The Snakiest of Springs.

****TRIGGER WARNING****
This post contains pictures of actual snakes. And of me holding one of those actual snakes. If you have a fear of snake photos, this post isn’t for you. Here’s a beautiful Luna Moth for you to look at and then just go ahead and click off of this page.

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It’s really bizarre that it’s still considered Spring – or bizarre in Alabama, at least. But it is. Despite the 90 degree temperatures and the daily risk of dehydration, I keep reminding my whining children, “OH YOU JUST WAIT. You’ve forgotten what Summer even feels like.”

Because I’m an encouraging, uplifting, understanding mom like that.

But. This Spring has been a delight for a wildlife-energized person like myself (what kind of vert are you if you’re energized by reptiles and amphibians? Maybe I’m not an introvert after all – I’m a reptivert.) Because, at least in Birmingham, the snake population has exploded.

(This may not sound like good news to the rest of you. But I promise. It is. Snakes are our friends. Well, most of them. And even the ones that aren’t our friends aren’t nearly as scary as you think.)

(And I’m SO energized. So that’s a plus.)

We’ve seen plenty of lizards and toads and turtles as well,

IMG_1521 s Eastern Fence Lizard – look at his fabulous glowing blue belly.

180531 Peavine After Tropical Storm IMG_9555 s 2We found another one that had more of a teal belly.

IMG_1522 s Eye of Toad fascinates me.

180410 MOSS ROCK PRESERVEIMG_0611 s This was a tiny baby snapping turtle. Not so scary when they’re miniature. But still just as prehistoric.

But the Snakes, They have been especially remarkable. I have literally seen more snakes in the wild this year than I have seen in my entire life – and that is not an exaggeration. Whatever happened this winter, it was perfect conditions for Snake Babymakin’. I have even lost count of how many we’ve seen – which has never happened in the history of ever.

It all started with a friendly King Snake that we found when it was still cold enough for me to easily catch and hold him (yes. I do hold snakes in the wild. Usually after I confirm that they’re not venomous.)

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Isn’t he adorable?

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He let all the kids pet him and was happy to be our friend, and even stuck around for a minute after I put him down, then slithered off to do whatever it is he does when we’re not around to entertain him.

After we saw him, snakes began showing up everywhere. In years prior, I’ve mocked people who stay out of the woods for fear of snakes – I would tell them “We hike all the time, I actively look for snakes, and I can never find any! The chances of you seeing one are nearly zero.” We would see snakes on maybe one out of every 50-75 hikes. But this year, they’ve been increasing to the point where we’ve recently seen a snake on almost every hike, and earlier this week I saw a snake a day for three days in a row.

180605 Cahaba River NWR Trail Piper Interpretive Trail IMG_8624 s 2I climbed a small hill to get a better look at this guy, who I thought was another friendly King Snake. Turns out he was a Black Racer (also not venomous), which he proved by shooting down the hill at a spectacular speed headed straight for the rest of my hiking party, then made a sharp right turn and raced down the trail and back up the hill far away from me. I don’t know if my sister-in-law has forgiven me for the increase in heart rate that she may still be suffering from, but to experience how fantastically fast a rather large Black Racer can move was totally worth her unending ire.

Our tally of snakes has included King Snakes, Black Racers, Rat Snakes, Garter Snakes and two baby Timber Rattlesnakes – both of which Noah spotted.

I told you about his first rattlesnake find in this post – where Noah saw it while we were taking a group photo (and apparently the snake did not want to be a part of our selfie.)

180430 Hikers for 11.2 mile hikeIMG_6628Us, with Noah pointing at a snake…

180430 Oak Mountain 11.2 miles IMG_1433The snake, right in front of the group but oh-so-hard to spot – for everyone except Noah.

I misidentified it as a Copperhead, knowing that it was venomous but not recognizing the rattlesnakiness of it. But I had my favorite Twitter Biologist, @AlongsideWild, identify it for us.

Then, just a few days ago at my parent’s house, Noah, Ali, and their cousin Tessa went for a walk. My parents have a few acres of woods with trails on it, and my Dad had told them that they could go for a walk if they stayed on the trails (which they know very well) and came when he whistled for them.

A little while later, Dad whistled, we heard Noah yell “We’re comin’!!” and a few minutes later they showed up as promised.

Which is when they told us that during their hike, Noah had spotted a snake.

He had calmly stated, “Snake.”

The girls couldn’t see it, so he carefully pointed it out and said “It’s a baby Timber Rattlesnake.”

They all quietly walked away in the other direction and continued on with their hike until Dad whistled them back.

I asked Noah to take me back to the snake, partially because I love observing snakes and partially because I was very curious as to his identification accuracy. As we walked, he told me about the characteristics of the snake – “It had stripes like the other Timber Rattlesnake we saw, and a triangular head. But I don’t know many snakes, so it could have been a different kind.”

Considering that I rarely correctly identify snakes on the first try, I was skeptical.

When we arrived, the little baby was in the same place, and I snapped a few pictures of him while Noah tugged on the back of my shirt and asked if I could please get further away.

I felt like Noah’s identification might have been right.

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I sent the picture to @AlongsideWild, and he confirmed: Noah had been right. It was yet another baby Timber Rattlesnake.

I had never been prouder of Noah. For his eye to spot it, his calmness in making the girls aware of it and then redirecting their hike, and for his accuracy in identification. He might not have the same love and excitement for the snakes as I do (which, hey, is probably a good thing since he’s a seven-year-old boy), but he’s proven himself as the better amateur herpetologist.

And of course I was fascinated by the snake itself. Although the pattern was the same, his markings and colors were so much bolder and a different color palette than the last Timber Rattlesnake we saw – it was as if they were each wearing a different shade of camo. The brown one was much creepier because of how well he blended.

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But despite their color differences, Noah recognized their like characteristics and knew they were the same kind of snake.

So. If you’re not so sure about the woods and need a guide that can keep you safe, Noah is your guy.


Editor’s Note: If you think I’m being rather nonchalant about a dangerous animal, snakes don’t want to hurt us – they have better things to do. And remember – I live in Alabama. Everything here can kill you, from the plants to the animals to the weather. If you need a refresher course, read this post. But it’s still totally worth it to live in this beautiful state.

The Long Haul. With Kids.

This past weekend, while on a hike, Ali and I were talking about our Hiking Club Summer Bucket List. I told her I’d asked the other moms what they’d wanted to do this summer, and asked her what she wanted to do.

She lit up.

“I want to hike farther than I’ve ever hiked. I want to hike ten miles.”

“Okay! We can do that sometime this summer.”

“Actually I want to do it as soon as possible.”

It was supposed to be a pretty week and I’m a total enabler when it comes to a gorgeous hike, so I checked with our hiking club, warned that this was going to be the most we’d ever done and please only consider your oldest children for the hike, and began gathering supplies.

(A ten mile hike is no joke – especially when you’re going somewhat slow. You’re talking hours on the trail, and it requires water and snacks and provisions and probably a few band-aids.)

But somehow we got it all together AND convinced a few friends that this was a good idea in less than 48 hours, and on Monday morning, we met at Oak Mountain ready for the hike.

Five Moms. Four walking kids. Two riding babies.

We can do this.

I mean, maybe. Who knows.

No, we can do this.

We started out from the top of the ridge so that we didn’t have to climb any serious mountains, and gazed down from the cliffs at Peavine Falls, the bottom of which would be our glorious ending point.

180430 Hikers for 11.2 mile hikeIMG_6618 s

The first few miles were lovely and uneventful – the white trail at Oak Mountain is one of my favorites, as it is full of wildflowers and also runs by a stream. The peacefulness is on point.

When we got to our first trail crossing at 3ish miles, we decided it was time for snack. And also there was a good rock and fence post for a group photo – I could put my camera on the post, control it with my phone, and actually be in a photo. I didn’t know Noah dabbed right out the top of the photo, and I also wasn’t doing a good job hiding my phone. But it’s as good as a trail group photo gets.

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We took five photos.

This is the last photo.

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Notice Noah’s dab has morphed into a point-and-scream. But the rest of us haven’t changed a bit. Because his screams of “SNAKE!!!!” and pointing at our feet hasn’t made it to any of our brains yet.

(I don’t know how dabbing helped Noah see this unbelievably camouflage snake, but I will never complain about dabbing my pictures up ever again.)

A baby timber rattlesnake was somewhat perturbed at our rowdying up its rock, and had crawled out in a huff, then a minute later curled up in a ball and had his head up showing his decisively bad mood.

(I took pictures, of course, but as many people do not appreciate my snake photography, if you specifically want to see our one-rattle baby friend, you can click here.)

(You’re welcome, rest of y’all.)

We moved on quickly. We weren’t sure where his family lived, and since he was already so extremely irritable at such a young age, we could only imagine how special his mother’s moods must be.

Our next finds were much more amenable to our attention and presence. Or at least they didn’t have man-killing venom waiting to share, so we enjoyed their company a little bit more.

180430 Toad at Oak Mountain IMG_6638 s

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In total, we found six toads (and only two peed on us), and this lovely dragon-esque Fence Lizard – note how his belly glows blue.

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He definitely had some leftover prehistoric fire and scales.

We kept moving, through the reeds, enjoying all of the vastly differing views of Oak Mountain. We took a couple wrong turns – one that was clearly the map’s fault, and the rest were most likely my fault.

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…And I did a hiking club first and fed a baby a bottle while walking through the woods.

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(For the record I was never a chill enough baby mama to hike with a baby. I am constantly amazed that Sarah is totally that person.)

We finally got back around to the Peavine Falls area. The original plan was to hike an extra half mile to come into the gorge from the side we were familiar with, and that was slightly less steep. But everyone was tired, we were already at 10 miles, and a shortcut is a shortcut is a shortcut even if it leads out with a sign like this.

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We followed the path down, but it looked just a bit off from what I thought should be there. We reached what should have been Peavine Falls, but instead it was a chute – a gorgeous, flowery, chute of water that was dying to be intertubed down, if we were slightly more daring than we actually are, and also had an intertube.

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I made the executive decision that the kids should play in the water while I tried to figure out where the crap we were. I didn’t know if we were upstream, downstream, around a bend, or exactly what from Peavine Falls, and I needed a minute.

The kids were happy to oblige.

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With some frantic texts to Chris and the studying of my exercise map on MapMyRun, I finally reached the conclusion that we were just *barely* downstream of Peavine Falls, and clearly I’d singlehandedly discovered Peavine Chute, which wasn’t so bad.

We slowly made our way up the trail to the falls, at which point all of us mothers were thrown back at once by a smell.

An overpowering, thick, we’re-about-to-step-in-something smell.

“Is that a skunk??”

“That sure smells like a skunk!!”

I looked around frantically. And then I saw it.

A group of hammocks, some wandering-slowly people…a zombie-ish look to the place.

“That’s not skunk. That’s weed.”

I scouted ahead to check it out.

It was, it seemed, a portable artist enclave. There were painters. There were aerial ropes with people hanging upside down. There were emotionless men with Hawaiian shirts hanging open. And there was a LOT of smoke.

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We wandered carefully into the falls area, completely killing their buzz, while they did likewise for us.

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That Peavine Chute had been a gift of quiet serenity just for us. But we managed to get in the falls and stake our claim, having a little fun before we hiked up and out.

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Our last find of the day happened nearly at the parking lot, and Noah was the spotter once more.

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A massively huge Luna Moth, who was more than happy to let us observe her from all of her magnificent angles.

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Our final mileage was 11.2 miles. It took 6 hours. And these four kids never once whined. They even THANKED me for the hike.

180430 Oak Mountain 11.2 miles IMG_6792 s(But enjoyed sure sitting down for a Pokemon trade afterward.)

It was all a true hiking miracle.

Ali logged our hike as she went along in her Trail Notes book, and this was her summary page of the day. IMG_1481

Yup, I think she covered everything.

Orr Park Scavenger Hunt.

You may have noticed I’ve been on a bit of an outdoors binge for a half a decade or so.

(Which, by the way, is the most insulting word in the English language. “Outdoors.” AS IF doors had been there first, then nature cropped up all around them and so we had to call it OUTdoors. No. Doors don’t deserve a tenth of that honor.)

Anyway. I like running and hiking, and my kids do too, but they tire quicker than I do, or sometimes even think they’d rather do something else. But if I can turn it into a social occasion, they are ALL IN.

So to get what I wanted, I created The Last Minute Network O’ Adventure*, which is a pair of constantly-growing text groups where I send out our hiking plans to other homeschool moms, etc. who are available to hike on weekdays, and whoever can join us joins us.

(The other reason we have this group is simple: I need something to say when people find out I homeschool, then gasp in a horrified fashion, and say, “But HOW will the children be socialized?!” …I answer “Well, we hiked 18 times last month with 65 different friends, therefore spending approximately 30 hours engaged in quality time and conversation…so there’s that.”)

Every now and then I’ll create other outings for this group as well, as was the case with this Scavenger Hunt at Orr Park in Montevallo. There are over 40 intricate tree carvings within a large area of the park, and it was just begging to have a scavenger hunt made of it. The kids and I had only been there once, and it’d been over a year, but we remembered it fondly.

So I decided that two Scavenger Hunts were needed: a photo scavenger hunt for smaller kids, and a clue scavenger hunt for big kids. The photo one was easy. I had pictures from our last visit of almost all of the carvings, so I selected a group of very distinct characters, slapped them onto a page together, gave them checkboxes, and declared it done.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.21.32 PMClick here to download the Photo Scavenger Hunt sheet for yourself.

But when I went to make the advanced scavenger hunt, I learned quickly that I’m not very good at clues. I toiled through the sludge of my brain, trying to come up with witty ideas, with no luck. So I recruited Chris, whose skill with the quill is undeniable, and he had me a perfect, mostly rhyming clue sheet in less than an hour.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.22.03 PMClick here to download this sheet.

The kids and I arrived early to make sure none of the carvings had changed or been damaged, and thankfully all were still in tact – and with a number of new carvings as well. Of all the parks in Alabama, this one is one of the most fascinating.

Our attendees arrived, and we explained our instructions and set them off to hunt.

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We had a total of 32 kids join our hunt – a few of which were strangers who just happened to be at the park on the extremely lovely day, saw me handing out clue sheets, and asked if they could play along. My kids, having helped with the clue checking, decided to be floating scavenging aids to kids who got stuck.

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The part of the park with the carvings is a well-contained area, but it is very long. There was much running back and forth and back and forth again. Much exercise was achieved without any of them ever realizing it.

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When they finished, they had to find me and turn in their clue sheets.

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Then they received their prize, modeling clay to make their own sculpture – so that the day could totally count as an art appreciation field trip.

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The kids took the assignment much more seriously than I assumed they would, all modeling one of the carvings that they had seen in the park.

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The Scavenger Hunt was a success, and I hope to do it again for anyone who missed the inaugural session. But you don’t need me to make it happen – just download and print out the photo and clue sheets and give it a try.**

* If you’re not in my Network O’ Last Minute Adventure and want more information, comment on this post and I’ll email you.

** Scavenger Hunts are not just for kids – they’re totally for adults. Chris and I spent many dates doing the Itty Bitty Magic City Scavenger Hunts that used to be printed in the newspaper. Scavenging is a proven bonding strategy.

Note – If you want another Scavenger Hunt, we made this micro photo scavenger hunt years ago for Avondale Park. Not all the items will still be findable, but most should be.