Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge


by Michael S. Couch

Sand Dunes
Sand Dunes

For the past three years I have had a weekend conference at the end of April in Gulf Shores, AL on the beach. Before my first trip, I researched the area to find out what kinds of photography attractions were close by. The first place that I found was the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, which is about 15 miles outside of Gulf Shores. This year, as usual, I left on Thursday afternoon so I could spend Friday taking photos at the Refuge before my Friday night meetings started .I have a special interest in Bon Secour because it contains two snakes that I had never caught or photographed before: the Coral Snake and the Pigmy Rattlesnake. Rain was predicted off an on for the entire weekend but I never let that slow me down. After driving several hours through the rain I finally reached Gulf Shores and checked into my condo. As I settled in I pulled out all of my camera gear and film and began repacking my bag for the trip the next morning. From my previous experiences at Bon Secour, I planned on shooting mainly Kodak Elite Chrome200 so I packed about twenty rolls of film, although I only planned on shooting five to six rolls. This trip I was also trying out a new method of recording photographic data using a new digital voice activated recorder with a remote microphone. I woke up to rain at 4:30 Friday morning but I packed up my Jeep and headed off to the refuge. I arrived at the Refuge just before daybreak and it was still raining pretty heavily


Pigmy Rattlesnake (S. miliarius)
Pigmy Rattlesnake (S. miliarius)

I decided to wait it out for about an hour to see if the rain would let up. Almost two hours later, it began raining harder and it looked like it was set in for the day. I drove on down to Fort Morgan to kill a little time and see what the rain was going to do. The ferry was running but because of the rain they would not let people ride on the ferry unless they stayed in their car. I decided not to take the ferry and headed back into Gulf Shores. I spent the afternoon in the condo cleaning my equipment and read some articles. My conference began on Friday night so I decided that I would wait on the rain and go back to Bon Secour Saturday afternoon. Saturday morning the rain had let up and the skies began to clear. I finished my meetings right before lunch and I went up and changed into my hiking clothes and left for Bon Secour. The skies were partly cloudy with high humidity and a temperature in the low 90’s. The two previous trips that I had taken into the Refuge I had worn shorts with low cut hiking shoes and at the end of the day my shoes were filled with sand which I could never get all of it out of my shoes. This trip I decided to wear my Teva Alp Pro sandals even though I would be bush walking looking for snakes. I was carrying all of my gear in my photo vest and my Lowepro Nature Trekker photo backpack. I also carried my Bogen 3021 Pro Tripod and a small monopod that I keep lashed to the backpack.


Pigmy Rattlesnake (S. miliarius)
Pigmy Rattlesnake (S. miliarius)

The main trials throughout the Refuge are white sand and most of them are very open allowing you to see well ahead of where you are walking. The trial in the refuge leads you through several different habitats. The first area is a service road, which leads through a lowland Pine Forest type habitat. Continuing down the trail the pine forest turns into wetlands with standing water on both sides of the trail. This eventually turns into a lagoon area and extends down to the coast. As I headed down through the Pine Forest I noticed several small trees shaking and heard a lot of noise on the ground. I took off the trail headed to where the noise was coming from and suddenly I found the culprit who was causing the commotion. It was a huge tortoise slowly making his way through the underbrush. The area was so grown up that there was no way that I could compose a photograph so I headed back towards the trial. My walk for the next hour or so was uneventful. I photographed several wading birds along the lagoon and got several landscape photos in the sand dunes. After coming to the end of the main trail I cut off to the right to make a large loop around the refuge. The trail that I was now on was a very narrow sand trail through scrub brush, which offered hardly any visibility of where you were stepping. Being that I had not seen any snakes so far, I was not paying enough attention to where I was stepping but all of that changed suddenly


Pigmy Rattlesnake ( S. miliarius)
Pigmy Rattlesnake ( S. miliarius)

I was walking and looking more for landscape photos when something caught my eye in the middle of the trail. My right foot stopped about twelve inches from a large leaf, which contained a mature Pigmy Rattlesnake waiting in ambush. I slowly set up my tripod and easily slid my right foot back until I was able to put the tripod in front of me. I then adjusted the legs on the tripod and leveled it up and then I mounted my camera. I began to take photos from different angles and once I had got all of the photos from that view I set aside my camera gear and gently and CAREFULLY I moved the snake where I could examine it. The snake was healthy and seemed to be in good condition and I wanted to get a photo of myself with the snake restrained for both photo reasons and for scientific data. However, I was aware of the delicate structure of Pit Vipers and particularly Rattlesnakes and the damage to the snake that can occur during restraint. I knew that it was going to be almost impossible to do alone and to bring no harm to the snake or myself. I repositioned the snake and shoot two more rolls of film and then I decided that the snake had accommodated me long enough so I decided to let him go. I put him back in the exact spot and position that I found him and then I moved on down the trail. By this time the clouds were beginning to build up and I could feel rain in the air. Not twenty meters down the trail, I noticed a shiny black strip alongside the wooden footbridge.


Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus)
Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus)

It was a beautiful adult Black Racer glistening in the sunlight. I setup my tripod and camera and shot another roll of film. I was happy and I had been blessed by two patient and willing snakes and I thought that I had enough fun for the day. Boy was I wrong. Not 30 meters down the trail was another Black Racer, and then another. As I made my way back towards my Jeep I encountered twelve Black Racers. With a total of thirteen snakes for the day I called it quits. It was perfect timing. As soon as I took off my sweat drenched backpack and put up my camera and tripod, the bottom fell out of the sky. It rained all the way back to the condo but I went home a happy camper.

I highly recommend a trip to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge if you are in the Gulf rShores area. There is a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Headquarters at the refuge where you can talk with the managers of the refuge and obtain any information that you would like. Also, they have a large variety of stickers, pencils, brochures, and many other items that are free to the public. It is also a good place to begin your journey. You can get updated information on the refuge, its animals, and the habitat.