Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A lot of people on the herping forums are lamenting the end of summer. ‘The season is over,’ they write. ‘This is the last snake I’m going to find all year.’

Whatever they say, the weather is still herping-worthy. I haven't quit yet, and I'm trying to pack in as much as possible before the weather actually does shift. For now the sun’s shining and temperatures are staying in the 60s (and even the 70s!), and that’s good enough for most snakes.

The challenge of finding most snakes this time of year is finding where they plan on hibernating. Even though the temperatures right now are just fine for snakes, their instincts guide them to be near their hibernation dens (hibernacula) because the weather could change any day.

Snakes that have been spread out all over parks and cemeteries are now bunched up near vital holes in the ground or cracked foundations, stone walls, or rocky outcroppings facing the south. They’re enjoying the sun, packing in an extra meal or two before the long sleep, but staying ready to dash back to their safe place for the winter.

I’ve been finding brown snakes (Storeria d. dekayi) at the back edge of the Woodlands Cemetery. I found the first one on my Sunday morning run. It was a massive brown snake (or massive for a brown snake – a foot long and chunky) with a beefy head. I came back after work on Monday with my camera and I found two more: one baby (a 'young of the year' or YOY) and one very pretty adult. The baby jumped around like a cricket. It would stay still for a few seconds and and then jerk into the air and out of my hand. The adult was docile and calm right until I got my camera ready, and then it pooped.

I wondered why they were hanging around in a patch of shady woods and not in a sunnier, warmer place. Yesterday it finally occurred to me where they must be hibernating. The railroad lies downhill from the cemetery and to the southeast. The bare or at least barely scrubby slope down to the track is perfect. I figure the snakes I've been finding are just a few yards away from just the right hole in the ground on the other side of the fence.

Some herps don’t congregate quite so densely during the winter. Redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) just dig a little deeper as the temperature drops to stay ahead of the frost, and so far it hasn’t been cold enough for them to go anywhere. In fact this weather suits them well. For the first time since the spring redbacks have been easy to find. This is good because I’ve had to take lots of pictures of them for an article, although they usually don’t stay still enough for a clear shot. I found that handful of salamanders (six total) all under one log in Cobbs Creek.

The forecast calls for 70s and 60s for at least the next week, so don’t hang up your snake stick yet.