Rattling The Tin Across Dixie - March 2007

Early spring is tin-flipping time for snakehunters in the southeastern United States.  This trip commenced halfway into March 2007 with two companions, Daniel "Mudsnake6" Parker and Anthony "Ant Man" Flanagan, both veterans of the art of hunting the tin fields.  We started our week-long expedition in extreme southern South Carolina in the heart of 'Okeetee'.  That renowned 50,000+ acre private hunting preserve sprawls over large, non-contiguous portions of prime natural habitat across southern Jasper County.  Too bad it's off-limits to herpers now; we've supposedly long ago worn out our welcome.   It was still cool to cruise through parts on scenic two-track roads while imagining Carl Kauffeld's ghost happy that the place has been maintained much as he enjoyed it a half century ago. 

Blue-purple Wisteria flowers (inset, above right) were in full bloom everywhere.  Spotting some in an overgrown patch of woods was often a clue to a former human habitation buried underneath, the significance of which will be explained shortly.

So, where did we hunt?  The tin fields, of course. What are they?  I credit the term to John W. Kemnitzer Jr., coining it in his 2004 book Snake Hunting the Carolina Tin Fields.  He means places where old metal roofing, siding and signage have fallen or blown down from their former places of installation and now adorn the ground slowly rusting.  'Tin' is actually galvanized steel (mostly), so it lasts for years out in the elements.  It heats up very quickly on sunny days, making it irresistably attractive to snakes to lay under in relative safety until warm enough for normal activity.  Snakes seem to 'semi-hibernate' in burrows under it during the cool Dixie winter, surfacing to bask just below it in spring after cool nights.

Where exactly are these fabled tin fields, you may ask?  Everywhere across Dixie!  Take the piece in the picture below, for instance.  That piece in the foreground used to be on that old shack's porch roof, but now it's just baking in the sunshine in the overgrown backyard that's rapidly converting to a weedy, rodent-spawning field.  That's exactly the kind of stuff that you're looking for when you 'hunt tin'.  That's Daniel reaching for a corn resting under that very piece; the snake immediately darted for its deeper burrow when uncovered. 


Don't waste your time driving around looking for that particular old ruin - you'd waste too much valuable time.  Dixie is a virtual hotbed for these mansions of yesteryear.  Look starting on the fringes of small towns, concentrating along all the roads leading off into the countryside.  Southern folks have generally been flocking to cities, leaving oodles of ramshackle farm houses and barns to slowly revert back to Mother Nature.  The agricultural lands surrounding them still spawn a plethora of crop-munching rodents which in turn help proliferate all the rodentiferous snake species.

Here's that scenic cottage from above (below) as it looked from the road.  We quickly learned from places like this to gauge old structures' potential by the state of tin on their roofs.  If chunks were missing, the likelihood of the pieces laying around in the vicinity was high.   

Oftentimes there's lots of tin, not just a single piece.  Such treasure troves get tin hunters all tingly inside with the prospect of uncovering a writhing mass of snakes like below.  Anthony found the large black racer and 'Okatie' corn, both opaque and intertwined between layers of debris dumped behind an abandoned house.  That pile of trash consisted of remnants of a metal shed and some old carport panels.  It turned out to be a bonanza of toasty warm 'tin' after the previously chilly night.  It was fortunate for us that folks in Dixie haven't adopted recycling too seriously yet.

Side Note:  I'm sort of hoping some seasoned herper is reading this and thinking "With all the little yellow Okeetee Hunt Club signs on trees in the region, Bill still can't spell the word 'Okeetee' correctly???"  Heh-heh-heh!  The last laugh's on you.  That is indeed an 'Okatie' corn in the pic.  I was surprised when our wanderings took us through the town of Okatie, SC on the Jasper - Beaufort County line.  And I thought my old friend Bruce Delles (Twin Cities Reptiles in Minnesota) was spelling it wrong all those years!


Here's that 'Okatie' corn as it was shedding a couple days later....  (I kept it, of course.)

Just for comparative fun, here is the nicest-looking Okatie corn again, at home next to one of Kathy's nicest Okeetee corns from her long-established bloodline of selected breeding.  You can tell which is which, can't you?  Interestingly, the difference wasn't as obvious as I'd expected.  I kept one corn for Kathy because she likes to occasionally add new wild blood into her breeding colony (after an isolation period to be sure the newcomer is healthy, of course) to keep the bloodlines big and strong - the 'hybrid vigor' approach.

This second male corn (below) was caught seconds later a little deeper under the layers at the same place; it was quite a big boy as evidenced by these shots in my hands and in 'true' habitat (not in that 'artificial' trash pile).


Not to ignore the poor black racers (we encountered about 15 of them during the week), here's one of the good-looking ones (left), and a scraggly opaque specimen (right, in hand) with dermal sores as found under tin.  We'd later find a few other snakes with identical skin problems, which we attributed to spending the winter in semi-hibernation in slightly too moist of conditions.


OK, back to discussing tin.  Although we had all flipped tin many times before, it was interesting to hone our skills at finding the choicest sites by some scientific reasoning.  This was particularly important to us because a number of our fellow enthusiasts also frolick through the woods with the same goal in mind, and the 'easy' spots get hit hard for a few intense weeks during the annual spring heydays.  Our first criteria for a good tin site was that is was exposed, at least partially, to the sun.  We hit paydirt early at the spot below.  See what they're looking at?

Here's what my pals are admiring above, close-up.  This southern copperhead Agkistrodon c. contortrix was apparently enjoying the morning heat radiating down through the sheet of aged metal roofing while staying hidden.  It and another found nearby were definitely selecting the warm 'tin' over numerous more natural shelters of logs and old lumber in the vicinity. 

Blending in so beautifully to the mosaic of coppery leaf litter, it inspired this next posed shot on a log mere yards away.

Can you see how easily a copperhead out basking might suck in all your attention and lull you into missing a second one concealed very close by?  As I was working with these two for this set-up shot, I kept eyeing the leaves around my knees pondering the possibility of an unseen 3rd copperhead coiled under my crotch. 

As we moved further afield, the tin was warming up the occupants hiding beneath it.  That meant the snakes we uncovered were progressively more alert.  It became an issue at this spot as the tin sheet below was lifted to reveal this....  This is exactly as it looked trying to spot it against the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees.  A leaning bush and an accumulation of heavy leaf litter made it hard to lift this piece, and suddenly it slipped from the hook and dropped down.  Good thing I was ready with camera in hand because it bolted under the multiple layers of tin and roots, disappearing from sight for the next 15 minutes as we clawed at the pile with hooks and potato rakes.  The network of holes was far more extensive than we'd guessed.

Finally we prevailed and dug down to the last piece to claim our prize - an adult canebrake rattlesanke Crotalus horridus atricaudatus.  This one was a real dazzler with its yellowish head and deep vermillion dorsal stripe.  The effort was worth it for these next pics.  By the way, we did NOT replace the heap of twisted tin back exactly as found, which would have been impossible in this case.  But rest assured -- it's still a tangled mass of semi-buried, crisscrossed pieces with plenty of sticks, roots and leaves separating them so snakes still have a cozy lodging.  Seasoned fellow fieldherpers understand the dilemma that a few people's advice of "replacing the tin exactly as found" poses with certain complex piles.  We did the best we could, which is the point of imploring fieldherpers new to the hobby to leave 'AC' (= artificial cover) as you found it so it continues providing shelter for snakes.

The sun was blazing, so I asked my buds to cast a big shadow on the snake for a more saturated shot in the shade.  Voila!  Although its rattle sagged, the colors look a helluva lot better (below).  The vast majority of the trip took place under bright, cloudless skies - good for heating the tin, but bad for photography.

Here's one more trying for the 'Grismeresque' look of a herp blending into its environment, its golden yellow only slightly glowing amidst the sunbathed dry leaves in its niche.  Can you see it?

It's in the foreground at lower right.  I could have easily walked right over (or on) it heading toward that tin pile!  Canebrake rattlesnakes were a highlight of the trip for me.  We ended up flipping 9 altogether, every one of them under tin.  They were so magnificent, I had to shoot several others.  This one was posed.

This next one (below) is 100% in-situ, minus the piece of tin that was resting over it moments earlier.  It was a female, already looking heavy in anticipation of the coming breeding season.

The biggest one found was a husky 4.5-foot male with a magnificent string.  It sure looked better there than on some redneck's hat.

This one (below) was found under those pieces behind it, so it never got moved very far from home for the photo.  In contrast to the first ones, it was dull and dingy, and probably due to shed soon after winter dormancy.

It was sure nice to see that the ratttlesnake round-ups in Whigham, Jesup, and other podunkvilles across GA didn't clean out all the rattlesnakes.  Diamondbacks were probably the 'big game' at those events that have thinned their numbers over the decades, but likely the d'backs also didn't adapt to the agriculturalizion of their habitat as well as canebrakes.  Below was the smallest horridus being found.

In contrast to a sea of canebrake action, one lonely eastern diamondback Crotalus adamanteus (below) made an appearance.  The YOY (young of year) juvenile was on a paved road - practically the only snake we saw on any roads in Georgia.  Copperheads were also strangely absent across most of southern GA - a known fact, not just our experience that week.  One wonders why???  Does it have anything to do with the apparent fact that canebrake rattlers clearly dominated the countryside there?

There were two other large rodent-eating species abundant under tin that week - king snakes Lampropeltis getula and rat snakes Elaphe obsoleta.  We found a total of 4 eastern kings.  One adult male (next 3 pics) was under tin practically at the side of the road.  So much for them being shy of road noise and vibrations. 


This young adult female (below) was later seen in Cook County, GA.  It quickly tired of my attention and balled up, evacuating the contents of its cloaca in a disgust offensive.  It also oozed some cloacal blood to enhance the effect (lower pic), a trait I've seen many times before when sexing getula kings via probing.  Don't freak if this happens --- it's normal.

Some pieces of tin we flipped had extensive tunneling under them (below left), probably the work of various rodents we noticed, but possibly also the result of enlarging by snakes.  Daniel netted a turtle after it plopped into a pond.  We were hoping he'd pull up a spotted turtle, but alas, it was only a small yellowbellied slider Trachemys s. scripta (below center).  A young skink Eumeces idontknowensis in attack mode. (< There are 3 similar species here, and the juveniles are tough to distinguish.)


Rat snakes also craved the tin, allowing us to see their range of variation from southern South Carolina 'greenish' rats to 'Georgia muddies' to a fine 'silver grey' in the Florida panhandle.  Here are some of them starting at the eastern end of our trip.

Jasper County, South Carolina (next two 'greenish' specimens).


Colquitt County, Georgia (next 2 pics). 

A road work crew noticed us taking the photo above and was curious.  They approached to check us out, ask the usual questions {"Is that alive?", "Are you guys nuts?", etc.}, and even touched the snake by the time the impromptu snake lesson was over.  A 3rd crew member was content to watch from the safety of the truck.


Appling County, Georgia (next two pics).  The upper shot is in-situ as the big rat snake was basking on a tin, board and tire pile in the afternoon sun.  I didn't even see it at first as I started busting my way through the brush toward a tin heap, but called everyone over to enjoy the sight before proceeding. The 2nd shot below is the same snake posed in a nearby tree, 'looking proper'.


Gadsden County, Florida.  Finally, the rats are starting to look grey.


Gulf County, Florida.  - Notice how the obsoleta rats got gradually lighter as we moved southwest across their Dixie range.

This silvery-grey phase 'white oak' snake was the finest-looking specimen of the trip.  It was found opaque along with an adult corn and an adult brownchin racer under discarded highway guard rails (below) - technically a form of 'tin'.  Daniel displays the two heavy females that he held onto after they shed.


One eastern hognose snake was found under tin.  It was of the dark grey-black morph and totally blue, but still performed 'the act', defecating to enhance the effect.


Gosh, you'd think we didn't see anything unless it was 3 feet long or larger.  That would be incorrect, but admittedly the 'big game' snakes held our adrenalin levels up better than the smaller herps.  Below, clockwise from upper left :  Crowned snake Tantilla coronata; spadefoot toad Scaphiopus holbrooki; slimy salamanders Plethodon glutinosus complex, including the solid black 'variolatus' form from southern SC, and the 'ocmulgee' form from adjacent GA; and a male broadhead skink Eumeces laticeps.



Finally, we crossed back into the Florida Panhandle - 'Florgia'.  We poked around flipping our way westward, but the pickings were slimmer.  The quality of the trash to flip was different here - the trash in northern Florida was much more , uh, trashier.  Useless household junk, kitchen bags of garbage, moldy mattresses, landscape trimmings, etc.  Real crap!  It was all-around much less flippable stuff, and definitely unappealing to herps compared to tin.  Maybe it means Floridians take recycling more seriously, but more likely it means we are sloppier about the environment and dump our junk on back roads in the forest instead of hauling it to the landfill. 

Small game became the only game, forcing us to give the little guys greater attention.  Four rough earth snakes Virginia striatula (adult in hand) tumbled out of stuff that was clinging tightly to damp sand - not generally where we expected snakes to be.  A 'colony' of eastern glass lizards Ophisaurus ventralis was uncovered in downtown Apalachicola; I photographed the prettiest blue-tinted one, of course. 


Next, a couple brownchin racers Coluber constrictor helvigularis, side-by-side for comparison; a southern fence swift Sceloporus u. undulatus from the ANF (= Apalachicola National Forest) melding into pine bark; and a dulled-out green anole Anolis carolinensis on a fence post. 


We expected to find a scarlet king snake Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides under pine bark (lower left), but the one we got was under tin.  It was too blue for a decent pic at the time.  This stupid snake wasn't tuned in to all the web forum posts about herping in the ANF, and was obviously confused about where it belonged.  Our re-enactment (below center) depicts the way they're supposed to be found!


The best Florgia finds were a pair of Gulf Coast box turtles Terrapene carolina major (next 3 pics) in Gulf County, FL; the distant shot is in-situ as the female was soaking in a shallow roadside ditch. 

Below:  Same female, and a male from a few miles away.


On the last afternoon en route home, we cruised the road out into the salt marshes east of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  At least 7 Gulf salt marsh snakes Nerodia c. clarkii (inset below) suddenly poured onto the road right at dusk, as did the juvenile Florida cottonmouth Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti (below) just before sunset.

Our intense week of hardcore fieldherping finally ended.  Parting shot:  Me ("Bill Love"), Anthony "Ant Man" Flanagan, and Daniel "Mudsnake6" Parker during a photo session.