Marie McAden



Outdoor Adventures with a Park Ranger: Critter cuisine

Posted 1/20/2012 4:13:00 PM

Emeril has nothing on Mitchell Helms. Hunting Island State Park’s interpretive ranger can dish up delicacies to please the finickiest of his clientele. Never mind they’re critters.

He demonstrates his culinary skills feeding the residents of Hunting Island’s Nature Center during the popular “What’s on the Menu?,” one of a series of educational programs offered throughout the year at the Lowcountry park. The motley crew of diners includes an eastern corn snake, a mud turtle, a couple of sea anemones, yellow-bellied sliders, assorted fish and Buddy, an 18-year-old diamondback terrapin who was rescued from the beach as a hatchling after ghost crabs ate her claws.

“She’s the queen of the Nature Center,” Helms said. “Everybody loves Buddy.”

They didn’t discover Buddy was a female until she was 6 years old, hence the name.

I recently attended the program and watched Helms release the native coastal turtle from her enclosure to roam the center’s wooden floors. She happily ambled about introducing herself to visitors until Helms distracted her with a succulent morsel of shrimp.

“People love interacting with the animals, especially Buddy,” Helms said. “She’s very friendly.”

Buddy certainly stole the show with her winning personality and stunning diamond-patterned shell markings. But I was most intrigued by the corn snake and his choice of fare.

Using a pair of tongs, Helms tempted the hungry fella with a recently deceased white mouse. A few sniffs of the rodent and he was all over it. Snakes swallow their meals whole, which would seem a tricky feat when lunch is bigger than your head. But a snake’s jaws are only loosely joined to the skull by ligaments, allowing it to expand greatly when it’s time to chow down.

It took about 15 minutes before the snake had dispatched the mouse. On to dessert!

To find out more about the programs offered at Hunting Island State Park, click here or call (843) 838-2011.