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Snakes and owls of South Carolina: a prowl on the wild side

Gray rat snake on the hunt
Rat snake on the hunt.  Cameron Allen 

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The wonders and terrors of nature are as close as your backyard but remain invisible to the casual observer. The death of a mole in the talons of an owl, or the massacre of a family of sparrows by a sneaky black snake are daily events. While blissful ignorance seems safer, knowledge of nature's bloodier side reveals insights unsurpassed by mere sunshine and buttercups.

As part of the Santee Nature Festival's SSSnakes! program, Derral Linder arrived with several writhing pillowcases. The audience broke out in gooseflesh and a chorus of oohs and ahs as Linder revealed South Carolina's non-venomous snakes. He displayed them inches from the young boys in the front row, who did their best to contain their delicious uneasiness.


Eastern Screech Owl       Bill Waller/en.wikipedia 

Linder's respect for the beauty and usefulness of snakes was obvious in his accounts of the habits of the corn snake, the rat snake and the pine snake, all common in the local woods and swamps. He saved the venomous snakes for last, showing them off in plexiglass cases, describing the effects of their toxins. Afterwards, the audience got to hold a lovely corn snake, smell the musk of a rattler, and study the copperhead up close. 

Later that evening, participants shook off any latent fear of snakes and embarked on an owl prowl in the Santee State Park. Stacie Jensen, interpreter at Sesquicentennial State Park, inspired participants with her passionate knowledge of owls. With eyesight ten times better than humans, heads that rotate 270 degrees, feathers that allow for silent flight, and the gift of three-dimensional hearing, owls are more finely honed than stealth bombers. Plus they eat their food whole and regurgitate fur and bone in pellets.


Great Horned Owl     Brendan Lally/en.wikipedia

Night hikers learned all the calls of South Carolina's owls - the rough hoot of the great horned owl, the strident "who cooks for you all" of the barred owl, the blood-curdling scream of the barn owl, and the spooky whinny of the screech owl. On the Owl Prowl, the owls kept silent under threat of rain, but the group did come upon a herd of deer at close range, and learned the art of spider sniffing. 

The earth's diversity hangs in the balance and depends on the healthy presence of predators. At theSantee Birding and Nature Festival, participants learned about the muscular, ruthless facet of nature, which undergirds the sun-dappled song-filled moments humans tend to notice.

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