Saturday, June 30, 2012

My Take on Temporalis

There's a secretive snake which inhabits the coastal plain of southern New Jersey that is one of debate and ongoing research, the Coastal Plain Milk Snake. Very little is known about this species of snake, from its ecology to something as simple as exactly what it is. Coastals were once a valid subspecies of the Eastern Milk Snake; Lampropeltis triangulum temporalis, but Kenneth L. Williams and several other researchers determined that this snake was simply an intergrade between the Scarlet Kingsnake and Eastern Milk Snake and thus that its subspecies status was not valid. However, this snake does not share its range with the Scarlet Kingsnake in the New Jersey pine barrens. Which begs the question, what the hell?

Coastal Plain Milk Snake - Lampropeltis triangulum "temporalis"

This beautiful coastal was found under cover on a damp, humid morning this weekend in the New Jersey pine barrens. Like many other milk snake species, coastals are secretive and not often found active on the surface. They can be found under all sorts of cover throughout the pine barrens and are particularly fond of the sandy soils which are prevalent in the New Jersey coastal plain. But the biggest question regarding coastals is, what are they? The answer is to that question is still in limbo.

There are several different hypotheses involving the identity of coastals. The one made by Williams which states coastals are simply intergrades between Eastern Milk Snakes and Scarlet Kingsnakes is partially true, but only where the two species ranges overlap, particularly in Virginia and North Carolina. It is likely that both coastals and SKs are found in the coastal plain of these states and occasionally intergrade, not making the coastal an actual intergrade between the two a valid explanation for the snake rangewide. Others feel that coastals are a relic population of the Red Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum syspila) which occurs in the coastal plain. Many people I've talked to argue that if you put a red next to a coastal, you wouldn't known which snake was which. However, there's more to it than simple phenotypic similarities. Certainly both reds and coastals share a recent comment ancestor in terms of their evolutionary historu, but whether or not the coastals are simply red milk snakes requires much more in depth DNA analysis, which I'm told is currently progress. Personally, I tend to think that these snakes are simply a beautiful regional variant of the Eastern Milk Snake which happens to be isolated to the coastal plain of New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. Just like the canebrake rattlesnake and timber rattlesnake, coastals just happen to look a little bit different than easterns. Regardless of what they are, coastal plain milk snakes are a beautiful member of New Jersey's herpetofauna which are in need of protection to ensure that more scientists can argue over what they are for years to come.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Drawing a Line in the Sand

I realize this post may offend or upset a lot of people, but due to recent events I feel like I need to explain some feelings and concerns that I have with collectors. The herpetological community is made up of a wide variety of people from all different walks of life. There are academics, biologists, breeders, hobbyists, and those people that just enjoy being in the field to see snakes. And although all these groups of people all enjoy the world of herpetofauna, many have different approaches to how they appreciate them. For me, I enjoy  seeing snakes in their natural environment rather than in a cage or terrarium. Seeing an impressive snake species in its natural environment is much more rewarding to me, and I can't imagine taking one home to isolate it in a small space, it just seems wrong to me. However, many people do enjoy keeping snakes and breeding them. For them, interacting with the snake on a daily basis in an up-close manner is rewarding and enjoyable. However, due to recent events here in New Jersey and several other encounters I've had with hobbyists over the past few years, I feel as though I need to say a few things about the ethics of this field and how hobbyists carry out their actions.

Northern Pine Snake - Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus

Last week, there was a poaching event involving a Northern Pine Snake nest in New Jersey pine barrens and a nesting female may also have been collected in the process. One has to wonder, with all the bloodlines of NJ locality pines which are available from a captive breeding environment, why would someone collect out a pine snake from the wild? For me, I will never understand anyone's want or need to collect any species of snake from the field. Granted, I always brought home garter snakes when I was a kid, but even then I released them the next day. I guess I don't understand why hobbyists just can't enjoy a snake in the field and not feel the need to take something home with them. A Black Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus lodingi) was recently found in extreme NW Florida in the pandhandle, where the Florida Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus mugitus) likely intergrades with the Black Pine Snake. In either case, it is a very unique animal to find in Florida. After seeing a photo of this gorgeous snake posted on Facebook, I asked the guy who posted the photo whether or not the snake was collected and sure enough it was. Why? So you can appreciate the snake only by taking it home? So you can breed it and sell its offspring for money? To me, there is no difference between collecting animals to make money of them and clearing habitat for a new housing development, either way the ecology of the area takes a hit. A hobbyist may make an excuse that, "I only took one or two snakes." For every one collector who bags a single snake, there are a dozen more who do the exact same thing and make the exact same excuse.

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake - Crotalus adamanteus

Recently there has been a big push by several conservation organizations for the USFWS to list the Eastern Diamondback as an endangered species. The USFWS is currently conducting an internal review to decide whether or not the species would be listed. Recently, another individual posted a photo of a diamondback with its head cut off and rattle missing with a caption stating, "Federal protection will not stop this sort of thing from occuring in rural Florida." I was really put off by a comment another Florida resident and well known EDB collector and breeder made. It essentially re-iterated that federal protection will not stop senseless killings of EDBs in rural areas and that the only thing federal protection would do is stop private keepers from propagating them. That is an incredibly ignorant stance in my opinion. One of the largest problems facing diamondbacks is habitat loss, in fact more than 3/4 of its coastal plain pine forest has been developed. Diamondback populations need fairly large expanses of contiguous habitat to propagate and most of these areas that are left are highly fragmented by roads and urban sprawl. Senseless killings, road mortality, and habitat loss have contributed to its decline. Federal protection would help ensure that its remaining habitat remains intact and that anyone who is caught killing or collecting a diamondback would receive heavy fines. This would not completely eliminate senseless killing of EDBs, but it would cetainly help reduce them by making examples of several people. The main reason that the individual I've mentioned is so against federal protection is that he would no longer be able to keep and breed diamondbacks, which I'm sure helps supplement his income. It's disgusting to me that people would denounce listing a species which is in such dire need of federal protection because it would "prevent private keepers from propagating them." There's a lot more involved with the future of the EDB than that, sorry.

Coastal Plains Milk Snake - Lampropeltis triangulum "temporalis"

There has also been some poaching involving Coastal Plains Milk Snakes in the New Jersey pine barrens, particularly with an individual from New York. Coastals are a unique and beautifully marked snake which are found from southern New Jersey along the coast to North Carolina. It is unfortunate that people collect these animals, particularly in a region where it is illegal to do so. If you see any suspicious activity involving collection of a snake, particularly with protected species, call your local Conservation Officer and get plates or descriptions of vehicles if you can. I don't want to bash everything about hobbyists though, so let me be clear. Many of these people use snakes as tools for public outreach to help educate people on the importance of snakes in the natural environment, so that in itself is good. It is just that I have seen more unethical behavior out of collectors than I have seen ethical behavior, just my $0.02 on the situation.

Monday, June 25, 2012

More Fun with Pine Snakes

I have a backlog of stuff I need to write posts about, but considering the recent luck I've had in the pine barrens I'd like to stay on topic. As June is coming to an end and the dog days of summer are not far off, the herping season in the pine barrens is about to drop off considerably. The pine barrens becomes a formidable place in July and August, as temperatures average in the 90s and rain showers become few and far between. About the only species that seems to enjoy the brutal temperatures at this point in the season are timber rattlesnakes, which I'm hoping to encounter later in the summer. This past weekend marked the end of June and likely one of the last chances to see pine snakes before they become much more secretive in the dry summer heat. Some morning flipping produced a big gnarly Coastal Plains Milk Snake which looked much more "eastern" in appearance. Later on in the afternoon, a group of friends and I spotted this large post-partum female pine snake resting near the base of a pitch pine.

Northern Pine Snake - Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus

This was an exceptional looking pine snake with the exception of some major damage to her face. The bright white and rusty-red coloration in her bands is unlike any other northern pine snake I've seen. The major scarring on this female's snout was probably an injury she sustained as a youngster than has since healed over, she was in great shape otherwise and appeared to be very healthy. After a fruitless search for rattlesnakes, we ventured to some unique sandhill habitat in the heart of the pines.

An open sandhill habitat in the heart of the New Jersey pinelands. Sandhills are upland, savanna-like habitats on gently rolling terrain with an open overstory of Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) and scattered grasses and shrubs like Pine Barren Goldenheather (Hudsonia ericoides) and Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolia). This habitat is most abundant in the sandhills region of North & South Carolina. I was joking with my friend that this would be a textbook place to find a big pine snake, as it was so beautiful. Less than five minutes later, we were rewarded with this big girl on the move.

Northern Pine Snake - Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus

Easily the nicest individual of this species that I've seen and possibly the most beautiful snake I've ever seen in the field. This big female has no scars whatsoever and had a very bright white coloration, with brilliant patterning along her blotches. I only spent a few minutes shooting some photos of her and then let her on her way. A day I will certainly not forget anytime soon, this big female pine snake was something special to stumble upon. I can only hope the coming months will give me at little of a chance to see one of these magnificent snakes one more time.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On the Trail of the Northern Pine Snake

The Northern Pine Snake is the undisputed king of the pine barrens. It's large size, secretive behavior, and difficulty to find makes it my favorite snake species which inhabits the state of New Jersey. Pines are isolated to the southern part of the state in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Monmouth, and Ocean counties, particularly in the Pinelands National Reserve. The Jersey population is particularly isolated, the closest known of population of Northern Pines occurs in North Carolina. This isolation makes the pine barrens population particularly vulnerable. However, the pine snakes of southern New Jersey may be some of the largest populations of the species in the country, and the wealth of suitable habitat in the area means that they can be found literally anywhere in the region.

At 1.1 million acres, the pine barrens makes up almost a quarter of New Jersey's total land mass. This view from atop Apple Pie Hill; the highest point in the pines, shows how vast the coastal plain pine forest here is. The barrens is dominated by Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) and Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda), with an understory of Scrub Oak (Quercus ilicifolia) and Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium). These pine-oak forests proliferate in the sandy soils of the pinelands are the primary haunts of the Northern Pine Snake. Although pine snakes are one of the largest species of snake which inhabit New Jersey, their secretive habits and vast forests they dwell in make them quite challenging to encounter in the field. Since arriving in New Jersey in late May, I've spent at least one day in the pine barrens each weekend on the trail of this species. Over the past two weeks or so, signs of pine snakes have began to become more tantalizing as I found several fresh digs by females looking to nest.

Finding freshly dug nests like this is extremely exciting, especially because the freshly disturbed sand and large drag marks from the large ventral scales of pine snakes is a tease that a snake was very recently in the area. However, return trips to places like this can be frustrating as females are not always out in the open excavating the nest. Sometimes all you get is a glimpse of the snake, as this female gave me a few weeks back from within her freshly dug nest.

After snapping this quick shot, I quickly left the area to ensure I didn't disturb this female while she was busy preparing to finish her nest. Harassing pine snakes, especially during nesting season, is something that I'm extremely passionate about. Unfortunately, this is one of the best times of the year to see them as they are often out in the open. But picking up or harassing a female pine snake while she is nest searching or excavating a nest can cause her to abandon a nesting site completely, so it is best to just leave them alone or admire them from a distance. After only glimpsing the female shown above a week and a half ago, I was beginning to become a littler frustrated. But on Sunday morning of this past weekend, I was greeted with this magnificent sight.

It's hard to put into words what it feels like to walk up on a magnificent snake like this in habitat. This large male was laid out in the morning sun and well over five feet in length at my best estimate. The high contrast of white and black on the northern subspecies is absolutely stunning. I followed this fella into a small wooded area where he was kind enough to coil for a few photos.

 Northern Pine Snake - Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus

After a short photo session, I parted ways with this handsome fellow pressed on. I was only able to find encounter two pine snakes all of last summer in New Jersey and with this snake I was on pace to maybe tie that number at some point this summer. The weather warmed in the afternoon and I only managed to bump into a few DOR snakes and a handful of basking turtles. Earlier in the morning I had come across a few fresh looking digs that I thought would be worth checking again in the evening. The first site revealed more fresh drag marks but no snake, but my second stop gave me a sight I thought I would never seen in the field.
Northern Pine Snake - Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus

I almost couldn't believe my eyes when I came across this large female excavating her nest. I decided to sit down a good distance away, put on my telephoto lens, and just watch. Not many people get the opportunity to observe this species in the wild, much less to observe a female digging a nest. She was extremely deliberate in the actions, her head would be in the hole for a minute or two at a time and then she would turn her head and neck into a U-shape and drag the loosed sand out of the hole and then extend her head back into the hole to dig away again for a few minutes.

It was almost mesmerizing watching a such an awesome snake species doing something I've read about countless times in field guides and other herp literature. I thought to myself, "this is something I'm never going to see again in my lifetime." I watched her for upwards of two hours before she finally headed deep into the nest as it was getting dark. I figured she was well on her way to helping proliferate the species and did not need any more eyes watching her. Seeing two pine snakes in one day is something I thought I'd never get the chance to experience, but seeing the female digging her nest was something very special that I'll never forget. I'll leave you with a short video I took when I just followed the adult male pine snake I saw in the morning for a few minutes, enjoy.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Day Fit for a King

After several brutal trips to the pine barrens last year in late July and early August, I decided that I need to get my trips to the pines in as early as possible this season. Late may through mid June is arguably the best time of the year for herping the pines, as many species are out in search of nesting sites, particularly the snakes and turtles. On Sunday morning, I swung down early in hopes of finding some pine snakes excavating nests. In one of the first locations I stopped at, I came across this beginning of a nest which was extremely fresh, likely from the evening before, more on this in a separate post.

The drag marks were quite large in terms ventral scales, indicating that this test dig was made by a sizable female pine snake. In early to mid June, female pine snakes seek out open sandy areas where they use their fused rostral scales to help dig nests into the sandy soils of the pine barrens. Unfortunately, the snake that made this dig was nowhere to be found. I moved on and hit several other sites without seeing any snakes at all. In the heat of the afternoon, I decided to explore an area I've been meaning to hit for kingsnakes. Although I've seen Florida Kings, Black Kings, and the Shawnee Kings from southern Illinois, a true Eastern Chain Kingsnake had eluded me. Within a few minutes of exploring this new location, I noticed a large snake coming onto the road and was greeted with this fantastic serpent.

It was in the middle of the afternoon and temperatures had soared into the high 80s with high humidity, yet here in front of my car was a large adult Eastern Kingsnake on the crawl. The snake was hot and made a run for it, but I was able to apprehend this big male for a short photo session, completing my New Jersey Lampropeltis trifecta and adding species to my life list.

Eastern Kingsnake - Lampropeltis getula getula

A truly beautiful snake, this is a species that I've wanted to see in the field since I was a kid. I remember reading book about snakes and seeing the glossy black and white chain pattern and thinking, "what a cool snake!" Jersey kings are special and unique, both in their location and appearance. The Eastern Kingsnake reaches its northern range limit in the pine barrens and individuals have much more thin and more numerous white bands than individuals from farther south in their range.

I was stoked to finally find my Eastern King, and went home a happy camper. The pine barrens is a daunting, yet wondrous place to spend time in, and in the last few weeks I've had several more exciting finds. Stay tuned for that in a few upcoming posts. That's all for now, cheers!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Back to the Pine Barrens

If there's one thing that I love in life, it's a challenge. I don't know if I've herped an area that is as challenging as the pine barrens of southern New Jersey. At 1.1 million acres, the pine barrens makes up almost a quarter of Jersey's total land mass. It is a vast expanse of coastal plain pine forest with scattered bogs, swamps, and wetlands and is home to the state's most unique reptiles of amphibians. Less than an hour to the south of my location in Jersey, it is a convenient location to spend some time on the weekends.

Because of the long Memorial Day weekend, I had a chance to swing down to the pines for the first time of the summer in hopes of seeing some unique species. Peter Kleinhenz; a good friend from Ohio, pit stopped on his way from North Carolina up to New Hampshire for a day of herping. You can read his blog here; The Middle of Somewhere. We got started bright and early and walked some really nice habitat. After about a half our, we stumbled onto this stunning snake.

Corn snake! I spent time in the pine barrens all of last summer without seeing this species, and on the first trip down this summer got this large female laid out in the pine straw.

Corn Snake - Pantherophis guttatus

A beautiful textbook female, this snake was very large and noticeably gravid. The Red Rat Snake or Corn Snake is a common denizen of the coastal plain forests of the southeastern United States. Like other rat snakes, it is a predator of birds and mammals, and is a great ecological controller of rodents. This species reaches its northern range limit in the pine barrens and much of its habitat here has been developed. Because of its rarity in the area, corns from this locality are also highly sought after in the pet trade. These and other factors have reduced its numbers in Jersey and it is now listed as an Endangered species in the state. After  a few shots, we parted ways. We decided to swing to some other areas and bumped into this snake crossing a a forest road.

The sandy soils of this pine barrens provide excellent habitat for this species, and its one I always enjoy seeing. This Eastern Hognose Snake was moving before a storm rolled in.

Eastern Hognose Snake - Heterodon platirhinos

This snake did the full display of hooding up and playing dead, but once I got the camera out all he would do was play dead, so I had to settled with this shot which I turned out well I think. There is an extreme abundance of the Fowler's Toad (Bufo fowleri) in the pine barrens, this coupled with the sandy habitats contributes to the abundance of this secretive species in the area. There were periodic thunderstorms for the rest of the afternoon and we spent our time traveling from site to site flipping cover. Although no coastals or pines were found, I did flip this cool little snake under a fallen billboard.

Eastern Worm Snake - Carphophis amoenus

A small fossorial species, worm snakes are often found under forms of cover including rocks, logs, and boards, especially those which are somewhat damp. Things were slow the remainder of the day, so we bided our time and waited for the sun to go down in hopes of finding one of the coolest species in North America, the Pine Barrens Treefrog. We arrived at a real nice bog surrounded by Atlantic White Cedar and were soon greeted with the distinct kwonk-kwonk-kwonk.

Pine Barrens Treefrogs - Hyla andersonii

This beautiful species is the true gem of the pine barrens and is only found here and a few scattered locations in the southeastern United States. The Pine Barrens Treefrog is a denizen of swamps and acid bogs that are scattered across the pinelands. It's difficult to understand as to why its distribution is so scattered and begs the question if they were once much more widespread in the eastern United States. It was a great way to end a fun day in the pines with Peter, I can only hope that in the coming weeks the pine barrens will produce a pine snake and kingsnake, only time will tell.