A warm mid-April shower finds the pinxter-flower, or wild azaleas, Rhododendron periclymenoides, just reaching their peak in Brother Henry's wood, and they greet us from afar as we cross the sturdy wooden bridge over little rain-swollen Moccasin Creek.
Beneath the stately pines out front, a miniature spotted turtle, Clemmys guttata, makes its way amidst the scattered straw and spent catkins, so recently bereft of their abundant stores of pollen.
Spring is very much in the air these days, for gymnosperms and angiosperms alike,
but today's gentle rains have shifted our focus from the trees and the pollen-filled skies to the understory and the forest floor and the creatures that happen to be making their way therein...
with our gaze thus lowered,
we encounter another strata of flowering plants as well,
such as these rather rare and rain-drenched coast violets, Viola brittoniana,
scattered about like so many brilliant amethysts in the sandy path.
Our spotted turtle moves along steadily,
still quite young,
sporting just one spot per scute on its carapace,
with bold golden polka dots marching in pairs right up the back of its neck and head and eyebrows;
foraging here in the straw and the sand, practically in the shadow of the violets,
perchance to find a worm or slug or snail,
quite the satisfying meal for one of its clan.
Soon it will return to its pool, where it will spend the night in the mud of the shallows,
secure from harm beneath a dark cloak of still, clean water, in the shadow of the cattails and duckweed.
Spotted turtle is one of the last of its genus, a North Carolina native, less and less common in the face of habitat loss and removal from the wild as a personal pet or for the larger pet trade.
Automobiles have taken their toll, as have predators such as dogs and raccoons;
and in long-lived species such as this,
when juveniles like this one won't become sexually mature for another six or seven years,
the loss of even one mature adult can seriously impact a community's chances of long-term survival.
We're glad to have met you, little spotted turtle, and may you live long and prosper right here alongside us and the violets on the far western edge of the Carolina coastal plain.
The wild azaleas and the violets must, of course, share the April spotlight and the gentle life-giving rain here in the shadows of the forest understory with the magnificent flowering dogwood.
And at the forest edge, at the very foot of a noble long-leaf pine, we see another most beautiful native creature of the Carolinas, eastern hognose snake, heterodon platirhinos.
The hognose snake, with its characteristic upturned snout, appears in a variety of color phases, quite often clad in simple black or dark gray, with very little in the way of apparent pattern or markings.
This individual, however, appears to be a brown or even red color phase,
and it is clearly a creature of the pines,
sharing the reds, and oranges, and yellows and grays and browns and blacks
of the straw and the bark and the cone fragments and the hardened amber sap
of Carolina's majestic longleaf pines.
Although eastern hognose eats a variety of small animals, toads are a definite favorite,
and its colorful pattern certainly wouldn't hurt its chances of a successful ambush here in the shadow of the pines.
The eastern hognose is renowned for its wide array of defensive postures and tricks, first flattening its head and neck in cobra-like fashion to make itself appear larger, then hissing and puffing in a most threatening way.
If this aggressive display fails to deter a would-be predator,
the hognose resorts to the opposite extreme,
often regurgitating its most recent meal of toad before rolling over and pretending to be stinkingly, disgustingly and decidedly unappetizingly dead;
mouth open, tongue lolling, drooling and persistently rolling itself back onto its back no matter how often it might be righted by a well-meaning handler.
Our encounter today, however, consists merely of respectful observation,
with none of the histrionics associated with stress or threatening behavior. We've observed many eastern hognose snakes while growing up wild in the Sandhills of North Carolina, but few, if any, have matched the beauty and grace of this individual.
Days like today remind us to be grateful for the blessing
of sharing an ecosystem with such awesome creatures,
fellow travelers all.