Saturday, October 28, 2006

What did I want to do on my birthday? Several people asked me that question last week, but I didn’t say “herping,” because that would have made me look a little obsessed, and I’m trying to put a damper on that. Also, I had to go to work, so I had planned to spend some time looking for brown snakes (Storeria dekayi) on Sunday the 22nd.

Unfortunately I ended up getting sick that weekend and was only just getting better on Wednesday the 25th, my birthday. I was still kind of under the weather that afternoon, but I managed enough energy to get in the car and drive to one of my favorite brown snake spots in West Philly for a brief bit of herping around 5pm.

The temperature was only about fifty degrees, but with partly cloudy skies there was enough sun to imagine something basking or catching some heat under the right piece of surface cover.

Rock after rock, and board after board revealed nothing but worms, crickets, ants, and dirt, however, and after twenty minutes I wondered if I was just wasting my time. Sometimes finding nothing under a rock means you’ve tried the wrong rock. Sometimes, though, it means that the critters that day aren’t hiding under rocks; they’re deeper underground or out in the weeds.

I headed up and over one little rise in the field and decided to try a few more trash piles before giving up. Finally I tried an old door, and I found why there weren’t any brown snakes under the other rocks, boards, and logs.

They were all under the door! I’d never seen anything like it! I have dreams like this, where I’m looking at more snakes than I could count, let alone catch, but I needed to take a picture or no one would believe me. So the first thing I did was put the door back down as gently as I could so I could get my camera out. When I lifted the door again, the snakes were starting to move. Some around the edges were starting to crawl off into the weeds, so I started clicking to get pictures of as many as I could.

I wanted to disturb them as little as possible, so after pulling one out for a close up, I left the door. Once I was back at home I counted about thirty snakes from the pictures.

I tried a few more piles of debris and I struck gold again here, a few yards away from the door. There were ‘only’ ten snakes under this one, about half babies born this year, as you can see here.

Brown snakes will hibernate wherever they can squeeze down below the frost line, but when you’re this small, all kinds of stump holes and old cracked foundations with decent southern exposure will do. Still, they often gather together to hibernate, and I’m pretty sure I found a den site. Forty or so brown snakes had crawled over from the surrounding fields, were hanging out at their hibernation site and had spent the warmer part of the day soaking up the heat closer to the surface. Now I know where to look for them first thing in the spring.


40 brown snakes

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The heat came on in our apartment a week and a half ago. Leaves are changing colors and in the suburbs they’ve had frost in the morning, but for us the radiators clanking and heating up are the clearest sign of the slide into winter.

Herpers get sad at the signs of winter. In the spring we run around crazy as cold-blooded life wakes up and spreads out around us. By summer we’ve settled into routines: we cruise reliable stretches of dirt roads and we budget time to follow rumors of rattlers and pine snakes. As the days shorten we get a little frantic and try to fit in one more trip after one more trip before all our scaly and slippery friends make it back to their winter dens.

I’ve given up on the Barrens for the year, I’ve given up on finding timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) in the hills, and the water’s probably too cold by now for swimming after turtles.

Now that it’s cooling down, Jen and I have planned some hiking trips with friends. By that I mean trips just for hiking, that’s it. The summer’s okay for hiking too, but I make a terrible hiking partner when there are critters to be found. In colder weather, though, I can walk for more than ten minutes without stopping to check this log or that rock or hopping into a stream to scrounge for salamanders.

But all this cooling down doesn’t mean I’m giving up completely.

My cousin Tim was up visiting from Delaware on Sunday (October 15th), and when we decided to go for a walk, I guided us towards the Mount Moriah Cemetery.

We were there for walking and talking, so I tried to exercise some self control, but Tim did put up with me checking some choice pieces of cover as we went.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in the high 50s, and there was a party going on for the redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) under the trash and debris. Really, I didn’t look under very much stuff, but I still found twelve salamanders, and I found them in a lot more of the cemetery than where I had found them in the spring – pretty much spread throughout rather than just around the wooded fringes.

I also found three brown snakes (Storeria d. dekayi), all of them small (under eight inches). Two looked like they were about a year old, and one looked like it could have been born this year. Here are two I found cuddled together under a board. How cute is that?

Snakes are usually thought of as loners with no social inclinations besides to seek each other out for sex in the mating seasons. More than once, though, I’ve found little snakes together like this (for example the redbelly snakes, Storeria occipitomaculata I found in July). Maybe that one nook under that one board was the optimal spot for hanging out that afternoon, leading them to end up curled together without any regard for each other, but I like to think they get some comfort from the company.


12 redback salamanders
3 brown snakes