Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Familiar Face

I find it hard to believe that it's already the second week of September, which means that Michigan's impending doom if quickly approaching. The trees in the northern part of the state are just starting to levitate towards their autumn colors and the daylight hours continue to shorten. This time of year is the beginning of a max exodus of reptiles & amphibians back to their respective hibernation sites and can lead to very productive days in the field. I'm hoping in the next few weeks an afternoon of cruising will produce a hognose snake or two, along with a few other species. I had an hour or two to kill on a Tuesday afternoon so I decided to take a walk along a northern Michigan river in hopes of seeing some wood turtles moving back from their summer haunts towards the river corridor will they will be hibernating over the course of the winter. While walking through the shallow water, I noticed movement ahead of me near the bank. One wood turtle emerged from the river and was quickly followed by another. They appeared to be two males, one chasing the other. The runner quickly looped back towards the river and disappeared, but the big male decided to rest on the bank and was easily apprehended for a few photos.

Wood Turtle - Glyptemys insculpta

Wood turtles are a striking species, especially when an individual displays as much yellow on the carapace as this big guy. This particular male is one I've seen before, the last time being in November of 2010. He's one of two males in this stretch of the river that are considerably older and larger than the others, and he seems to patrol up and down at least a 400-500 yards of the river corridor.

Same male in Nobember 2010

After radio tracking this species for the past two summers in New Jersey, I've been able to gain a much better understanding of movement patterns and home ranges between males and females. Females seem to wander far greater distances from the stream corridor than males do, especially during nesting season. They also typically spend much of their summer away from the stream in woodlands, pastures, and fields where they forage on mushrooms, slugs, worms, and berries. Males do wander out of the river, but they never seem to move far away from the river itself, usually remaining within one hundred yards of the river itself. However, they move far distances up and down the corridor where they search for mates or other competing males. It's interesting seeing these patterns, even without telemetry. When I saw this male in 2010, he was at least 300 yards further upstream than he was when I found him on this particular afternoon. It was nice to see a familiar face and wish this big fella all the best in the coming winter months.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Northern Michigan Massasaugas & Mudpuppies

Labor day weekend is often viewed as the last official weekend of summer before everyone goes back to school and is often a great weekend to be in the outdoors. I had originally planned to paddle on of northern Michigan's rivers, but upon the realization that hundreds of drunk tubers had beat me to the punch, I decided it was best to make other plans. I drove an hour to the north of CMU to meet up with my good friend Chris, who's family has a cottage on an inland lake in the area. Chris had mentioned we would have a decent chance of seeing one of Michigan's more secretive amphibian species, and after flipping a few large rocks in the lake, we apprehended one of my favorite species.

Mudpuppy - Necturus maculosus maculosus

These large aquatic salamanders are the largest species of amphibian which inhabits the state, with adults ranging from 8-15 inches. Mudpuppies are neotenic, meaning that they retain larval characteristics through adulthood. In the case of this species, the external gills which most larval amphibians have are never lost as mudpuppies mature, making them a permanent resident of aquatic environments. They prefer cool, oxygen rich waters with plenty of rocks for them to hide underneath. In Michigan, mudpuppies inhabit clear creeks, rivers, and deep inland lakes. After an interesting photo session, we let the water dog go back into the lake. We poked around a few areas nearby and came up empty handed. After brainstorming a few idea, we decided to make a two hour trek further north in hopes of seeing our first northern Michigan massasauga. 

This massive conifer swamp is home to a stable population of massasaugas and is just a short drive from the Mackinac Bridge. Conifer swamp is a groundwater-influenced, minerotrophic, forested wetland dominated by northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis) that occurs on organic soils primarily north of the climatic tension zone in the northern Lower Peninsula. Other common trees species may include balsam fir (Abies balsamea), tamarack (Larix laricina), and black spruce (Picea mariana). After traversing the area for about an hour, we began to get a little discouraged. But just as we were about to leave, my eyes caught a glimpse of a familiar pattern.

This beautiful massasauga was laid out in the shade of a cedar tree, I couldn't help but shout, "Sauga!" to get Chris's attention. He quickly ran over to get a few in situ shots of the snake before a brief photo session.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

Easily one of the nicest examples of this species I've ever seen, this snake was exceptionally marked and sported a beautiful tan coloration that I don't often see in the southern part of the state. After seeing massasaugas from both SE and SW Michigan, it has long been a goal of mind to find a photograph a rattlesnake in northern Michigan. The populations up north have not been studied nearly as much as those in the southern part of the state, and because the habitat in Michigan is much different, so is the ecology of northern massasauga populations. A recent study done by Bruce Kingsbury and his lab at IPFW examined the ecology of a few northern populations in order to help make better informed management decisions for land managers in northern Michigan. It was a great labor day weekend, hope you all enjoyed yours as well!