Friday, June 21, 2013

A Memorable Trip Up North

Memorial Day weekend always seems to be one of most productive times of the year here in Michigan, and this year I was able to take a trip to northern Michigan over the holiday weekend with my good friends, Chris and Matt Boguslawski. The guys have a cabin up in the Manistee National Forest, probably the most beautiful natural area in Michigan's lower peninsula. This huge expanse of forest is also home to some of the state's more elusive herpetofauna. I met Chris early on Sunday morning, and we headed northward. Along the way, we decided to pit stop along the west side of the state to look for Black Rat Snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus), arguably one of the toughest snakes to find in the state, but we struck out. By the late afternoon, we arrived at our destination for the next few days.

After dropping our things off at the cabin, we picked up Matt, loaded our gear, and set out for the evening to a few spots Chris new of. Our first stop was a small meadow amid a jack pine forest which had several boards and other cover scattered throughout it. After a few minutes of flipping with no luck, we decided to move one. But as we were leaving, Matt spotted this large snake coming out of a large leaf pile.

Eastern Milk Snake - Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum

Not the prettiest milk I've ever seen, but large and impressive to be sure. This adult was in shed and had a rather nasty looking sore on the tip of its snout. We snapped a few photos and moved on. While driving towards our next stop, we cruised a large DOR blue racer which had been hit earlier in the day, this would be the only way we would see racers the entire weekend. Our next spot was a small bridge crossing near a river. While traversing the area, we found this snake out on the move in the late evening, a welcomed surprise that all of us were excited to see.

Eastern Hognose Snake - Heterodon platirhinos

This was Matt's first Michigan hognose, and Chris's first hognose in Michigan since we was in his teens. Even for me, this was the furthest north I've ever seen one in Michigan. It had a wonderful sandy brown coloration that you don't often see in individuals from the southern lower peninsula. 

We got to see the full show, which is a typical display for this species. You can even notice some of the blood being discharged from its mouth, hognose snakes make every effort to make their death feigning as realistic as possible. We parted ways with the snake and headed back to the cabin for a well cooked meal. We arose early the next morning and headed further north to some boggy wetlands. Around noon, we arrived at this location.

This large conifer swamp is home to Michigan's only venomous snake, the eastern massasauga. Temperatures were warm and the skies were hazy, perfect weather conditions for basking rattlesnakes. We spread out into the area, carefully stepping through the spongy terrain. While I was curling around the base of a tamarack tree, a dark shape managed to catch my attention.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus

A sharp looking rattlesnake, this small adult was coiled right out in the open attempting to warm up in the hazy sunlight. We didn't bother it much, other than for a few quick photos. Massasaugas are always a treat, especially when you find them further north in the state. We walked around a bit more and flipped an in-shed juvenile milk snake. I also managed to catch Chris and Matt at a rather inopportune moment, well for Chris anyways.

Our next location took us about thirty miles from where we had been to an isolated two-track in the middle of nowhere on state land. Eventually, we found ourselves at a crossroads between the two-track and an ORV trail. A short distance away, we entered this gorgeous site.

As soon as we entered this bog, I looked at the guys and exclaimed, "we're going to find a green snake here." The ground was damp and carpeted with bright green moss. Scattered patches of leatherleaf and sedges looked like ideal cover. We spread and and scanned the area slowly. Within a few minutes, I spotted this pretty ribbon snake moving around in a small seepage.

Northern Ribbon Snake - Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis

We ended up seeing a few more ribbon snakes and the lone garter snake we would see the entire trip. We continued to walk carefully through the area looking for a moving piece of grass. Suddenly, Chris called out, "Green Snake!" Matt and I ran over to see Chris staring at a thick patch of sedges, he had lost the snake. We spent a minute carefully looking through the sedges and Chris managed to make a quick grab on this yearling green snake, my first on the Michigan mainland.

Smooth Green Snake - Opheodrys vernalis

There was some rejoicing between the group, this is a snake that had been on the guys list for quite some time. We spent a few minutes photographing this little guy, and then moved on. As nice as the juvenile was, I wanted to see a nice adult. As I was traversing one patch of the bog, a slight movement in the grass drew my eye to this gem. If it hadn't moved, I would have walked right past it, the camouflage on this species is amazing.

Smooth Green Snake - Opheodrys vernalis

This was a healthy adult, and is easily one of my favorite snakes which is found in the Great Lakes region. Sadly, this species seems to still be declining in the state. It was once common throughout much of the lower peninsula, but has since become rare or absent from much of its former haunts. It does remain locally common in the Upper Peninsula, but is only found in a few scattered locations in the northern lower. Likely the large reason for its decline is the conversion of meadows and wetlands to agricultural lands. Green snakes are strictly insectivorious, and because many agricultural operations spray pesticides, it seems as though green snakes have been affected just as much as the pests. Places like this are few and far between in the lower peninsula, and to see that this species is still hanging on in some areas is encouraging. We made the drive back towards the cabin and stopped at Jamesport Brewing Company in Ludington, where I enjoyed a guacamole burger and two of their Scottish Strong Ales. If you're a beer lover, a highly recommend a visit to the place if you're near Ludington. The next morning brought rainy weather, but we endured and headed out into the field. Flipping cover was the name of the game on this day, and we managed to find two five-lined skinks under cover, including one gorgeous juvenile.

Five-lined Skink - Plestiodon fasciatus

As the day went on, several heavy thunderstorms passed through the area. So to kill time, we drove many roads across the area in hope of seeing a box or wood turtle out enjoying the weather, unfortunately we struck out. By the late afternoon, the rain finally quit and the land began to dry out. We pit stopped along a stream corridor and flipped a few rocks and managed to find a few snakes, including a queen snake, my first from this far north in the state.

Northern Water Snake - Nerodia sipedon sipedon

Queen Snake - Regina septemvittata

The queen was definitely an exciting find, it seemed as though each day of the trip had provided a great find. And the day wasn't over yet, so we decided to go walk a clearing that Chris had checked before and thought it looked good for blue racers and hogs. We flipped a small log in the middle of the clearing and found our fourth milk snake on the trip, and the third county we had seen one in.

Eastern Milk Snake - Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum

We continued to traverse the clearing. While moving through a small area of shrubs in the center of the area, Chris called out, "Box turtle!" Matt and I quickly ran over to see this sight, a typical fashion to find a box turtle indeed.

Eastern Box Turtle - Terrapene carolina carolina

I hadn't seen a box turtle in Michigan for a few years, so this was an encouraging find. Northern Michigan is the northern limit of this species' range in the United States, they are scarce and uncommon in the state. This was also a gravid female, likely utilizing this open clearing as a staging area for nesting in the coming weeks. It capped off our third fantastic day in a row. The next morning, we packed up and began the lock trek home to southeast Michigan but decided to make one last pit stop along the way. We headed out to a small wet meadow in hopes of seeing some turtles. The weather was warm, and the skies were overcast, perfect conditions for the species we were hoping to see. Our first find was this juvenile Blanding's Turtle, an uncommon sight these days it seems.

Blanding's Turtle - Emydoidea blandingii

Like many imperiled turtle species, Blanding's Turtles face a major threat from raccoons due to high nest predation. Adult members of this species seem to be in no short supply, but many are upwards of 40-50 years in age. Juveniles like this seem to be scarce, indicating there is low recruitment. So, finding one in this age class is always a good sign. We let the little fella on his way and continued to scan the area, within a few minutes I spotted this gorgeous turtle basking in some sedges.

Spotted Turtle - Clemmys guttata

This gorgeous female was one of the nicest individuals of this species I've seen. We snapped a few photos and then continued the drive home, it was a great way to close an amazing trip. I'd like to thank Chris and Matt for their hospitality, and for probably the best few days in the field I've ever had in Michigan. I hope to do it again sometime. Until next time, happy herping.


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