Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Florida, Here I Come

Spring break is rapidly approaching, and that means I'm getting ready for my trio to Florida. Having family that lives in Florida is a nice thing to have, I don't have to pay for a hotel during my spring break and have access to some great herping opportunities. I'd like to take a look back over the past few years at some of the cool stuff I've found while visiting Florida in order to get myself in tune for my upcoming trip. One of the best finds I've made in Florida was this brute found last year in the southern part of the state.

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake - Crotalus adamenteus

This was once a common species across its range, especially in Florida. But after decades of habitat loss, road mortality, and intentional killing this species has declined drastically and is now rare compared to how common it used to be. They can still be found where good, intact exists. Diamondbacks prefer sandy habitats including pine/wiregrass ecosystems, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, and even scrub habitats. 

Pine ecosystems in the southeast such as the one above are fire dependent. Well managed pinelands are burned every few years to promote the growth of native grasses, trees, and plants. In fact, many of the pine species of the southeast only disperse their seeds when a fire moved through. In order to take cover from fire, some species depend on one species of reptile that builds it's own retreat. The burrows of this species are known to serve as retreats for over one hundred animal species including the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Eastern Indigo Snake, and Gopher Frog.

Gopher Tortoise - Gopherus polyphemus

Routinely, I see one or two Gopher Tortoises every time I visit Florida. A large preserve near my grandparents' house has a pretty sizeable population. Like other Northern American tortoise species, Gopher Tortoises make their own burrows. Their powerful front legs are great for digging in the loose sandy soils of Florida. Burrows can be up to 40 feet and length, and descend ten feet underground at an angle. This gives the Gopher Tortoise an easy retreat from an intruder, predator, or just high temperatures. One of the problems with Florida is the amount of development  that goes on every year, and more and more roads are added to the area. One of the biggest threats Florida herps face is road mortality. Every year I see tons of DOR herps on Florida roadways, particularly snakes & turtles. Sometimes if you're lucky, you can find stuff while it's still alive...

Canebrake Rattlesnake - Crotalus horridus

This "Canebrake" Rattlesnake was found crossing a forest road in the late afternoon in northern Florida. As you can see in the background of the photograph, traffic is an ever present danger for reptiles & amphibians in Florida. During this day trip in June to northern Florida, we found several DOR species including pigmy rattlesnakes, black racers, cottonmouths, florida box turtles, corn snakes, and water snakes. Besides finding herps on roads and in pinelands, one of my favorite place to trump around are cypress swamps.

These often flooded habitats are dominated by Cypress & Tupelo, and are home to a wide variety of herpetofauna. One of my favorite ways to explore these places is by night with a headlamp. It sounds crazy, but these areas take on a completely different identity at night and come alive with the sounds of the southern swamps. There's one species of snake that is a common inhabitant of these areas, and is one of my favorites.

Florida Cottonmouth - Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti

To many herpers, the cottonmouth is considered to be a trash snake mostly because it can be extremely common. For me however, I always relish the opportunity to find and photograph one on the field as I don't often venture into their range. Many southerners and ignorant people in general claim this is an extremely volatile species that will bite with no warning and even chase humans. I've literally seen hundreds of these snakes and I've never really found one to be aggressive. There's been a few instances where I've stepped within a foot of a cottonmouth, and each time the snakes never even budged. To me, the reputation is ill deserved and most people  just exaggerate stories of this snake.

As the sun sets on another day here in Michigan, it means I'm another day closer to Florida. I can only hope that the coming weeks will pass quickly so I can once again lace up my hiking boots, get my snake hook, and grab my camera to kick off another field season. I can only hope that some new surprises and some familiar finds will be in store. Until then, happy herping!

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Eastern Fox Snake

Well, the sun is out and the snow is melting. But it's still a good month or so until things get rolling here in the Wolverine state. My thoughts are ahead to the emergence of Michigan's herpetofauna in the coming months, and especially to the month of May. This month seems to be a bit of a booming month when it comes to herps, and one species that I like to look for at this time of year is the Eastern Fox Snake. These large, powerful constrictors are restricted to the coastal marshes and adjacent habitats of southeast Michigan, while the western subspecies is found in the western half of the upper peninsula. This species has suffered greatly across its range due to road mortality, habitat loss, illegal collection, and intentional killing. In Michigan it's numbers have dropped so greatly that is listed as a Threatened species here.

Eastern Fox Snake - Pantherophis gloydi

Coastal Marsh is an herbaceous wetland community occurring statewide along the shoreline of the Great Lakes and their major connecting rivers. Vegetational patterns are strongly influenced by water level fluctuations and type of coastal feature, but generally include the following: a deep marsh with submerged plants; an emergent marsh of mostly narrow-leaved species; and a sedge-dominated wet meadow that is inundated by storms. These areas are often bordered by lakeshore, or by riparian areas (rip-rap) that provides shelter for these large constrictors. A recent study done by Kile Kucher of Central Michigan University found that Eastern Fox Snakes chose rip-rap almost 80% of the time in his telemetry study on spatial ecology of the species.


Here you can see an adult Eastern Fox Snake coiled among rip-rap while taking cover amongst some ivy on a sunny morning in June. Although Fox Snakes are large in size (3-5 feet), they can extremely difficult to find at a given time. Studies have shown that this species moves frequently and can cover great distances in a single day. Males tend to move more than females, but both sexes are extremely active snakes. They spend the majority of their time on the hunt for rodents, birds, and other snakes. At certain times of the year, Eastern Fox Snakes can be found near nesting rookeries for various shorebird species as they like to target fledglings of herons, gulls, and egrets. Although they are found at ground level, they are excellent climbers as they search for birds and other food items, such as this large individual I found scaling a tree.
They are an impressive snake to be sure, but are in constant need of constant conservation and management. Fox Snakes are often found in extremely developed areas of southeast Michigan and are often run over by motorists or killed intentionally by ignorant people who thing they are rattlesnakes. Although they do hold their ground, hiss, and vibrate their tail against leaf litter if they are cornerned, Fox Snakes are not an aggressive species would rather be left alone. If you happen to come across one in the field, leave it be and only take photographs from a distance.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Kayaking for Turtles

Once again I'm stuck in my apartment in the frozen white north. It's early February and the over night low is 2 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds 25-30mph and a wind chill of -15 degrees Fahrenheit. The only way is make it through these harsh winters in Michigan is to think of what is to come in only a few short months. During the fall of 2010, I was able to spend a significant amount of time on a series of river systems in northern Michigan in hopes of documenting and photographing Wood Turtles in their natural habitat. One of the best ways to survey these areas is by canoe or kayak, it can be a great relaxing afternoon.

One of the best times of the year to kayak some of these rivers is in the fall, as many Wood Turtles that have wandered out into the woodlands over the course of the year begin to return to the rivers. The northern landscape also becomes a beautifully painted canvas as the the leaves begin to change colors. It can lead to some spectacular scenery along your route.

In mid September, I spent a day kayaking with Curtis Hart. Wet set into the river around 11:30 AM and were on our way. No more than one hundred yards into our trip, I spotted a Wood Turtle basking on a log jam. It quickly dropped into the water before I could manage any decent shots. Luckily, we spotted this duo basking together on a fallen tree a half hour or so later.

Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) & Northern Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica)

This pair let us get nice and close for some photos, so we spent a minute or two firing away with out telephotos and then bagged our cameras up and headed further downstream. One of the great things about kayaking for turtles is that a kayak sits very low in the water, and so it gives a nice low perspective at water level which helps make spotting turtles a lot easier.

One of the surprises on this afternoon was when we spotted two Blanding's Turtles along the river. Downstate, I'm accustomed to Blanding's Turtles being a denizen of marshy ponds, oxbows, woodland ponds, and other palustrine habitats. I've seen them pretty consistently along this river system, and it's just different seeing them in a riverine environment as opposed to their marshy retreats farther south in the lower peninsula.

Blanding's Turtle - Emydoidea blandingii

Along our way, we spotted many of the more common turtle species of northern rivers. In the open river, Nothern Map Turtles always seem to be the most numerous species and today was no different. We spotted upwards of fifty, sometimes they were even basking in groups of five or six on a single log. In some of the backwater areas, Painted Turtles were more common than in the open river. We took a bit of time to fire a few photos of them as well.

 Northern Map Turtles - Graptemys geographica

Midland Painted Turtles - Chrysemys picta marginata

As we continued our way downstream, we continued to spot several different turtle species and even saw a large Snapping Turtle basking.  As we rounded a corner in the river, Curtis called out that he had spotted a Wood Turtle, and sure enough up ahead was a large male basking on a boulder near the stream bank.

Wood Turtle - Glyptemys insculpta

We paddled onward and it wasn't more than five minutes later that Curtis spotted another Wood Turtle. This one was another large male that was basking on a fallen tree underneath some overhanging vegetation. We slowly approached and were able to set up along the bank no more than ten yards from him, he didn't budge and allowed us to get some fantastic in-situ photos of him basking on the tree.

Wood Turtle - Glyptemys insculpta

And then again, not more then twenty yards downstream, we spotted another Wood Turtle. This one was a healthy adult female that was just crawling out of the water onto log jam. I snapped some crappy photos from a distance before trying to pull up beside her.

As you can see from the above photo, when I pulled up besides the long jam and got my camera out, she made an exit. I only managed to get a shot of her as she was slipping back into the river. We ended up finding a total of seven Wood Turtles on the afternoon and enjoyed the nice, quiet trip down the river. I'm hoping spring comes fast so I can get out on the river again. Until then, keep warm!