Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Just Like Old Times

As I prepare to head out to the northeast for the summer once again, I've been busy in the field with some friends trying to see as many species as I can in southeast Michigan before I take off. After getting a hognose snake late last week, things were off to a good start. On Saturday, I met up with Chris & Matt Boguslawski to hop around Washtenaw County in hopes of seeing some buzztails. It's been an abnormally poor spring for me in terms of finding massasaugas, I had only seen 5 before the weekend. This is a low number for me, but most of April was fairly cool and rainy and there were very few warm days with plentiful sunshine. We met around 11:30 AM and headed out, it wasn't long before Chris got us on the board with this sharp looking juvenile.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

This snake was seen exactly one month after I saw my last massasauga this spring on April 4th in Oakland County and was a sharp looking snake for its size. Its small rattle was barely audible and yet it shook it almost the entire time we photographed it. It was encouraging to see one of these guys after a month long hiatus just a few minutes into our trip. We circled the area to a meadow where we have seen many massasaugas in the past, especially gravid females. We criss-crossed the field without seeing a snake, but as we were heading out I just about stepped on this big girl.

It always amazes me how easy it is to walk right past this species, even when they are as conspicuous as this big snake was. We had circled past the area she was basking at likely within a few feet of her and failed to nice her right out in the open.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

In case this snake looks somewhat familiar to some of you, she should. I've posted photos of this particular female several times over the past few years and I've come to know her particularly well. She tends to hang out in this particular meadow for the course of the year, even when she isn't gravid as she was last year. We snapped a few photos of her and then decided to head to the western end of the county to explore some new habitat. We had made up our minds that we would simply explore state land and walk any habitat that looked good. We drove past a large open field and decided to head in. Eventually I came to this large board and decided to give it a flip.

You can imagine our surprise to find three large blue racers under the same board. After a few moments of pandemonium, we had all three in hand for a few photos. The two that Chris and Matt had grabbed were fairly well behaved, while mine acted in more true racer form and whacked me repeatedly in the hands and arms.

Blue Racer - Coluber constrictor foxii

These three snakes were considerably different looking than the racers I've seen up north, or even the ones that I've seen over in Oakland County. Although they displayed the characteristic blue hue along the sides and the dark head, these three snakes were very gray and tan in appearance. I found them to be quite stunning and was excited to see them still hanging on in my home county. Although they are doing quite well in the western lower peninsula, blue racers seem to be struggling in the southern lower peninsula and in areas of southeast Michigan. Washtenaw county is an incredibly developed county and much of their former habitat has been reclaimed by development. It is quite common to see them dead on roads in areas in which they still inhabit and road mortality is another threat to them in this area. Later on in the day, we swung over to an area I used to frequent in hopes of finding a brown snake for Chris. Although none were found, we did find this absolutely gorgeous garter snake.

Eastern Garter Snake - Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis

A diamond in the rough, this garter snake was a large gravid female and exhibited some eye popping colors. The bright reds along its flanks are not uncommon for this snakes at this location, but this snake was particularly exceptional. It was a nice way to end a nice day in the field with friends. On Tuesday, I finally was able to get out in the field once again with my cousin Robbie Webb. Some of my fondest memories as a kid and as I've grown have been trips in the field with him. With my school schedule and his work schedule, it has been difficult for our schedules to coincide for field time since he moved up here to Michigan. We headed up to Oakland County to meet the Boguslawski boys in hopes of seeing some rattlesnakes and getting Robbie his first blue racer. We headed to a favorite fen of ours and we split up. I spotted this adult massasauga basking from cover around noon.

It's very evident in this photo how cryptic their patterning makes them, I could have easily walked right by this snake without even seeing it. The tan background color of the snake matches the tan color of the sedges perfectly and the blotches help break up its body image incredibly well.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

An exceptional looking snake in my opinion, this girl is another familiar snake. I observed her several times last year and even once last fall, when she was noticeably thin after dropping a load of neonates at some point last summer. She was noticeably stouter this spring and seems to have put some weight back on and even had evidence of a food bolus in her on this particular afternoon. This was the only massasauga that we saw, despite the nice weather. Not long after, we moved out of the fen to an open field with some brush piles. After a few minutes we had Robbie's lifer blue racer in hand.

Blue Racer - Coluber constrictor foxii

As you can see, blue racers from this population are considerably different looking than the snakes seen in Washtenaw county earlier in the post. Blue racers are a fairly variable species, so its not a surprise that we can see phenotypic variation between two separate populations.

It was fun to get out in the field with Robbie again and be able to get him his lifer. I can only hope there won't be such a long hiatus between this trip and the next time we get in the field together.

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