Brown snakes, red wings, white tails

Rolling into Governor Nelson Park on the second weekend in June, my first thought was how, well, un-prairie-ish the prairie seemed. When I went there for the first time last year, it was mid-July, and the vegetation on either side of the trail rose over my head, with a multiplicity of flowers and long-stemmed grasses. At this time of year, though, the grasses and flowers were no more than knee-high, except from the yellow sweet clover soaring a foot or two higher; of the spring flowers, few were left except for a couple of stands of shooting-star (Dodecatheon meadia):
Governor Nelson State Park, 6/8/14

Even in the middle of winter, a forest is still recognizably itself; the imagination need not do much more than line the branches with leaves to call up how it appears in summertime. A prairie, on the other hand, packs flat. As energy starts to pour in after the spring equinox, it gradually expands and unfolds to its full intricacy, and then begins to die back to not much more than seeds and mulch under snow. That process was still in its early to middle stages.

All the same there was plenty going on. In an earlier post this season, I lamented only ever having seen garter snakes in the wild; I can now report that I have seen what I’m fairly sure is a De Kay’s brown snake (Storeria dekayi). There’s no photographic proof, though, and here is why: I saw a flash of pale colour in the undergrowth, and bent down to see what was definitely the skin of a small snake, light brown with grey, along with some flesh that I soon determined was the body of an earthworm in the process of being eaten by the snake, but for the first few seconds I feared that it the snake’s innards; aftermath, maybe, of an encounter with a mower or careless walker. I have a strange reluctance to photograph deceased animals. It feels disrespectful. In the time it took me to realize the actual situation and lift my camera, the snake had abandoned its meal and scarpered into deeper grass. The earthworm carried on with its business of making the whole ecosystem (and all of human civilization, come to that) even possible in the first place, aplomb scarcely dented by this brush with annihilation.

The De Kay who gave his name to the snake – James Ellsworth De Kay – was an early New York naturalist. In his youth he was expelled from Yale for threatening a college tutor with a club; later he completed a degree in medicine at Edinburgh, and travelled with his father-in-law as a ship’s physician before settling down as a gentleman naturalist; though he did take up his stethoscope (or whatever they had then) for a time during a cholera epidemic, despite hating medicine. I really don’t know what to make of this Leader of the Pack/Stephen Maturin/Médécins sans Frontières biography, or how to sum it up, but he did find this little brown snake on Long Island one fine day, and it still bears his name.

The various clovers were patronized by a considerable number of Northern crescent butterflies (Phyciodes sp.):
Governor Nelson State Park, 6/8/14
I have more than a few pictures of crescents, and will probably amass many more; I never get tired of their coarse-brushed wing patterns, like appealingly drunken calligraphy from altogether elsewhere. There were dragonflies and damselflies as well:
Governor Nelson State Park, 6/8/14

The dragonflies, mostly white-tailed skimmers as best I could tell, were all moving at great speed; when the breeze would rise, they would reel wildly off course and then right themselves. What to me was a cooling touch of wind was to them a gale to be ridden out with verve and gallantry.

Also aloft was a red-winged blackbird which seemed either deeply fascinated with me, or able to sense Clif bars at the bottom of my pannier, through waterproof cloth, notebook, and wrapper – it flew back and forth over my head for some time, calling intermittently. It followed me until the trail went into the trees. A few paces beyond, a shadow flitted across the trail – a swallowtail butterfly in the canopy, distant and untouchable as a satellite.


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