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Hellhole 2006 Fellowship, Adventure, and Fun in the Swamp Francis Marion National Forest Berkeley County, SC May 26 – 28, 2006.

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Presentation on theme: "Hellhole 2006 Fellowship, Adventure, and Fun in the Swamp Francis Marion National Forest Berkeley County, SC May 26 – 28, 2006."— Presentation transcript:

1 Hellhole 2006 Fellowship, Adventure, and Fun in the Swamp Francis Marion National Forest Berkeley County, SC May 26 – 28, 2006

2 Introduction This was my 4 th year attending the annual gathering in the Hellhole area of Francis Marion National Forest in Berkeley County, South Carolina. Each spring, Jeff Holmes and his merry band of fans gather for a weekend of herping, education, and music. Jeff is a philosopher turned song writer and naturalist ( ). Jeff performs in the two person group known as The Floating Men ( ). Over the years, he has attracted a loyal group of followers who call themselves The Floattilla. By day, Jeff is a Conservation Planner/Senior Field Biologist for Conservation Southeast, Inc. ( He is currently the Co-Chair of Southeastern Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (SEPARC) ( ). I believe this year was the largest gathering ever. There were over thirty participants. Experienced herpers like me, serve as guides for the others. So not to mislead, let me say that our brand of herping is more arm chair, or car seat, than macho herping in the swamp and forest.

3 I believe this year was the largest gathering ever. There were over thirty participants. Some, including me, spend the nights in comfort at the Holiday Inn Express in Moncks Corner. Others camp at the primitive camp site that serves as base camp for the weekend. This year the number of campers may have out numbered the moteliers. Most campers set up tents, but there was a large recreational motor home and a large camper trailer. Experienced herpers like myself, serve as guides for the others. So as not to mislead, let me say that our brand of herping is more arm chair, or car seat, than macho herping in the swamp and forest. Most of our searching is done from vehicles along the many unpaved, but all weather, roads in the forest. There are some road walks and very few off-road forays. This year some attendees brought bicycles. This year we had a diverse group. Six young people, ages 6 to 16, attended. We also had two newly wed couples.

4 Beginning May 26 Win, Hope, and I left for Hellhole in the early morning. I carried most of the gear in my van. Win and Hope stopped along the way in Columbia to pick up Hope’s sister, Joy, and her son, Ethan. Ever hopeful of finding a live Pine Snake, I headed south for a detoured through the sand hills of Aiken County. My hopes were not fulfilled. I turned to the east and headed for Moncks Corner. I stopped by the Holiday Inn Express in Moncks Corner about 10:30 am, well before time to be able to check in. I drove to the campground on Hellhole Road which would serve as our base for the weekend. Win and company had dropped off some gear and were out looking for animals. Chris was the only other person at the camp. She had served as the coordinator for the gathering this year. Chris had been walking about and was ready to return to the motel for a break and to wait for the others. I drove out and scouted some areas that I especially wanted to checkout this year.

5 I returned to camp, but no one else was there. I decided to wait for Win and the others to return to camp. While waiting, I began setting up a l0x14 screen enclosure that I bought at Wal-Mart for about $50. Not being a camper, I had to rely on the ambiguous instructions that came with the tent. It was bright and hot, so I picked out a shaded area where the screen and two tents could be located. An hour later I had the canopy frame assembled. Win returned and helped me add on the roof and sides. Once completed, the screen was very nice and provided an area where 4 to 6 persons could sit and talk comfortably, that is, without insect pests. Until the motor home and camper came, the screen was the envy of the camp. After setting up their tents, Win, Hope, Joy, and Ethan joined me in my van for a roundabout. On their earlier jaunt without me, they had seen a large Yellowbelly Slider crossing the road, a Swallow- tailed Kite, and the elusive Red cockaded Woodpecker.

6 Our first sitting was a young adult Snapping Turtle cross the road. Joy, our birding expert, spotted a Red- headed Woodpecker entering a nest hole high up on a dead pine tree. We also saw the first of many Prothonotary Warblers we would see during the weekend. Innumerable Great Crested Flycatchers darted to and fro from the roadway and woods.

7 Friday Night May 26 Upon returning to the camp, we found several more campers setting up. Shortly before 6 pm, Jeff arrived at the camp, leading those who had assembled at the motel. We were all anxious to get started herping, so after brief introductions and instructions, the group divided among the guides. We had five or six guides at this time. Win and Hope took a couple with them in their jeep. I took Joy and Ethan in the van with me. I pulled out trailing a couple of vehicles. I expected those in the lead would spot anything on the road so I did not drive my usual slow speed but tried to stay insight of the leading vehicles so I could turn off in a direction not taken. Too late to swerve, I spotted a small Rough Green Snake on the road directly in front of my tire. I stopped. We found the snake outwardly intact but obviously dieing from internal injuries. What a bummer! My first snake and I killed it. As it turned out, I was not the only guide to run over a harp during the weekend.

8 I decided not to continue on Hellhole Road and turned north to higher ground. Further along, a covey of fledgling Bobwhite Quail burst from the roadside. There may have been an adult in the group but all I could discriminate was the fuzzy feathers of fledglings. As the quail flew away, a hen Turkey flapped and clucked in a noise retreat. A good sign that she had pullets nearby. I joked that the quail and turkey were interbreeding. Ethan immediately said they must be Turkey Whites. We met a car along the way that exhibited all the signs of being on a herping cruise. Since I had not met everyone who might be showing up for the outing, I thought it may be from our gathering. As we pulled along side, we stopped to talk. It turned out to be a helper from Greenville, Derek, who was independently down for the weekend. I invited him to join our camp but he had reservations at another location. It would turn out that I would run into Derek a couple of more times. We would share our observations. Derek was a more active herper than most in our group. Later, Derek sent me a great picture of a Scarlet Kingsnake that he had found.

9 Moving back toward the wetlands, we found a Mud Turtle crossing the road. Just about dark we saw a Banded Water Snake crossing Hellhole Road. The groups gathered at camp about 9 pm and everyone told of what they had seen. Win had made the best find of all, a large Canebrake Rattlesnake. He had bagged the snake so that everyone could see it Saturday in the daylight. By the way, nighttime was very dark since the date of the outing had been selected to be during new moon. About 10 pm some of the more hardy in the gathering were preparing to go back out again. I had been on the go since 5 am and was tired. One of the newly wed couples were looking for a ride back to the motel, so we three left the others to continued searching and drove to Moncks Corner. Tomorrow would be the biggest day.

10 Saturday Morning May 27 Saturday morning after grabbing a continental breakfast at the motel I headed for Hellhole. I thought I was running late, but when I got to the camp, none of the other town folk had arrived and the campers were just starting or finishing breakfast. It seems that with the final late night cruise, the start time for today had been set for later. Win, Hope, Joy, and Ethan joined me in the van for an early cruise down Hellhole Road. We spotted two alligators. The larger appeared to be about 5 feet long. Then we got a good look at an adult Wood Stork.

11 This was the first time I had seen the Rattler. It was very impressive. We did not measure it, but it looked about 5 feet long. This was a great snake for Win’s first wild caught Canebrake. When we returned to camp, the whole gang was there and Jeff was showing the Canebrake Rattlesnake that Win had found.

12 Last night, Win had also found a baby Copperhead still showing its yellow tail. He brought this little snake out to show the group. After the viewing, everyone was eager to go searching for themselves. We divided into small groups and set out. I wanted to get some pictures of the Rattlesnake in its natural environment, so I took it and Copperhead with me and released them near where the Rattlesnake had been found.

13 I took my group along Hellhole Road where we soon spotted a Cottonmouth, then a small alligator, and a yearling Yellowbelly Slider. We also found a medium- sized Yellow Rat Snake.

14 Win’s groups reported their best sightings of he morning were a large Redbelly Watersnake and two fledgling Barred Owls. Win was even able to get a picture of one of the owls.

15 Around 10:30 am, we crossed paths with another group and swapped members. I regret that I was not able to find any herps, other than lizards, to show my group this time. We did visit a quiet, woodland cemetery. By noon, most of the participants were hot and hungry. We all reconvened at the camp to discuss lunch. The general imperative was to go to a restaurant for food and relaxation. Jeff was in favor of going to a local BBQ restaurant, but he was voted down in favor of Gilligan’s in Moncks Corner. Twenty five of us went to the restaurant for good seafood. Then those of us staying at the motel retired for a siesta and shower.

16 Saturday Afternoon May 27 Win, Hope, Joy and Ethan accompanied me to the motel after lunch. After everyone refreshed themselves and napped a little, we headed to camp. We like to take a route that approaches Hellhole off US 17 from the north and passes through a community named Bethera. This route provides a better chance to see herps while traveling. We came upon an Eastern Kingsnake.

17 This Kingsnake had spots of yellow within its initial chains. I asked Win to hold the snake so that I could take a picture of the spots. While Win tried to restrain the snake and allow a good pose of the head and neck, the snake clamped onto his arm. I thought this would make a great picture but the snake released before I could focus. I told the snake to bite Win again. The snake bit him again! As can be seen, the bites made very little visible impact. However, the scratches that do show further up Win’s arm were from a Redbelly Watersnake he had caught in the morning hunts. Watersnakes have bigger teeth.

18 At camp, we divided into groups and left to hunt to search. I took my group south toward the pine forests. Along the way we spotted a Black Racer and a DOR Yellow Ratsnake. We stopped to look at the Trumpet and Hooded Pitcher Plants that were blooming in the moist soils among the pines. We found numerous newly transformed Ornate Chorus Frogs that were hopping around in the grass.

19 We gathered at camp about 7:30 pm to share experiences. Jeff had found a Mud Snake which he brought to show the group. The gentle, beautiful Mud Snake was an immediate hit with the younger herpers. Some of us drove around some more and others began fixing their suppers. Later, I was driving on Hellhole Road heading in the direction of camp. Win was coming from the opposite direction. About half way between us a snake was crossing the road. We each spotted the snake at the same time and accelerated to be the first one to get to it. The snake saw danger from both side, performed a leaping u-turn, and darted into the cover. Upon reflection, my best guess is that it was a large Eastern Kingsnake.

20 It was dark when we returned to camp. A campfire had been ignited and preparations were being made for a fireside concert by Jeff. Win and I prepared hotdogs for supper and moved our chairs to the fireside. We finished our dogs and enjoyed the music. Listening to Jeff sing his imaginative and thoughtful songs is a special moment in time. After the concert, most of use set out for a late night cruise. Joy and Ethan went with me. We did not find any snakes, but Ethan caught a Barking Treefrog, a Green Treefrog, and a Southern Toad. I captured a picture of a Barred Owl. Sometime after midnight, we stopped searching and called it a good day.

21 Sunday Morning May 28 I slept well at the motel, too well. When I got out many others had already left for Hellhole. I ate a little breakfast and headed out. Along the way I spotted a DOR Corn Snake. I believe it was the most beautiful colored orange Corn that I have ever seen. Further on, I found a DOR Scarlet King Snake. Their deaths made me sad, but the promise of future finds excited me. At the camp, most of the campers had packed up. Some, like Win and his band, had gone herping. No one else at the camp was ready to go out, so I headed out alone. It was kind of nice to have the world to myself. I stopped to smell the Bluebonnet Iris look at Mud Turtle tracks.

22 I found a Cottonmouth that was searching the drying roadside ditch for trapped fish and tadpoles.

23 I was carrying with me an Eastern Ribbon Snake that Jeff had caught yesterday. I had told him that I needed to upgrade the quality of my Ribbon Snake images. Because I was alone and Ribbon Snakes can be fast movers when loosed, I decided to take some pictures while holding the snake in my left hand. The snake obliged by biting me. Biting is hardly appropriate since its teeth are so small it could not break my skin. Nevertheless, the snake held its bite for about 10 minutes while I snapped pictures from many angles. Interestingly, when I placed the snake on the ground, it froze in place and provided me plenty opportunity to photo it.

24 I returned to camp about 10 am and pickup a couple of riders. We quickly sighted a Black Racer. About 30 minutes later, Ronnie spotted a Yellow Rat Snake on the road apron. With a little coaching, Ronnie gently picked the snake without getting bitten. However, he was surprised by the musk the snake excreted on him. About 15 minutes later, we saw another Black Racer. Then another Yellow Rat Snake. Ronnie picked this one up also. He became a true herper.

25 We returned to camp. By this time everyone was preparing to leave. I helped Win, Hope, Joy, and Ethan pack up their tents and gear. We loaded the gear in my van. The others got in the jeep and headed back home. I never like for the outing to end since I get to go herping in the low country so seldom these days. I instead of leaving directly, I drove forest roads in a roundabout way home looking for areas to investigate next year. Thus ended this year’s Hellhole adventure.

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