Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Crayfish Specialist

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had to make an impromptu trip home to Michigan last week due to the loss of my family's beloved dog, Cassie. I needed to find some time to get out of the house to clear my head, so I took some time to get into the field at a few local spots that I frequent in Michigan. The dry weather has had a real impact on snake activity in the midwest, and I only saw three snakes in a few days of being home. Late summer is usually a great time to find gravid female massasaugas and they are fairly reliable at a couple of sites near my house at this time of year. However, many hours produced only a single garter snake at these sites. After giving up on rattlesnakes, I made a small pit stop at a local stream where I missed out on a species earlier this spring.

This small rocky stream is home to a population of Queen Snakes, a recent addition to Michigan's Species of Special Concern list. This species is a dietary specialist, only consuming freshly molted crayfish. This stream runs into a larger river which also has queens along its banks. Because the water levels were fairly low, there were plenty of flat rocks to flip. One particularly nice rock produced two snakes, one of which got away. Luckily, I managed to get my hands on the nicer of the two.

Queen Snake - Regina septemvittata

The etymology of the species name septemvittata, comes from the Latin words septem (seven) and vitta (lines), which refers to the light and dark stripes found on this snake species. This was a particularly well marked individual, as the striping often fades on queens as they age. It was nice to get out and keep my mind off losing Cassie, all while getting to photograph a species I struck out on this spring.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Cassie

This post will be a considerably different one for this blog as I'd like to step away from the world of herpetology and biological conservation and share a much more personal story. It's hard to put into words how much of a whirlwind the past 24 hours has been for both me and my family. At this time yesterday, I was cooking dinner at my residence in New Jersey more than six hundred miles from home. And today, I sit in my room pondering how to express my feelings about what has taken place in this short period of time. One must wonder, what would warrant a nine hour drive through the night to make it home so quickly? Unfortunately, the reason is not one of a pleasant nature. After being a member of our family for more than twelve years, our beloved dog; Cassie, passed away very suddenly yesterday evening.

For those of you who know me on a personal level, you know that any visit to my house included a joyful greeting from Cassie. Before you could get yourself in the door, she would be at your feet with her body leaned against you in hopes of being loved. That is Cassie in a nutshell, a people friendly dog that was always looking for someone to be close to. If I had to choose one word to describe Cassie, it would be loving. She was sweet, gentle, and affectionate. Our next door neighbors have three kids who range from ages 3-7 and they would often wander into our backyard to see Cassie, and I was always amazed how gentle and tolerant she was when they would grab her and hug her during their visits. She would often lay on her side and let them scratch her belly or lay their heads on her without ever making a fuss.

One of the hardest things for me about losing Cassie is that I was unable to make it home in time to see her go. However, her condition went downhill so rapidly that my family had no choice but to act quickly to ensure that she did not suffer more than she already had. When I walked in the door this morning after driving through the night to get home, I was still expecting see her white face peering through the window, tail wagging excitedly.

Cassie was loved dearly by my family and words cannot express the hole that losing her has left us with. I want to thank all of you who have been so kind and supportive in this time of great sorrow for me and my family. I don't think we could have asked for a better companion for the past twelve years. Cassie left us with many wonderful memories and times that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. Goodbye my friend, we will always love you.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Horridus in the Jersey Highlands

Timber Rattlesnakes are isolated into two major populations in New Jersey, the pine barrens and the highlands. The highlands animals are found in scattered populations across northern New Jersey where human interference has not yet made an impact. After scoring a pine barrens animal last weekend, I was determined to find a montane horridus in New Jersey before I leave in a few weeks. After doing a fair bit of online research and scouting some habitat on Google earth, I settled on a new location and set off. My destination would require me to cross a ridge, traverse back down a slope, and then up another ridge. After a two hour hike, I finally reached this open ridgetop complete with exposed rock, grasses, and an open canopy.

Southeastern facing glades like his one are textbook sites for timber rattlesnake dens. Although I don't believe there to be an actual den at this location, this type of habitat is prime real estate in the summer for this species. As I slowly traversed this area, I noticed signs of rattlesnakes being in the area as an very old shed of a large, stocky snake was seen between two boulders. As I reverted back to the trail which cuts through this area, I heard what sounded like a faint hiss or buzz. It wasn't very audible, but it got my attention. I turned to my right and laid my eyes upon this beautiful snake.

Timber Rattlesnake - Crotalus horridus

A beautiful dark phased male, this animal was right out in the open directly to my right while I was looking to my left. As I was firing some photos, in addition to rattling he made several noticeable raspy hisses which rattlesnakes sometimes are known to do. I believe he emitted a faint hiss as I passed too close to him, which is what drew my attention to my right. I would have walked right past him had he not made a sound.

This individual was not very big, maybe three feet in length. Besides its size, the tapering rattle was also a good indicator that this was a fairly young snake. Timbers often garner a bad reputation for being extremely aggressive by many locals, however this couldn't be any further from the truth. As you'll see in the video below, this snake was very reluctant to rattle and only sounded the alarm as he crawled away slowly.

It's unfortunate that this species is still killed by ignorant people across its range, something that protection at the state level cannot always deter. Timbers are easily one of the most retreating rattlesnake species which is found in North America, and most would rather flee than hold their ground. The NJ Department of Fish & Wildlife does a great job at keeping this species under a close watch and is virulent about enforcing state endangered species protection laws. If you encounter a rattlesnake in New Jersey or elsewhere, admire it from a distance and take a few photos. That's what I've always done, and I've got all ten fingers from taking a hands off approach.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pinebrakes of the Pine Barrens

The excessively hot & dry weather here in New Jersey over the past few weeks has put a real damper on any sort of snake movement as of late. Repeated trips to the pine barrens has yielded few, if any snakes at all, with the exception of a lone Northern Pine Snake seen very early in the morning on the 4th of July. I've been itching to finding a pinelands rattlesnake since I arrived back in May and what would seem to be a moderately difficult task has turned into a full fledged unicorn hunt. There are one or two well known and heavily trafficked locations for timber rattlesnakes in the pine barrens, and both are usually home to at least one or two gravid females during the blistering hot summer months. But for whatever reason, they have been apparently absent from these locations this summer. An influx of irresponsible herpers with hooks and rakes have probably not only harassed the snakes but also degraded habitat enough at these sites that the rattlesnakes have wised up and decided to set up shop elsewhere. Finally, a prolonged and heavy rain hit the southern reaches of the state this morning and then cleared out by mid afternoon. Hoping the rain would either produce some snakes under cover or stimulate some movement, I headed south. After a circus involving locking my keys, cell phone, and wallet in my car, I finally got on some cover and flipped for several hours to no avail. The sun broke and temperatures rose into the low 90s, so I decided to drive some habitat in hopes of scoring a rattlesnake on the move. I'm glad I decided to do so, because I scored this monster male crossing a road at 6:45 PM.

Timber Rattlesnake - Crotalus horridus

An ominous and impressive snake to meet in the field, timber rattlesnakes are always a treat. This big boy was more than happy to stand his ground and allow me to take a few photos before disappearing into the thick understory of pine scrub. Some people have compared the timbers of the pine barrens to the canebrakes of the southeastern United States. Although they share similar coastal plain forests as their habitat and lowland swamps as winter retreats, the two are not similar in appearance for the most part. However, their look is unique among other timber populations and has garnered them the name "pinebrake" by some affectionate herpetologists. Nonetheless the pine barrens population is a special one, they are rarely seen and extremely isolated. Sadly, these snakes have had and continue to have a hard time with people. Historically, habitat loss was the main factor which contributed to their declines in the pine barrens, but now it is conflicts with humans which continue to plague its numbers. Many are still killed needlessly out of ignorance or lose their lives my motorists which either do not pay attention or run them down intentionally. 

The NJ Department of Fish & Wildlife, Pinelands Commission, Pinelands Preservation Alliance, and other conservation organizations continue to fight for the long term survival of this species in the New Jersey pine barrens. The biggest threat to the future of the timbers of the pines is us. If you're fortunate enough to encounter one of these impressive snakes, admire it from a distance and leave it be. I've attached a short video I took of the snake for your viewing pleasure, enjoy!

Monday, July 9, 2012

The True Jersey Shore

A few weeks ago, my family made the long trek from Michigan to visit me and to go see New York City. Though I was unable to join them for their week in the Big Apple, we did get to spend some time on the weekends traveling to some of the various natural wonders New Jersey has to offer. They had mentioned they wanted to see the shore and the coast, so I decided to take them to a favorite area along the Jersey shore that doesn't involve beaches, boardwalks, or bimbos. The coastal salt marshes along New Jersey are some of the most important pit stops for migrating birds which use the Atlantic flyway. These unique ecosystems also provide habitat for one of my favorite turtle species, the Diamondback Terrapin. We set out early and arrived at our destination fairly early in the morning and within five minutes we found this beauty.

Northern Diamondback Terrapin - Malaclemys terrapin terrapin

Terrapins are unique among North American turtles, as they are the only species which are adapted to life in the brackish waters of coastal salt marshes. Terps have had a tough go over the past century. They were overhunted in the early 1900s for their meat, which was considered a delicacy. This nearly led to the extirpation of many populations along the eastern seaboard, until the great depression of the 1930s put a damper on the demand for terrapin meat. Their numbers began to recover in the 1950s and 1960s but were once again threatened as much of their habitat was developed due to its high real estate value along the shore. This in part brought many people to the shore and required the building of highways and causeways through terrapin habitat, exposing huge numbers of terrapins to road mortality events. Terps continue to face these threats to this day, though many conservation organizations have taken steps to help conserve them in Jersey. In some places like the location we visited, terrapins are still doing incredibly well. After photographing the turtle above, we found another crossing a road a few minutes later and my sister was brave enough to help get it off the road, but not before a quick photo.

This would be common theme for the day, female terrapins were all over the roads. However huge numbers of Greenheads (Tabanus nigrovittatus); a horsefly which inhabits salt marshes, kept out time outside of the car to a limit. But I decided to fend off the hoards of biting flies to get some photos of these awesome birds, something we don't get to see back home in Michigan.

Forster's Tern - Sterna forsteri 

I wouldn't consider myself to be much of a birder, but shorebirds are a favorite of mine. Watching large numbers of these terns hover in the strong winds blowing off the ocean and then dive straight into the water  to catch fish was awesome. I literally snapped 200 photos of this particular bird and only got two or three good shots out of it. We also saw oystercatchers, ospreys, herons, greater & lesser yellowlegs, and a bunch of other shorebirds. While walking down a bank of the salt marsh, I learned the hard way that these mudflats can be particularly slippery.

Before I knew it, I was waist deep in the brackish waters of a coastal salt marsh. My family got to enjoy my mucky smell for the remainder of the afternoon, though my mom couldn't stop laughing at the sight of me struggling to get back onto the bank. I'm just glad I didn't have my camera in hand at the time I took the spill. After a quick change of footwear, we stopped at one trail which extends into the heart of the salt marsh. Because of the low tide, we got to see literally thousands of Fiddler Crabs.

It was funny watching them move en mass as a group almost like a flock of birds evading a predator, no Jurassic Park pun intended. We also noticed several big males in jousting matches over real estate, it was quite entertaining to watch. I wanted to grab one for a close up shot, but I figured one spill into the muck was good enough for one day. Though the tide was low, I did spot this pretty terrapin swimming about in the shallows looking for crabs and other invertebrates to snack on.

Northern Diamondback Terrapin - Malaclemys terrapin terrapin

We decided to continue driving through the preserve and observed a bunch of other terrapins crossing roads. We were also fortunate enough to observe several females nesting along the embankments of the roadways through the marsh. Unfortunately this is the only available upland areas for terrapins in the region, and often causes them to be hit by cars while laying their nests.

Terrapins are an incredibly variable species, with some individuals being almost devoid of patterning and others being brilliantly marked. The last turtle we saw happened to be an absolutely gorgeous female, easily one of the nicest I've seen in the field.
Northern Diamondback Terrapin - Malaclemys terrapin terrapin

It was a great way to end a fun day with my family, and spending time with them in natural areas is always something that I enjoy. The Northern Diamondback Terrapin is listed as a Species of Special Concern in New Jersey, but they could be upgraded to Threatened based on the huge numbers that are killed on roadways every year. The future remains uncertain for the terrapins which are found in these unique habitats along the Jersey shore, but continuing conservation efforts will keep light on the horizon for this species.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Independence Day Surprise

My fourth of July was spent in a way that is much different than the way it is traditionally celebrated. Recently, a friend of mine named Alex Krohn had swung home to New Jersey for a week weeks after spending the past few years out west doing Desert Tortoise work. I've herped with Alex once before back in Michigan and we did quite well, scoring several Queen Snakes, a Butler's Garter Snake, and his coveted Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. When we made plans to herp on the fourth of July, I hesitantly asked how early he would be willing to get up. A large thunderstorm passed through southern NJ overnight and I felt we would have a good chance of finding some snakes under cover or basking in the early morning hours. After a short night's sleep, Alex picked me up around 6:45 AM and we were off. After a short drive we arrived in the heart of the pine barrens to a hot, humid morning. We drove around to several sites to flip cover with no luck. Around 8:45 AM, we were driving a sand road and came across this beauty laid out in the road.

Pine snake! We both yelled simultaneously and jumped out of the car get some shots of this five foot female laid out in the road. Alex had mentioned how long he's wanted to see this impressive species, but didn't think we would have a good chance of seeing one. As summer temperatures soar in the pinelands, this species becomes much more active in the early morning hours and just before sunset to avoid the hottest portions of the day and this snake being out early was a testament to that.

Northern Pine Snake - Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus

Pine snakes are known to have huge home ranges and some often move more than a mile in a day. It is ironic, because after reviewing photos this is the same snake I found a few weeks ago and mentioned in the post More Fun with Pine Snakes. This snake was seen more than a mile from where I had previously seen it and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. As temperatures soared, our findings were minimal with the exception of a few spotted turtles. We decided to call it a day to get home in time for some cookouts and good food. It was a great way to celebrate our country's independence day, even if its considerably different than how most people would spend it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Gem of the Pine Barrens

Deep in the scattered bogs and wetlands of the New Jersey pinelands is arguably the most attractive treefrog species in North America. The Pine Barrens Treefrog, a small secretive treefrog species which is almost never seen outside of the breeding season proliferates in pinelands. PBTFs have one of the oddest distributions of any North American reptile or amphibian. They are found in large numbers in suitable habitat in the New Jersey pine barrens, several locations in North & South Carolina, and one small area in the Florida panhandle and extreme southern Alabama.

Pine Barrens Treefrog - Hyla andersonii

Most of their former habitat has been reclaimed due to development, but large pockets of this species can still be found deep in the heart of the pine barrens. The Pine Barrens Treefrog is listed as a Threatened species in New Jersey and conservation efforts are in the works to ensure that this beautiful species remains a simple of the pine barrens for years to come. I've attached a video done by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance on the PBTF, enjoy!