if they saw the surprise on our faces when they suggested a series. I have research experience in short and tallgrass prairies and am chomping at the bit to be able to immerse myself in the prairie to create this series.
We will make a 12 part series focusing on many amazing species and visiting lots of spectacular locations. We have begun filming for the series and will continue our weekly segment “West Texas Wild” on Channel 10’s Early Show in Amarillo. In addition to the series, we will film and produce short 90 second station breaks for KACV with the intent of distributing these state-wide (we hope the series will be used regionally or nationally). All we have to do is raise funds to pay for travel and supplies, find a camper to use as living quarters and a mobile office, and learn to make a TV series….Yikes. And quite possibly the greatest challenge will be actually appearing in our videos as the personalities….Double yikes. We are definitely characters but we haven’t quite figured out how to plug ourselves into the series. I think we will just be ourselves, but with less cursing (we are making a family show).
Soon you will be able to view updates, outtakes, sample video and audio, and track our progress, travels and setbacks on our blog (buffsgonewild.com). Please share this as widely as you can – hits, followers, comments, etc. will help in our fundraising efforts. Any suggestions for fundraising would be appreciated and all donations will be tax deductible and go directly to support this and similar efforts we are undertaking through student salary, travel, supplies and equipment and the like. Wish us luck!
Updates will follow as regularly as we can. I headed with a group of students for Colorado so access will be limited.
The following video is a compilation of some of the footage we have captured in the last 9 or 10 months. I am almost to the 1 year mark in my wildlife videography and I think I am making progress. Special thanks and acknowledgement is necessary for the work that Jessie Story put in on this montage. She is my partner in film making and has an amazing eye, is dedicated to advancing our skills, and is quite a taskmaster. Further, West Texas A&M University supports my efforts and special thanks go to Dr. Angela Spaulding, Dean of Graduate School and Research, for her support, insight, and ideas. Also, Melissa Sabin put in a lot of time in cold photo blinds, in the field, and helps on almost all aspects of my projects and deserves a big thank you for her help and support.
We want everyone to be able to see the wonders that we are fortunate enough to see on a regular basis and I hope you enjoy what we have put together. The video starts with clips that set the scene including some weather shots, landscape, agriculture and wind energy. Wildlife follows and starts with mammals, then reptiles and amphibians, and it wraps up with birds. Comments and suggestions are appreciated.
Please watch full screen and turn up the volume. Be warned, it is large (full 1080p HD)
Bark scorpions (Centuroides vittatus) are common in the Panhandle but are seeking shelter away from the winter’s chill. This video was captured last fall and many thanks go to Jen and Jessie for help filming this beautiful Panhandle resident. These can be found in many habitats from canyons to woodlands to homes. Their stings can be painful but usually that is the extent of the problems they cause humans.
We went in search of manatees on Christmas morning and were rewarded with over 300 of the surprisingly graceful vegetarian giants. They need the warm water of the springs to survive in the cold. This year, Hurricane Sandy apparently sent the manatee to the springs early and we reaped the benefit. We were only the 5th vehicle in the gate. Thanks Santa.
I have spent the majority of my life in pursuit of snakes. I don’t know what caught my attention but I have stayed strongly transfixed on these wonderful creatures since I was a child. My first snake was apparently a dead snake that I found in a lot near my home. I was at this point a sweet child, prone to picking flowers for my mother. This day, however, the present behind my back wasn’t quite as sweet. The gift of a dead snake signified the start of the difficult job for my mother of raising a child enamored with all things scaled (furred, feathered, slimy and slick too).
I have handled all sorts of snakes, both venomous and non (snakes are not poisonous). I’ve captured coral snakes, cottonmouths, copperheads, and a number of species of rattlesnakes including western diamondback, prairie, Mojave, timber, black-tailed, and rock. Please trust me when I say I have explored the behavior of some of the most irritable of the non-venomous serpents too but in the interest of space I’ll save that list for another time.
I am trying to establish that I am qualified to speak on the topic of being chased by a snake. I have never been chased by a snake myself but find people regularly that are compelled to tell me of their harrowing encounters with wild serpents. Over time I have worked hard to develop an understanding of these encounters because they seem counter to my experiences with snakes. I have found, with no memorable exceptions, that snakes do their best to avoid me. Cottonmouths will chase you, or so I’ve heard so many times. Last summer at Caddo Lake, the Texas side, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of many cottonmouths. I rarely traveled more than 20 or 30 feet along the edge of a slough without catching a coiled cottonmouth in the beam of my headlamp. Every encounter ended the same, with the cottonmouth working very hard to put space between itself and the guy in flip flops.
The same holds true for rattlesnakes, their behavior fall short of the stories I have been told for years (when people find out you like snakes, they tell you things). Western diamondbacks are big and dangerous snakes and they very aggressive, or so I’ve been told. Here in the Panhandle of Texas, diamondbacks rule the roost in our canyons and rough country while prairie rattlesnakes swim through our grasslands. I would prefer not to step, sit on, or otherwise accidentally meet either species. But I have encountered many of these square-jawed beauties and say confidently that I have never been chased or received as much as an unprovoked threat from a rattlesnake. I did watch a meaty diamondback I captured get 2 fangs in a museum curator in a fraction of a second, he suffered permanent tissue damage and loss. So I’m not saying these animals aren’t potentially dangerous, I’m simply speaking to behavior, both snake and human. I’ll save the bite story for another time.
I made a serendipitous observation while fishing on the Kansas River at a place called Rocky Ford. I had the place to myself and was fishing a pool off the main river with a white plastic jig thrown in hopes of tangling with a feisty white bass. To my right I detected movement and turned to see a northern water snake headed towards the center of the pool. The snake swims uninterrupted to the center of the pool, directly in front of me. I ceased casting at first sight of the snake, I had no bait to attract the snake, and I just arrived and had yet to catch a fish. I did nothing to attract the snake but she stopped swimming, paused briefly, turned and swam directly at me. I watched on curiously. She didn’t waver on her course and disappeared under the rock I was standing on. What was that about? It was about coincidence, the snake just happened to decide the rock I was on was the place to be. The funny thing is the snake didn’t even know I was there.
It occurred to me that if I had been afraid of snakes there would be no way to convince me that I wasn’t pursued, with malice and contempt, by a vile serpent. I was getting somewhere in my quest to understand snake attacks. I started to notice some patterns too. Being frightened of snakes seems to be a risk factor for a variety of issues. For example, the more frightened you are of snakes the more likely you are to be chased by a snake. I have never met a person that wasn’t afraid of snakes that had been chased by a snake. Think about it folks.
Similarly, snakes become increasingly abundant and commonly encountered as fear of them increases. I ask people regularly about snakes, from park rangers to camp hosts to hikers and mountain bikers. The poor people that are most afraid of snakes see snakes everywhere and all the time. Is this just sick irony, maybe?
If you are afraid of snakes I am sorry to say that you are more likely to encounter larger and more aggressive snakes. Don’t doubt me folks; I have talked to many people about this. The average size of a snake observed by those comfortable with snakes is about half that of those frightened of snakes, based on witness testimonials.
If this isn’t enough, those with a fear of snakes encounter a greater proportion of venomous snakes or they encounter snakes at a higher venomous:non-venomous ratio. These are the people that screamed at me when I would play with snakes because all snakes “were poisonous”. They are also more likely to know someone bitten, chased or otherwise harried by a snake.
I am left with 2 hypotheses that will require testing. The first hypothesis, developed from these observations, is that snakes know if you are afraid of them and respond accordingly. Let’s call this the “smell fear” hypothesis. Perhaps frightened individuals give off an odor or even a pheromone that triggers a reaction in snakes such that they are more likely to behave aggressively and engage in chase. This same odor attracts more and bigger snakes and these are more likely to be venomous. All my observations are addressed with this hypothesis.
My second hypothesis is called the “panic in the same direction” hypothesis. This hypothesis is elegant in its simplicity. Simply put, people and snakes are afraid of each other and sometimes panic in the same direction. Humans can run around 20 miles per hour while snakes are far slower. The snake trails the human as they clumsily flee giving the appearance of a chase. The other relationships perhaps could be explained by fear-induced misperceptions common in individuals suffering from ophidiophobia.
I’ll be finalizing my experimental design this spring and will be conducting experiments designed to test these hypotheses this summer. Volunteers are sought to aid in this research. You must be terrified of snakes, be willing to have your scent altered with industrial chemicals, and most importantly, be willing to sign a release form.
We spent Christmas morning filming manatee at Blue Springs State Park, north of Sanford Florida. Wildlife was abundant in the park and the holiday kept the crowds down. A great way to celebrate anything. The manatee were wonderful but you have to like the eyes of birds. Hope you like the pics.
The uniform of this happy kid in Casselberry Florida was cut-off jeans and creek shoes. I donned this uniform more days then not and remember having a hard time making it through the school day because I was so excited to go “snake hunting” after school. Snake hunting was catching snakes, well anything really, by hand. Much of my snake hunting occurred in and along Gee Creek (pronounced like the letter G). This creek flowed between numerous neighborhoods before emptying into Lake Jessup.
Behind my neighborhood, Gee Creek was mostly sandy bottomed and generally knee deep or less. Deeper holes existed and the creek contained fish including gar and sunfish. The water was mostly clear but this varied with water level and other factors. Alligators and otters were the most exciting wildlife in the creek.
I don’t remember how old I was when I started snake hunting Gee Creek but it was a common activity while I was still in elementary school. I would get off the bus, change, and put in downstream to wade the creek against the light current. Always conduct your activities upstream so the water you dirty by stirring up sediment gets carried in the direction you’ve come from, and not where you’re headed. I lost snakes when they swam into my sediment cloud and developed this rule as a result.
Upstream I’d travel, sometimes with others but I was equally happy hunting by myself. I scanned the banks and likely basking sites for snakes and was always alert for any movement or sound that might give away the location of an interesting critter. Brown water snakes like to bask on branches overhanging the water. When disturbed, they drop to safety. This made them a difficult capture if you weren’t observant and I believe the behavior accounts for many of the “snake attacks” perpetrated on boaters. It works like this: snakes bask on branches above the water and react to threats by dropping safely into the water. Boaters place their boat in the path of the escaping snake and before you know it people are being attacked by snakes.
I would scan ahead and move quietly or the brown water snakes and others would be gone in a blink. I also checked under large downed palm fronds for snakes of all kinds. I developed techniques for catching different species of snakes. Brown water snakes are one of the biggest bodied snakes I have come across. They have large heads, big gapes, and a nice pattern of dark squares on a lighter background. When you catch browns, grab where you can and dunk them in the water fast. Their bites can be unpleasant but their feces are downright fowl. And the musky smell doesn’t wash off. When grabbed, they love to expel as much fowl liquid as possible while flailing their body in your hand. The result is akin to turning on a garden hose full blast but failing to secure the end. They spin and gyrate in your hand, their lower body flailing and spraying musk on everything …best to dunk a brown if you can. Other water snakes were simple, just grab and get the head secured if you could, if not, take the bite. I remember many days having 2, 3, or 4 snakes in my hands at a time. This approach makes each subsequent capture more challenging. Fortunately, even Ill-tempered water snakes “tame” pretty quickly. I’d hang on to them for a while then turn them loose.
I learned a lot while knee deep in Gee Creek. Follow strange sounds for example, and you might discover a frog in its last struggle while learning that water snakes swallow prey alive. Not all turtles are slow, a discovery made after many frustrating attempts to capture speedy soft-shells. I learned that brightly colored caterpillars can give a nasty sting and a particular black and yellow, stick-like bug can spray a noxious cloud of chemicals in your face. I learned that yellow rat snakes are beautiful but not to be trusted even after they are “tamed”. Vines break, friends can’t be trusted around water, clothes dry, wounds heal, non-venomous snake bites are no big deal, old people scream when kids walk in creeks carrying snakes, a butterfly stitch can close most wounds (thanks Mom), if you break certain aquatic plants they make you itch like fiberglass, snapping turtles get huge, gar can be captured by hand, an unexpected otter can scare the crap out of you, and alligators are fast.
Most importantly, I learned that I need nature. I have been lucky to spend most of my life knee deep in one creek or another, in swamps and coniferous forests, prairies short to tall, deserts and mountains, caves, cliffs and canyons. My life revolves around wildlife and I have decided to accept this with open arms. Even in high school I knew. I would draw, poorly, different outdoor scenes on my papers. I was fantasizing about the outdoors in lieu of learning history or math (and I can’t draw women). I am not getting better, quite the opposite. The more I see and learn, the more I realize there is to learn about the outdoors. A worthy adversary the outdoors, just try to identify common birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects in one area. Then learn their annual cycles, all the variation, calls and songs, habitats, behaviors and so on. I haven’t managed this yet but I’m not about to stop trying. And I like to increase the challenge by traveling and learning about new areas.
My view of nature continues to change. I become more observant, I look in different ways, I focus on different things. I know many of you are similarly afflicted and I welcome you to embrace the madness. Imagine if we could pass what we know, what we see and hear and understand about nature, to others. Somehow extract this knowledge and experience and the associated passion and load it into one of those memory erasers the Men In Black use. One flash and we could pass on a lifetime of passion-fueled outings and observations, research, education, travel, and exploration. If everyone could see what we see when we’re in nature, conservation would be at the top of every candidate’s platform, there would be no litter, every bit of green space would be preserved…
Maybe we each need our own Gee Creek. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the sand building up in your shoes and you won’t notice the itch caused by the elephant ears as soon as you see your first snake. Gee Creek in Seminole County Florida, I thank you for the many lessons and adventures you provided this swamp rat.
The term “unconventional” was applied to my family and me for the first time in 2006 in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas. We were camping with friends and the campground was packed. Their camper was parked in a large lot for campers and we were relegated to overflow tent camping, where neighboring tents were in physical contact. We asked the ranger if we could camp on the ground near our friend’s camper. His response was that this was “unconventional” but not against the rules.
My daughter Haley took this as a serious compliment and kept the term alive and well through today. Haley and I sleep out under the stars as much as possible and had done so for some time. Under the stars = no tent. Haley loves sleeping under the stars. I have the image of her ponytail in my mind, barely visible deep in her mummy bag on many a cold night under the stars. Indication to this Daddy that his girl was safe and warm during his many nightly checks on her. By the way, Tony, my son, thinks nothing of sleeping under the stars either.
They picked this habit up from me, as have many of my students. I developed the love for sleeping under the stars with my best friend Nick around 1982 or 1983. We were training for our future time in the army which occurred for each of us some 4 years later. We wanted a challenge and sought these where we could find them around my house in Casselberry Florida. Fortunately Gee Creek, dead space between developments, and swamps produced areas somewhat wild. We had alligators, lots of snakes, gopher tortoises, and even an occasional otter in our “woods”. All kids need woods.
We would dress in camouflage and outfit ourselves with military surplus equipment. I loved the old fanny packs, ponchos, poncho liners, ammo pouches, etc. We carried survival equipment, learned to make fires on even wet and rainy days with only a spark, and ate only what we could catch. Sometimes we had pellet rifles to help harvest squirrels, my favorite, and rabbits and doves. Other times we challenged ourselves by just taking a slingshot or going with only a knife. We ate interesting items like fresh water muscles, crayfish, frogs, snakes, turtles (not a favorite for either Nick or me), wild oranges, and palmetto hearts. We made shelters like the ones we studied in survival guides and eventually the palm-covered lean-to gave way to just lying on a poncho. I woke one morning to find that slugs had been busy exploring me in the night. Every inch of their travels could be retraced by following their slimy trail.
I have continued to sleep on the ground all over the country and even internationally. We didn’t bother with or even have tents most of the time in the army. The first field exercise for this Florida-grown outdoors man turned soldier was called Winter Warrior. Bad news. To this point I had yet to see snow that I remembered. I would see snow during exercise Winter Warrior in West Germany. I was new to the unit, just in from basic training, advanced infantry training, and airborne school (where I again crossed paths with Nick). We traveled for many hours in our armored vehicles and when we finally stopped things were quite different. Where it wasn’t packed by heavy armored vehicles, the snow was about knee-deep. I was in awe of the beauty and the novelty of the sight.
I became a bit perplexed when I had to go to the bathroom, the kind that requires a bit of squatting. They didn’t teach me about this in basic nor was this mentioned in the many survival manuals I spent hours reading as a kid. And I simply didn’t know snow. Well, I figured it out and as usual, go quite a kick out of my predicament. It was an adventure until I was told I had to sleep outside. The rule was, no one sleeps in the vehicles, or so they said. To me and my new section sergeant, this was the rule. I got a cot and found a protected place under a conifer. I dug out enough snow to accommodate the cot, set up my down-filled intermediate cold sleeping bag, emptied my bladder, slipped out of my boots and into my bag. I was completely dressed when I climbed into my bag. This is a terrible idea in the cold but I would learn this slowly over the next few years, along with a few other tough lessons.
I think this is what happened and in this order: I was cold getting in the bag but then overheated once the bag warmed up – should not have worn all my clothes in the bag. Hot turned to sweaty which turned to cold. I got cold, I curled up in an instinctive effort to reduce my surface to volume ratio. Then my bag got cold. Then I had to pee and got uncomfortable being balled up. When I extended my legs and feet in to the cold bottom of my sleeping bag, my feet got cold. So cold I took my wool sweater off and tied it around my feet. It was much too little and too late. I was chilled, frozen actually. My feet ached, my bladder was full, and I thought I was going to die.
My forethought and brilliance that night continued to impress me. Early in the night the armored vehicles started their engines. So much for no sleeping in the vehicles! I had to get to the warmth of the vehicle. Out of the bag I popped and I reached for my boots I had neatly placed under the cot. Turns out you can’t put frozen boots on frozen feet. Yes, this seems stupid now but as a kid I remember putting out bowls of water on really cold nights in Florida to see the water freeze. I was not experienced nor told how to survive this. I could only manage to slip my foot into the uppers of each boot and then had to walk on my tip toes through the deep snow, to the vehicle. I managed to stagger from tree to tree and made it to the vehicle. Time was an issue, I was dying from hypothermia (in my mind) and my bladder was close to exploding (in reality). The next thing I learned is that you can’t knock effectively on an armored vehicle! The door was combat locked; this keeps unwanted visitors from opening the door and placing a grenade inside and was also going to be the reason my sergeant would find me dead at the back door of the vehicle. I pounded with no effect and I am sure I hollered but not enough to be heard over the big diesel engine. Then I figured out if you rattle the latch against the lock it makes noise. Someone opened the cover on the periscope, saw it was me, and let me in. I gave them all the look of death as I moved to the hottest part of the vehicle. I finally got warm enough to use my hands, put my boots on, and work the button on my pants so I could pee which I did from the top of the vehicle through the gunners hatch.
I learned many other lessons for cold-weather sleeping under the stars from my time in the army including the importance of a sleeping pad as insulation under your sleeping bag. Cold, into the teens at least, is no issue for me now and I prefer it to rain or bad mosquitoes. I have really only had one bad experience besides my steep learning curve in cold weather. I was sleeping on the ground in the mountains of eastern Arizona when I woke to the most amazing sound. It was awful, like nothing I had heard before, and it was inside my head! I was too dizzy to stand and was instantly nauseous. I figured out I had something crawling around on my tympanic membrane – my ear drum. I grabbed my canteen and filled the lid with water which I quickly used to flush my ear. I turned my head and dumped the water in my hand. Fortunately the trespasser was washed out and was wriggling in my palm. A harvester ant provided me with yet another war story and one hell of a wake-up call.
So I’m unconventional, I’ve earned the title. I have come to determine that normal people (“normies”) will have a hard time understanding me, what I do for a living, what brings me joy. And I love nothing more than beating the “normie” out of my students. I actually choose students often because I sense that their inner “normie” has only a precarious grasp on them and could be easily dislodged. This brings me to the present and my Christmas break trip to Florida. I was accompanied by Jessie and Maria, two students desperate enough for the outdoors that they would forgo the holidays with family and friends to help me scout for a graduate class next winter. If you get to know either of them you will likely agree that neither is normal. Of the three of us, Maria possessed the majority of the common sense. Jessie is already wonderfully insane and is quite a thrill seeker. I knew Jessie had potential the first time she accompanied me to the field. She dove and slid on a gravel road under my running truck while attempting to capture a pocket mouse. Sacrifice the body, I like it.
Our first two nights of camping were along the northern Gulf Coast of Florida. It was very cold for Florida and was windy and near freezing before sunset. Cold and no rain = no tent. The first night the crew got cold but I fixed that with better sleeping bags. They both loved sleeping under the stars. In our second campground, as in the first, most campers were in RVs. We were on cots. Normies happen, no big deal. And I am used to people looking at me strangely when they walk by. I even hear their comments. But this night you would have thought we were in the zoo as the first exhibit and public viewing of dinosaurs brought back Jurassic-Park style. We had the truck parked to block the strong wind and we sat and talked on our cots. Normies on a walk noticed us and apparently were so taken-aback by the sight that they felt compelled to shine their flashlights on us. They commented out loud as if we couldn’t understand their language because we sleep without tents. Maybe we were from a primitive culture and thought them to be Gods because they possessed lights while we sat in the dark. They kept their lights trained on us even when we looked back and shot them dirty looks.
We continued to get looks and hear comments as the trip progressed. In the everglades we went out in kayaks and canoes at night to see what was about and to see American crocodiles (we saw 16). Many cautioned us about being out after dark in our small craft. But we had headlamps and curiosity and managed to survive yet again. We went on to paddle with big black tip sharks in Florida Bay and my kayak rolled over their wake when they sped away. When it got dark in the keys we went out in a kayak and a canoe, again, people thought us “unconventional”. We saw and handled all manner of critters and night was a different world. More critters were out and about at night and the excitement level goes up too. Some of the splashes we heard would send normies for shore but we paddled in the direction of the commotion. I feel bad for Jessie’s wonderful and supportive mother. She called one night to find us out in the canoe. Her response to Jessie was simply, “you”re in a canoe, in the ocean, it’s dark”. Jessie soothed her concern be explaining we had headlamps. I later corrected Jessie because we weren’t technically in the ocean, we were on the Gulf side of the Keys.
I accept that I will never again be able to understand normies and normies will never understand me. I am certain that the folks that were so intrigued by our lack of tents probably called us something other than unconventional. Understand normies, that I am watching you from my camp, wondering what the hell is wrong with you. I draw comfort from your discomfort in the outdoors. You bring your generators and Christmas lights to my outdoors. You don’t have the common courtesy to be quite when the coyotes howl and your radios drown natural sounds of the night. Are all normies afraid of the dark? Do you leave your lanterns and lights on to benefit me? I’m just fine with the dark and have a headlamp for when I need light. Normies, you work hard to bring all the comforts of home outside. That is one way to avoid interacting with nature but it is not for me. I will continue to grow more and more unconventional and you normies will become more of an enigma to me. I am sorry that you don’t get to experience the outdoors as I do. What I see, hear, and understand continues to amaze me. And there is so much more to see and do. The loss is all yours.