Another milestone in my recovery: today I have once again and for the first time risen with the sun and set out to look for birds, greatest of all pastimes. Anthony picked me up at 7:30 and we cruised over to a nature preserve called Castellow Hammock in Homestead. I’d texted him the night before:
Do you want to look for a rare hummingbird at castellow hammock park tomorrow?
His response, seconds later:
Yes, shall we make it an early morn venture?
Of everyone I’ve met, Anthony ranks highest on the adventure readiness index. It is one of my favorite qualities about him. We were once hiking atop a mountain in Montana one summer during college. He asked what I planned to do after graduating, and I replied that I was going to work for awhile, save money, and try and backpack through South and Central America. From behind me on the trail: “Frankie, you have to let me do that with you. I’ll do anything. I’ll be your bodyguard.” “OK,” I said, and a year and a half later we did it.
But today was just us driving half an hour to look for a rufous hummingbird, since they are rare across the Mississippi. I checked the South Florida birdboards to see what exciting species had been spotted recently, and impulsively texted my friend to see if he wanted to look for the rufous. I was very excited to be heading back into Florida nature to do some birding, finally. My Mom warned me on the way out the door to watch for boa constrictors, and that made me feel especially good.
When we arrived we hiked through the hammock, which in Florida is a sort of forest. It was obvious the place didn’t get many visitors. The trail we went down was overgrown and in places almost nonexistant. It was covered in banana spider webs, which I tried to avoid but sometimes inevitably had to brush away with a stick. In places there were nice little limestone crevices, and I thought to myself what nice snake habitat it looked like.
So it wasn’t even a surprise when a moment later, about ten feet up the trail, I spotted the thick, smooth, velvelty gloss of black, red, and yellow. I looked closely: “red meets yellow, dangerous fellow” – it’s a mnemonic device my Mom had made me memorize as a kid. So I knew it was a coral snake, one of Florida’s four venomous snakes and one of the two I’d never seen in the state. I only had in Soberania National Park, a rainforest adjacent to the Panama Canal. A man, a friend, Bosques was his the name, a park ranger who loved the rainforest more than anything, had taken us to an isolated stream he said was great for swimming. As we arrived, a gorgeous little coral snake skimmed across the water and over to the other side of the stream. It was one of my favorite moments in the rainforest.
I showed Anthony our newest coral snake, and we stared. It was thicker than a finger and as long as my arm. It moved very slowly. Its pace said, “I’m leaving, but I’m a coral snake, so I’ll move as slow as I feel like.” We turned around and walked another trail.
We couldn’t find the rufous hummingbird, but I also saw an adult knight anole, my favorite lizard as a child. After a nice morning of hiking and wildlife watching, we drove over to one of those big Homestead plant nurseries so Anthony could buy some small trees for his garden.
It was getting later, so I called my Mom just to check in. No matter how old I get there are still things I get excited to tell her.
“Mom, we couldn’t find the hummingbird, but guess what we saw?”
“A boa,” Mom said.
“Nope. Even more dangerous.”
Pause on the other end.
“What was it, Frank?”
“A coral snake, a big one, at least two feet long and thicker than my thumb.”
“And you saw the red meets yellow?”
“You were sure what it was and stayed away?”
“Yes, Mom,” I said.