Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Month of Massasaugas

There's nothing I enjoy more than getting into the field in the month of April for rattlesnakes. I've managed to hit the jackpot for these snakes this month as I won't be around this summer due to a job with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over in New Jersey. Earlier this week, I managed to sneak downstate for a day to meet up with Jason Folt in southeast Michigan. Our first stop was a recently burned fen area near a lake edge. It has rained all morning but the sun was beginning to peak out and temperatures had climbed into the high 60s, we liked our chances.

With this area freshly burned, crayfish burrows and anything else on the surface was extremely visible. It didn't take us long to find our target, and Jason spotted this unlikely pair.

What is so odd about this scene is that Blue Racers have been documented to be a predator of Massasaugas. However, this Blue Racer was only about two feet long and would have had a tough time taking down an adult rattlesnake. What's even more interesting is that this pair probably shared the same burrow for the winter, as the racer quickly darted down a crayfish burrow a foot or two away. After photographing the rattlesnake, she slipped down the same exact burrow.
Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

After letting this big girl on her way, we pushed farther back into then fen. Less than a few minutes later, I spotted this rather thin adult on the crawl about fifteen yards ahead of us.

We quickly snapped some shots of this animal without disturbing it and moved. I spied a few large patches of Round-lobed Hepatica nearby and headed towards them, before I could get my camera gear out Jason called out that he had found yet another Massasauga. I quickly ran over to him to see another mud covered adult coiled in the open. We snapped a few photos without disturbing the snake and I went and snagged a few shots of the hetatica.

Round-lobed Hepatica - Hepatica nobilis

We kicked up a few other common snakes including Garter & Ribbon Snakes and decided it was best to move on. Jason said he had seen some nice Blue Racer habitat on our way in, so we decided to first pit stop there to see if we could find one. We arrived at a small meadow bordered by shrubs and forest, it looked ideal. Although racers have declined significantly in the southeast portion of the state, there are still some pockets of good habitat that hold good numbers of them. A few minutes passed and on our way out Jason called out, "Big racer!" 

Near a small shrub was this beast, everything of five feet in length. It never ran, but rather held its ground and flattened its neck vertically like an Indigo Snake and hissed loudly. It was definitely one of the nicest looking Blue Racers I've had the opportunity to see here in Michigan.

Blue Racer - Coluber constrictor foxii

Shortly before the picture above was taken, the snake struck right at Jason and whacked his camera sqaure on, we both shared quite a laugh. Jason's dogs Cid & Joy seemed to give the snake no attention and were too busy chasing each other around in the field. After photographing this snake, we returned to our cars and figured out what our plan of attack was next.

We both knew of a few sites nearby and decided to give a spot a try where Jason had seen a juvenile rattlesnake the year before in the middle of summer. A short drive and we arrived at our location and set out.

Purple Pitcher Plant - Sarracenia purpea

This is an extremely high quality fen, with many interesting plant species including pitcher plants & sundews. I had been to this area the year before and only managed to find some garters, a few water snakes, and a nice case of Poison Sumac. The clouds had parted rather nicely, and the temps had reached the low 70s by this point in the afternoon. We spread out a little bit and as I was roundng a small patch of sedge & poison sumac a bit of patterning caught my eye.

I quickly called out, "I've got one right here!" This rattlesnake was in the most classic coil I've ever seen from an individual of this species. This snake also was not caked in mud and dirt likes the ones at the other site were, it was absolutely gorgeous. This snake was so cooperative photos and never even budged or rattled once while I shot some photos of her.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

After shooting this gorgeous snake for a few minutes, I moved on but was quickly interrupted as I spotted this absolute bruiser about twenty feet away from the first snake. This snake made a hasty exit down into the sedges and likely into a crayfish burrow.

After this snake made an exit, we spread out quite a bit into the fen and stirred up one or two garter snakes. As we were heading back to the cars, I was alerted by a short, high pitched buzz near my feet and looked down to see our sixth and final rattlesnake of the day a few feet from my left foot hidden in some sedges.

This snake buzzed angrily and then quickly disappeared into the sedges. 6 Eastern Massasaugas in a single day tied my record for one day, and I believe Jason more than doubled the amount of Eastern Massasaugas he had seen in Michigan in the past few years in a single day. So to say the least, it was a pretty incredible day. Multiple rattlesnake days have been commonplace for me so far this spring, and I've already seen well over 20 individuals in the month of April. A few weekends back, I had to chance to take out a group of enthusiastic young herpers ranging from ages 5-12 for rattlesnakes. Their parents; Cara and Marty, tagged along to ensure the kids were safe. We met up with Chris, Colin, and Matt Boguslawski and Curtis Hart joined as well. With a large contingent, we liked our chances at scoring a rattlesnake. With the sun shining, we set out around 10:30AM and within a few minutes Curtis spotted a large adult emering from its crayfish burrow near a stream bank.

We simply snapped a few photos of this snake from a distance and moved on. A little further up the trail, we spotted our second rattlesnake of the morning, a familiar female that I've seen several times this spring and regularly over the past years. She was on the crawl in the open along the edge of a tamarack swamp.

We spent a few minutes watching her make her way through the sedges. The kids asked tons of questions about Massasaugas and I tried to do my best to keep up! We circled the trail and came back to where we had seen the large female emerging from her burrow earlier in the morning. She was nowhere in site until I turned around and spotted her basking in the open on the opposite side of the trail. After getting a good look at her out in the open, we concluded that she was gravid as indicated by her overly swollen back half of the body. We snapped some shots of her and then she decided the wanted to cross back to the edge of the opposite side of the trail. The kids and everyone admired her as she made her away across the trial.

I absolutely love this photo. You can see how amazed the kids were, I only wish so many young kids shared the same interest & passion for wildlife and nature that these kids do. A little later on, one of the youngsters called out, "Rattlesnake!" I couldn't even see where he was looking, but as he pointed to the base of a shrub on the edge of the tamarack swamp I noticed a well patterned adult Massasauga coiled in the sun. It amazes me how young kids have the ability to spot things in this manner.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

The last observation that I'll share from this spring was a few weekends back. It was a cool, blustery morning with temps in the low 50s and wind gusts up to 40mph. I decided to go for a walk at a local area and wasn't expecting to see much. As I was walking a trail, I noticed a flash of color that caught my eye. I looked over to the edge of the trail to see this in some sedges along the edge of the tamarack swamp.

At first I wasn't quite sure what I was looking at. The dark coloration looked like dark garters I've seen in the area, but once I looked at it a little more I was pretty excited to say the least.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

This is a melanistic Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. Melanism is genetic abnormality that causes higher amount of dark pigment due to the presence of melanin, the result is an almost completely black animal. This is an uncommon occurance in Eastern Massasaugas, but some populations have large amounts of melanistic individuals. They can be completely black, or have faint traces of patterning as with this individual. It was one of the best finds I've had over the past few years, and I'm glad I finally got the chance to get some good photographs of one. It's been a busy April, so thats all for now. Until then, happy herping!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Michigan's Curious Caudates

Michigan's salamander diversity is pretty low given its northern latitude and general uninteresting topography. We've got four Ambystoma species, Four-toed Salamanders, Mudpuppies, Redbacks, and Newts. But there's two species here that are relatively unique and somewhat under the radar. One was discovered back in the early 2000s and the other wasn't found until a few years ago. The presence of these two species is so unknown, that neither are listed on the DNR's website for Michigan reptiles and amphibians. The two species of interest are the Northern Dusky Salamander & Two-lined Salamander. Both species are widespread throughout eastern North America and  are denizens of woodland creeks, brooks, springs, and seepages. But both are several hundred miles out of their recognized ranges here in Michigan. This has sparked debate as to whether or not these salamanders are a relict native population or if they were introduced here.

Northern Dusky Salamander - Desmognathus fuscus

Northern Dusky Salamanders are denizens of creeks, brooks, and seepages in forested areas and are never far from a trickling source of water. They are a robust species with a knife-like trail and the hind limbs are generally larger than the forelimbs. The genus Desmognathus, comes from the Greek word desmos, meaning ligament, and the Latin word gnathos, meaning jaw. The genus name is in reference to the large, strong bundle of ligaments in the jaws of members of the genus that gives Dusky salamanders a large, bulging jaw. The Northern Dusky is extremely variable in coloration. Michigan individuals may be brown, red-brown, or olive in coloration with lighter or darker coloration on the heads and dorsal surface. Some Michigan individuals have bold red coloration on the head and dorsal surface as the first animal pictured above. Although the coloration is extremely variable, all Northern Dusky Salamanders have a light diagonal line running from the eye toward the jaw.

Juvenile Duskies usually have have 6-8 yellow or red blotches along the dorsal surface which can often be obscure.  Females lay eggs in the summer under rocks, logs, and other forms of cover in the stream or in nearby wet habitats such as seepages and springs. The larvae are completely aquatic have small, but functional gills. The gills of larval stream salamander species are generally reduced in comparison to those of larval Ambystoma species as there is a great availability of oxygen in clear, moving streams in comparison to stagnant, vernal pools.

This rocky stream amid a beautiful Eastern Hemlock forest harbors Michigan's only population of Northern Dusky Salamanders. In terms of habitat, this area is extremely unique to Michigan as it lies in a deep ravine and filled with Eastern Hemlock, a generally uncommon tree species in the state. There are several springs and seepages are adjacent to the stream and flow into it. Duskies are extremely abundant at this site and utilize all types of cover around the edges of the stream including rocks, rotting locks, and leaf packs. 

Southern Two-lined Salamander - Eurycea cirrigera

The other unique salamander species is the Southern Two-lined Salamander. It is a small, boldy colored species which inhabits brooks, streams, springs, and seepages in eastern North America. Like the Northern Dusky Salamander, this salamander is several hundred miles out of its recognized range here in Michigan. Beyond genetic research which has determined that Michigan's population is E. cirrigera as opposed to E. bislineata, very little is known about them here. A limited number of specimens have been found, but the good news is that Michigan's population is reproducing as larva, eggs, and females guarding nests have been documented. The individual above is a gravid female which was found under a rotting log near a stream bank. Further research is needed in order to better understand the Two-lined Salamander's ecology here in Michigan. That's all for now. Until then, happy herping!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What's in My Camera Bag?

I was recently reading through Jason Folt's blog; The Buckeye Herps Blog, and came across a blog he posted about his camera gear. It inspired me to do a similar post in nature, as I get tons of questions through my blog, email, and website on what kind of camera equipment and other field gear that I have. So I figured I would share what I carry with me in the field.


I'm a Canon guy, and have been shooting with Canon for the last five years or so. I have nothing against Nikon, Pentax, or Olympus and I think all three companies make great cameras and lenses. A few years back when I was in the market to move from point & shoot cameras to a DSLR, I was looking for an entry level outfit that would deliver quality performance for a reasonable price. I finally found what I was looking for in a lightly used Canon EOS Rebel XT with a standard kit lens. I was a newbie to DSLRs and it took me awhile to get ahold of shooting in full manual mode, but eventually I started to get the hang of it. Over the past few years, I've updated my camera body to a Canon EOS Rebel XTi and have added several accessories including two lenses and an external flash unit. My current outfit includes the standard Canon 18-55mm kit lens, a Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM macro, a Tamron 75-300mm telephoto, and a Canon Speedlite 430EX II flash with a Sto-fen Omni-bounce diffuser.

My camera outfit is by no means robust, but for now I'm satisfied with the results I get from a relatively modest arsenal. The Rebel XTi is a compact DSLR that features come aspects of higher level DSLRs, but also makes digital photography relatively user friendly for the shooter. Eventually, I'd like to upgrade to one of Canon's higher level models (40D, 7D, or 5D Mark II) but as of now those are out of my price range and I'm happy with the images I get with my current setup. The first lens I'll touch on is the standard Canon EF-S 18-55mm kit lens that came with the camera. Though it is a pretty cheap lens, if used correctly it can deliver some pretty nice shots. I've found it to be particularly useful because of its wide angle capabilities for capturing "in habitat" photos of herps. Armed with a polarizing filter, I've been extremely happy with some of the shots I've gotten out of this little crappo lens.

Eastern Massasauga, Sistrurus catenatus, Canon Rebel XTi, Canon 18-55mm, natural lighting & fill flash

Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus, Canon Rebel XTi, Canon 18-55mm, natural lighting & fill flash

Northern Leopard Frog, Rana pipiens, Canon Rebel XT, Canon 18-55mm, natural lighting & fill flash

Using a combination of natural light & fill flash seems to produce to best results for me, I've found that a little flash can help reduce some of the harsh shadows and help liven the photo. The most recent lens that I bought was the Tamron 75-300mm telephoto. I was looking for a telephoto zoom lens that had a decent reach at a relatively cheap price, and I found the Tamron for just over $100. It's a pretty slow lens (f/4.5-f/5.6) that is worth the money I paid for it, but all I really needed was something that would help me reach basking turtles of nearby birds, and I was willing to sacrifice speed for price. Though its not a great lens, it has performed decently enough for me in the field, especially from a kayak while looking for turtles. Here's a few of the shots this lens has pulled for me.

Wood Turtle, Glyptemys insculpta, Canon Rebel XTi, Tamron 75-300mm, natural lighting & fill flash

Northern Map Turtle, Graptemys geographica, Canon Rebel XTi, Tamron 75-300mm, natural lighting

Peninsula Cooter, Pseudemys peninsularis, Canon Rebel XTi, Tamron 75-300mm, natural lighting

The final lens I'll comment on is the Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens. This is by far the best lens I have and it has been worth every penny I paid for it. 95% of the herp photos I take are with this lens, simply because of how sharp & fast it is. Though I almost always use manual focus, the USM (ultrasonic motor) that powers the auto focus is extremely fast and quiet and the sharpness of the images it produces is astounding. 

This setup utilizing the Canon Revel XTi, Canon 100mm f/2.8, and Canon Speedlite 430EX II comprises almost 90% of the herp photos I take. Though simple, the ability to direct the flash head up, down, left, or right can help lighting significantly and the Sto-fen Omni-bounce diffuser helps soften the light a little bit. The macro lens is incredibly versatile and delivers images of large and tiny specimens that are sharp as a tack. 

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus, Canon Rebel XTi, Canon 100mm f/2.8, fill flash

Eastern Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina, Canon Rebel XT, Canon 100mm f/2.8, fill flash

Eastern Massasauga, Sistrurus catenatus, Canon Rebel XT, Canon 100mm f/2.8, natural lighting

As I mentioned before, my camera aresenal is limited but functional, and I'm quite happy with the results I've gotten from it. In the future, I'd like to upgrade to a professional model of camera and maybe get another lens or two, but for now I'm just fine. Other important items that I carry in my bag are a GPS unit and a headlamp. The GPS unit is a Garmin eTrex model that is a few years old, but its functional and lets me record any important coordinates while in the field. I recently purchased a new headlamp, the Fenix HP10. It is the brightest headlamp on the market that runs on AA batteries. It has four light setting ranging from 7-225 lumens and a battery life of 18 hours at the lower settings. It is waterproof up to fifty feet under water and has been awesome in the field thus far. So as Jason said, what's in your bag?

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Day to Rememeber

It's hard for me to think of a habitat that I enjoy as much as prairie fens. These alkaline pH wetlands are home many rare & endangered plant and animal species, and are a globally rare ecosystem. On a warm spring day, I had the chance to visit such a place with a few friends from MSU. After a few hour drive, we arrived at our destination and headed out. Fens are fragile habitats and its important to leave as minimal of an impact as possible. This is partly why I don't often visit fens, and the ones that I frequent a lot in southeast Michigan have trails which run around the periphery of them, that way I'm not trudging through such a unique ecosystem. But today, we decided to make our only visit to this particular fen and set out. It wasn't long before we were welcomed by this gorgeous snake.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

This large female was basking no more than a foot from her crayfish burrow. Most of the habitat in this fen has 5-6 inches of standing water with lots of sedges over top of the water, but in this particular area the elevation changed by maybe a foot or two and the area was damp but had no standing water. There were crayfish burrows everywhere and its amazing how a slight change in elevation can create habitat that rattlesnakes will utilize, all the rattlesnakes we would see on this day would be in this particular area of the fen.

The majority of this large fen had standing water, and this low depression in the fen had actually filled with water over time and become a small permanent pond. We decided to check the pond and surrounding areas for our main target, an very seldom seen little turtle that inhabits these types of habitats. It didn't take long for my friend Bryan to spot our first turtle of the day.

Spotted Turtle - Clemmys guttata

Spotted Turtles are a small, secretive species that inhabits fens and marshes such as the place we were at on this particular day. They prefer shallow, clear water ecosystems with a mucky or muddy bottom with plenty of emergent vegetation for them to bask on. This small individual was doing just that, soaking up some sun on a patch of sedges right along a small meander of water in the fen. Spotted Turtles are Michigan's rarest turtle species and are listed as a Threatened species in the state. The main factors for their decline in Michigan and throughout their range is habitat loss and illegal collection. Because of their handsome appearance and small size, Spotted Turtles are a highly sought after species in the pet trade and some individuals can go for a lot of money on the black market. Sadly, some populations that were once robust have been reduced to very low numbers and in turn have suffered from a loss of genetic diversity. Because of their habitat preferences, Spotted Turtles don't have nearly the same problems with nest predation by raccoons that other species like the Wood Turtle, Blanding's Turtle, and Eastern Box Turtle have. After shooting a few photos of the little guy, we headed farther out into the fen and before long I spotted a dark spot ahead of me in the sedges.

This was our second Spotted Turtle of the day, an adult male. Most of the turtles we saw on this day were basking in the same fashion that this guy was. We only shot a few photos from a distance and moved onward. Because Spotted Turtles are a state protected species, we tried to ensure that we did not harass any animals beyond what was necessary in order to get a few photos. In this case, this male was in a textbook position and made for a great photo that did not require handling him. We moved back to an area where we had seen the rattlesnake early in the day and before long I noticed this big girl in front of me.

I called out to the guys that I had found a rattlesnake, and as they were traversing over JP almost stepped on another massasauga basking a few feet away from the one I had just found. He dropped his camera bag down near where the snake he had seen was so that we could get a look at it once we got some photos of the snake I had found. This large individual was resting right next to its crayfish burrow, but didn't seem to alarmed at our presence right next to it. We pulled back the sedges over he top of it in order to get a few shots of the snake without disturbing it, this snake was even larger than the first one we had seen, right around the 28-30" range.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

The massasaugas at this location were quite light in coloration compared to the individuals I'm used to seeing. This was also the first opportunity I've had to observe a massasauga in southwest Michigan, as all of the individuals I had seen previous to this day had been in southeast Michigan. I was impressed at how healthy and fat these snakes were, especially considering the fact that they had just emerged from a long winter. We shot a few photos of this big snake, and then moved over to where JP had seen the other snake, and I was elated to see that the snake was a juvenile massasauga, probably a newborn from last summer.

According to Jim Harding, this population is rumored to have suffered some declines many years ago as there were reports on intentional killing of rattlesnakes at this site and its status was unknown. We only explored a small portion of the fen, and four massasaugas including this small individual. With signs of reproduction going on and a good cluster of snakes, it seems that this population is managing to hold on. Just as we were packing up our camera gear, Bryan called out that he had found a big snake. Before we could get close enough to see what it was, he yelled, "Racer!" I ran in his direction and got a glimpse of an extremely large Blue Racer and managed to chase is down and get a hand on it. As soon as I grabbed it, it swung right up and let me know it didn't appreciate being grabbed. In hopes of avoiding another bite, I placed it in a small Cedar tree nearby where it sat comfortably for a few minutes and allowed us to snag a few quick shots.

Blue Racer - Coluber constrictor foxii

Not far away, JP spotted another Blue Racer laying in a loose coil in the fen. Upon our approach, the snake coiled and held its ground instead of taking off. It coiled, rattled its tail, and struck vigorously at us as we shot some photo. Most racers I've seen take off rather than stand and hold their ground, but this small adult was an exception that made for a great photo shoot.

Blue Racer - Coluber constrictor foxii

While the guys were photographing this snake, I ventured a little further away to see if I could find some more turtles. My path was interrupted however,as I almost stepped on our fourth and final massasauga of the day basking in cover right next to her burrow. 

I called the guys over and we grabbed our cameras for a quick photo session. This was the largest rattlesnake we saw on the day, and it was easily apparent that this was a gravid female. We used some equipment to pull back the grass over top of her to get some photos, but were careful not to disturb her in any way shape or form. She buzzed loudly and gave us a great pose for some photos.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

After shooting some photos of this big girl, we moved on in hopes of finding a few more turtles. We eventually got near the edge of the fen where the water levels were much higher and began seeing turtles again. I spotted a very shy adult male Spotted Turtle basking on some sedge and then JP managed to get his hands on a juvenile Blanding's Turtle that was basking on some sedge nearby as well. It was the first juvenile Blanding's Turtle I've ever seen and was one of the day's highlights.

We eventually got ourselves out of the fen and into some nearby woods as we headed back to the car. As were heading back, we followed the sound of some Wood Frogs to a nearby vernal pool and decided to check it out in case there were any salamander egg masses or salamanders along the edge of the pool under logs and other cover.
As were were walking towards the pool, we noticed a large group of turtles basking on a fallen tree in the middle of the pool. As we got closer all of them dropped into the water before we could get a good look at them. Having our suspicions, we decided to check it out and were pretty amazed what we found.

 Spotted Turtle - Clemmys guttata

We managed to find nine Spotted Turtles swimming around in the vernal pool, bringing our total on the day to thirteen. From what I know and have read, Spotted Turtles utilize vernal pools in the northeast during the spring. However, I've always heard of them being strictly associated with marshes and fens here in Michigan and have only heard of one instance of them being found in vernal pools in Michigan. The pool was a long distance from the fen and it would be an understatement to say that all of us were surprised. It was an amazing way to cap off a truly memorable day in the field that I won't soon forget. That's all for now. Until next time, happy herping!