This morning I was rudely awakened by a raucous congregation of birds that suddenly gathered in the hibiscus bush that stands beside our bathroom. The privy is nestled under a palapa (palm thatched) roof at the base of the massive tree that stands next to our truly rustic, old-style beach house on Playa la Ropa in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. Even though the bathroom is in what can technically be called an “outhouse,” independent of the main building, it does have the modern conveniences of sink and tiles, a flush toilet, and hot water in the shower. With its palm-spine walls and raw cement floor, it just doesn’t look like a modern bathroom.
Although I was not yet ready to get up, those birds were in such a screaming tizzy that I pulled myself out from under the covers, put on a robe, and opened the back door leading to the tree and bathroom to see what they were going on about. And yes, to backtrack to the middle of that last sentence, we do indeed use covers even in this heat–our house is right near the beach, very well shaded and very open, meaning that even in the hot, humid summer we usually have to cover ourselves up to avoid feeling cool in the night air.
I stood looking at the hibiscus bush against the fence. There were three or four ultra-strident magpie jays up there with their head-tufts wagging in indignation as they squawked, and a great many more grackles, those vociferous, coal-black crow-like birds that are not very much loved anywhere, joining in the chorus at a slightly lower pitch and decibel level. They were heckling something below them, lower in the bush or perhaps on the ground. Searching the foliage with my eyes, I saw a movement that wasn’t that of the birds themselves, almost like the shimmer of a desert mirage. It took me a couple of seconds for my vision to resolve the movement into a recognizable image: I was looking at a large boa slowly slithering toward the house–and me.
Ahem. Well, well.
Another two seconds and I was back in the house, picking up little Arigato (our kitten) on the way, putting a flimsy and somewhat termite-ridden screen door between me and this fascinating being. Its head was by then approaching the path at the edge of the house and it seemed to be angling upward, toward the step right in front of that same screen door I just mentioned. I made another two-second assessment of the situation and decided that my partner John would probably dislike having missing this opportunity more than having been rudely awakened himself from a sound sleep (how could he possibly still be snoring through all the bird racket going on, anyway?), and I quickly pushed open the bedroom door, calling, “Ummm, John? Sorry, but… do you want to see a big boa?” I’m not quite sure how that must have sounded to someone coming through from the mists of dreamland, but at the moment I wasn’t really into measuring my words. I returned my attention to the reptile, cat still in hand.
John came out of the bedroom and exited the house. He looked around a bit bleary eyed, and I pointed out that the snake was right there, slithering along the side of the house, still moving at the same slow but inexorable pace, and that currently it was approaching him from under the grill, not more than a meter away. I was learning that, because of the gorgeous markings on their backs and the way they slide so fluidly and in silence, boas are somewhat hard to spot, even close up. Not a particularly comforting discovery, I might add. John finally brought the boa into focus and said, simply and succinctly, “Yeah, it is a big one. Glad we still have them around here.” He then turned around, entered the house, opened the bedroom door, and went back to bed.
I, however, was entranced and certainly wanted to see more. The birds were still in the hibiscus and on the telephone line, as noisy as they had been earlier, sometimes dive-bombing the snake as it moved. From inside the house, I checked the serpent’s position again. It was closer, insinuating itself up the step below the screen door. I made sure the door was securely latched, dropped the cat (who quickly put a more respectable distance between herself and the door) and pushed the little foot mat we keep in front of the door up against the space that exists between the bottom of the flimsy frame and the floor. Now, this was a big snake, but somehow I was worried it would act like a cockroach and flatten itself out enough to squeeze through a space a fraction of its girth. Well, it doesn’t hurt to be safe, now, does it? That’s what I say. You can just never tell. Psychologically that door, with its insignificant slats of wood as a frame holding an almost invisible web of nylon mosquito netting, allowed me to approach to within 20 or 30 centimeters of the serpent, whereas when it wasn’t between us, I favored a safer distance of at least a meter. At least.
Big Boa continued its silent slink along the base of the door as if searching for a way in. Arigato very gingerly and nervously brought herself a little closer, trying to get a better look, sniffing the air and hovering around the haven of my flip-flops. I bent down to give her a reassuring caress on the back and as soon as my hand touched her fur, she reacted with a tremendous leap straight up into the air in fright, making my heart race even faster than it already was. Cats must have a totally inbred and self-preserving wariness of big snakes. I hope.
It wasn’t until then that I thought, “Camera!”
I hurried to get the camera as the boa was still passing in front of the door. By the time I returned, it had turned and followed the stone path leading to the bathroom entrance and had half disappeared behind some planks leaning against the outer wall of the bathroom. I opened the screen door, ran out and managed to snap one quick, unfocused, and useless photo of a long piece of tail as it disappeared, and then my battery died.
Back into the house, change the battery, run back out again. The birds had fallen silent. Reaching the bathroom I saw that the boa, rather than simply sliding in through the main entrance itself, had followed the outside wall until it found another hole, made by the comings and goings of various cats, where it could enter the bathroom. Perhaps it was following their scent. The boa was lying perfectly still, about two-thirds of its body exposed along the inside of the bathroom wall and the rest of its tail still outside. It looked to be about two meters in total length. I turned on the light and stared at the snake. Fortunately it was facing the other direction so I didn’t feel as if it were staring back at me in defiance, although I did have the sneaking suspicion that it was looking at me, albeit from only one beady eye. I don’t think I would have won a stare-down match had it come to that.
I took several photos. The snake seemed quite content to remain where it was. My adrenaline levels were beginning to wane. I went back into the house, puttered around, and every few minutes checked on the status of the snake. No change. One magpie jay, who appeared to be the leader of the pack, stationed itself outside the bathroom entrance and resumed its heckling on and off, and I realized it was because the interior bathroom light allowed it to still see the snake even though it was immobile. I looked longingly into the depths of the bathroom. I was thankful that I didn’t need to make use of it immediately, but I did begin to wonder how I was going to brush my teeth and hair and take a shower.
Back to the kitchen to put on some hot water. Several minutes passed, then awwwk, awwwk! There went the birds again, in concert, but out behind the bathroom this time. It occurred to me that the birds were announcing the creature’s passing and every move it made, and they seemed intent on making its life as nerve-wracking and uncomfortable as possible. They could also very well be expressing their anger and outrage at perhaps having had one of their nests raided of eggs. The boa, after all, was fairly thick around the middle, and moving at a very slow and measured pace.
In any case, hearing the birds renew their boa-badgering, I went out and saw (so gratefully) that the boa was no longer in the bathroom. The birds, though, knew exactly where it was and I followed the sound of their alarm out behind the building in time to see the boa reach shelter. It glided unhaltingly up and under an old overturned dog-house that protects a stack of extra roof tiles behind our bathroom as if it knew exactly where to hide and escape the tormenting cries. The birds accompanied its movement vocally until the last inch of tail tucked itself into the lair. One last squawk from the overseer magpie jay and the whole mess of birds fell totally silent, for good.
I was thereafter able to brush my teeth, take my shower, and perform my other morning ablutions in peace, with only the occasional quick head-swivel whenever I noticed any unusual movement out of the corner of my eye. Bah! Nothing but ants.
At no point during the next hour or so that we were still at home did we hear another peep from those birds, nor did we see another sign of that beautiful boa. I’m sure it is digesting in dark comfort.
Carry on reading the followup from July 6: Culebra Call
- Herpetology, Third Edition: An Introductory Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles
- Stalking the Plumed Serpent and Other Adventures in Herpetology
- Artes de Mexico # 56. Serpiente popular / Snakes. Folk Representations (Spanish Edition)
- An Annotated Checklist and Key ot the Snakes of Mexico, Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 187