How'd we learn about this weekend's story about a writhing snake pit transferred to a Lake Forest wine chiller? When you're as interested in all kinds of wildlife as I am -- from critters to plants to fungi -- you occasionally just ask various biologists and botanists what's new.
I've written stories about Rob Carmichael before -- he's a curator at the Wildlife Discovery Nature Center in Lake Forest and enamored with reptiles, amphibians, hawks and other wildlife. He's often scouting for critters and helping other biologists with their work. As such, his voice mail is often clogged with messages with no room for more.
So once in a while, I send him an email -- How's it going? What's new?
Well, he replied, there was a Reptile Rampage happening at the Discovery Center for kids and adults to learn more about snakes. OK. A calendar item.
Oh, and by the way, another very interesting project involves the decommissioning of the Zion Nuclear Plant. Snakes were hibernating underground underneath old railroad tracks that were going to be removed. And then, this gem:
[NOTE TO JOURNALISM STUDENTS: SENTENCES SUCH AS THE FOLLOWING WILL ALWAYS CONTAIN A STORY. -- EDs.]
"We received special permission to be on the site when the RR ties were being removed and currently have around 250 snakes being hibernated at the discovery center. We even purchased a special wine chiller to act as an artificial hibernating den," Carmichael wrote.
Snakes in a wine chiller? That's a story!
Some people love snakes, others fear them. Either way, the story should garner reader interest, and of course, a photo showing Carmichael with a handful of squiggly snakes would certainly grab some attention.
I pitched the story, got the go-ahead and started my research. I had to track down Michael Corn in Florida, a College of Lake County biology professor who was on vacation until mid-February as well as the Grayslake North High School teacher who brought the matter to Carmichael's attention.
I knew Corn, who helped with the snake rescue, as another great reptile expert in Illinois. Keep those names and titles handy in the back of your head!
Stay in touch with your sources, who, in my realm, happen to be local, state and national biologists and botanists. They just love to tell their stories -- not many folks listen to their research. But I'm fascinated by them.
As I always do when writing nature stories, I learned something new that adds to the pleasure of my job.
For example, some snakes bear live young, while others lay eggs. The western fox snake, for example, lays eggs -- and the biologists rescuing the snakes from Zion found hundreds of old eggs in a fox snake den. Snakes inside an egg have what's called an "egg tooth" they use to crack open the shell and emerge into the world.
You may not be interested in all that extra information, but I think it makes the writing in the story better. Keeping those facts in the back of your head while writing makes for a better story.
While discussing the story with me, my adept editor said readers might want to know what other creatures hibernate in northern Illinois. A sidebar story was born: Other hibernating critters of northeastern Illinois.
The question goes begging -- am I afraid of snakes? Long time ago, I used to be -- but now that I understand more about them, I want to see them.
Several years ago, a biologist took me out to see the very rare eastern massasauga rattlesnake at Ryerson Woods in Deerfield. We found a female basking. A beautiful creature!
Just a few years ago, my husband discovered a western hognose snake at Illinois Beach State Park. This snake plays dead when alarmed, like an opossum. My husband picked up the snake carefully, then laid it down and the snake curled up and went to sleep. How cool is that! We showed the snake to a family hiking by.
Another time in southern Illinois, my husband found a poisonous cottonmouth -- which opens its mouth and hisses when alarmed. I did NOT get too close to that snake.
Uh, oh -- I've gone off the deep end again. Can't help it -- hope you enjoyed the snake tale.
-- Sheryl DeVore, Community Producer, TribLocal Reporter
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