This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome guest blogger Scott Lillie, the author of the book “Tents, Tortoises and Tailgates: My Life as a Wildlife Biologist“. Check out his bio at the end of the post!
One summer I found myself doing nesting bird surveys for the federally threatened south western willow flycatcher. While most of June I spent bushwhacking through thick forests of tamarisk in extreme temperatures one day I got a different opportunity, kayak surveys. There were some parts of the lake that still flowed well into the forested areas, and while the tamarisk could not survive being inundated with water, the native willows and cottonwoods could. The idea of gently floating on the lake listening for birds calls sounded amazing, but there turned out to be a catch.
My expectations did not match the reality. My site was filled with dead trees half underwater. Everywhere I looked the dead trees expanded for what seemed like miles. Paddling was no longer an option, and so I simply pulled my kayak along using the dead trees.
After paddling a few feet into the dead forest I felt something hit my face: sticky threads of a spider web. I turned the kayak slightly to get a view looking into the sunrise, and my stomach dropped. When the first rays of the sun hit the dead trees, thousands of large spider webs began to shine in the sun. Every tree was connected by them. It reminded me of something out of a horror movie. There was no going around them. I knew I could not call off my surveys because of spiders. If I did, I might as well just pack up my tent, go home, and throw away my diploma because my career as a biologist would be over. Time to grow up. I swallowed my fear and started in.
At first, I was using my paddle to cut through the webs, but after almost tipping over twice I just started using my hands—no need to endanger the $1000 pair of binoculars they gave me to avoid spider webs. After making pretty good progress in the forest I felt something crawling on my head. I lost it. I flailed madly. I made contact with one of my frantic blows. It was a spider, a large brown spider. It hit the water of the lake and—to my horror—the spider stayed afloat. It could run on the water due to the surface tension, and came right back to my kayak. At this point, I stopped looking for birds and looked at my kayak. This was another bad choice. I saw three more large spiders on the front of my kayak, then another climbing on the side. I feel like I handled myself heroically until I felt the ones on my legs. I immediately leaned over to reach into the kayak and hit the spider on my leg. The shift in weight made my kayak lurch sharply to the right, and just like in training, I over corrected, and into the water I went.
Now I was floating in water holding my $1000 pair of binoculars over my head in one hand and holding onto the kayak with the other. I looked around. No shore in site. I knew the closest shore was through the spider forest. I knew it, but it didn’t mean I had to like it.
It was almost a quarter of a mile to shore. A quarter mile of swimming in hiking boots and dragging a kayak! After finally making it to shore I emptied the water out of the kayak and laid some of my wet clothes to dry on top of my kayak to dry. I decided to take a break and sit in the shade for a minute.
I ended up nodding off to sleep. It was just a brief nap. Upon walking back to the kayak to retrieve my clothes, I was surprised to find one of the largest western diamondback rattlesnakes I have ever seen stretched out next to my kayak. Most days, I would have loved to see it, but since I had surveys to do and it was essentially guarding my clothes, it was rather inconvenient.
I decided to stomp my feet and try to scare it away. If you ever want to feel ridiculous, try yelling and stomping your feet at a five-foot-long rattlesnake while wearing nothing but your boxers. Needless to say, it did not go away. Instead, it retreated to safety underneath my kayak, which I had flipped upside down to dry out. After a minute, I flipped the kayak and the snake immediately started rattling and backing up to the kayak again.
I was able to retrieve my boots, which had been placed at the base of the kayak. I found a stick to move the snake. Having never even moved a rattlesnake by myself before, moving it with just a tree branch proved difficult. Unlike in the movies, the snake did not chase me. In fact, it proved to be rather stubborn about moving at all. After accidently poking at it multiple times I eventually got the branch under the snake, lifted, and before I moved more than a foot the snake flopped off the branch. It immediately put its back to the kayak again. I tried again, got the branch under the snake, and lifted, this time moving the snake two feet before it fell off. I wasted no time and put the branch down in front of it again. After a very tense five minutes, I got the snake away from the kayak.
Eventually, I did end up completing my surveys and even found a nest. Looking back I always appreciate that day. Even a bad day in the field beats the best day in the office.
Scott Lillie has nearly ten years of wildlife experience in the south west United States, Missouri, and Georgia. He is also the author of Tents, Tortoises and Tailgates: My Life as a Wildlife Biologist (https://www.createspace.com/5246146 ). He currently works as an environmental consultant in southern California.