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.

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