Friday, December 26, 2008

January 23rd seems really far off right now, but it's only about a month away. We've got our next public Greater Philadelphia Herpetological Society meeting scheduled for that evening, and I've posted the content of the flyer below. If you'd like to come and you have any wetland species as captives that you can bring in as show and tell (let's abide by all applicable PA laws, but I figure a policy discussion might bore any kids who come, but that some critters might help keep them engaged and connected with the discussion) please let me know.


The Greater Philadelphia Herpetological Society and the Marple Township Environmental Advisory Board present a free lecture on

Wetland Buffers and Amphibians

by Robin Mann,

VP, Sierra Club,

President, Darby Creek Valley Association

8 PM, 23 January 2009

Marple Township Building, Springfield and Sproul Roads

From the East or West: PA Rte 3 (West Chester Pike) to PA 320 (Sproul Road), South to the "T". Enter parking lot just past police station or turn left on Sproul and take your next left to get to the other parking lot (on the right).

From the North or South: Either take I-476 (Blue Route) to Exit 9 (Broomall) and go west on PA Rte 3, then south on PA rte 320 or take PA Rte 320 from wherever you are.

There is a parking lot around the Township/Library Building and one just to the east of the building. Street parking is possible on Sproul Road from the Police Station north.

Refreshments will be served. While there is no admission charge, there will be a voluntary collection to cover the speaker's fee and other expenses.

Monday, December 22, 2008

On the 23rd Jen and I are flying down to Atlanta, GA for Christmas with her family. I look forward to posting the results of whatever light herping I do down there in a few weeks, but I thought this made for a convenient point to post some finds from a trip we took down there in September.

Jen's family lives in Roswell, a suburb to the north of Atlanta, and their house backs up against a wooded ravine with a brook at the bottom. There are some parks we like to go to around there, but the ravine out back is always the first herping stop (although Jen also likes to stalk the American toads - Bufo americanus - that hang out under the lights in the house driveway at night to pick off moths drawn in by the lights).

I've found dusky salamanders (Desmognathus species) under rocks in the brook several times, but I am embarrassed to say I've never difinitively IDed them. I usually take a photo to look at later, and then realize the photo I took is too blurry, too dark, or captures the wrong part of the animal to help me identify it - for example the belly color is often a feature used to ID critters, and I keep forgetting to take belly photos.

Here's one of these inadequate photos. I never should have taken it against a white background.

One September 13th we found some critters we could ID, box turtles (Terrepene carolina)! Jen and our niece Mariana found them in the shallow water of the brook (it was 3pm, 85 degrees, and humid), apparently mating. I thought September is the wrong time of year for that, but the male was on top of the female. He fell off when Jen and Mariana got close, and they brought the happy couple up to the deck for a photo session.

The hard part about taking photos of box turtles is trying to get a shot of them with their heads and legs out - they're shy and want to stay shut up as long as you are watching. We even tried ducking back in the house for a moment and watching through a window, but then the female started scooting off, and we had to run back out so she wouldn't take a jump off the deck.

Here's a shot of me wrangling them:

Here's a shot with the male with his head out and the female just barely opening up.

Here's the release shot, with the pair back in the water where Jen and Mariana found them. The male is the larger one. I found their coloration interesting - both with very dark, almost black backgrounds and the light yellow markings.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The fruitless tiger hunt is becoming a tradition, an event when we get to break our equipment out of the closet (or more likely the car trunk, where my waders live year-round) and wander around in the cold and the rain for a few hours. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Part of it might be desperation. The tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) breed when our morale is at its nadir - from late November through February - so even the slightest glimmer of a chance to find something as cool as a tiger salamander (and they sure are cool - yellow-spotted black salamanders that can get up to a foot long) is enough to drag us out onto rainy highways at rush hour for almost two hours to reach the breeding pools.

The problem is that all our likely pools are about an hour and a half away (the other end of S. Jersey and down into the Delmarva Peninsula) and it's hard to tell when the pools are full from up here in Philadelphia.

I had a strong tip that the pools I keep targeting were not full yet, but that it still might be worth road cruising for salamanders. When I related this to Scott, he perked right up at the thought of road cruising (even for salamanders) and Simon was even more enthusiastic, replying to my email with at least ten exclamation points.

We drove around a little when we got there, stopping for sticks, dead leaves, and a particularly upright clump of dirt. We parked and walked around, shining our beams around on the forest floor for anything crawling around (nothing was). The pools were as dry as we expected, but we turned over logs anyhow, hoping a salamander might have showed up early for the party and was waiting for everyone else. No luck there either - Scott flipped a redback salamander but we turned up no tigers.

The rain had slowed to a slight mist when we parked, but it picked up again on our way back to the car, and so did some calling frogs. At first it was just a spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) off in the distance. It's strange to hear just one peeper, so that we stopped and scrutinized it, alternating between thinking it was a frog and thinking it was some baby bird begging for food. Then there was another peep from another direction, and another, and pretty soon the slightly metallic sound of a thumb running through the teeth of a comb - a chorus frog (Pseudacris feriarum).

This gave us some hope, but it evaporated back on the road. We missed any tigers, but did find a leopard - a southern leopard frog (Rana utricularia).

The most exciting part of the evening was when we passed a small SUV at an intersection and saw that the driver had a headlamp on. We realized that he must have been road cruising too, and we pulled a quick U-turn. Our fellow herper sure drove like he was road cruising, going slowly and continually braking for sticks, leaves, and that clump of dirt.

We debated how best to contact him. I thought it must have been spooky to drive behind him like that without passing, so I argued that we should drive up alongside him and talk right away. Scott thought that would surely freak him out, but after a few minutes of our following and arguing, the driver decided for us. He pulled over to the right and we made contact.

It turned out there were two herpers in the car - both of whom I'd heard of, and we had a good quick conversation about what they'd been seeing (even a DOR wormsnake - Carphophis amoenus - and a live spadefoot toad - Scaphiophus holbrookii).

They live closer to where we were cruising than we do, and they reported that those particular pools sometimes don't even fill up until the end of the winter - February. We were pretty intrigued by the winter rain road cruising results (we hardly ever see spadefoots), however, and we think we might try it again, although maybe closer to home until we get firm word that the tiger pools actually have water in them.

Monday, December 08, 2008

There's always been something a little spooky about herping an overgrown, decrepit cemetery like Mt. Moriah. It would be the perfect setting for a horror film. At dusk I could imagine peeking into a mausoleum and a skeleton hand grabbing me by the ankle and never letting go, or a flock of bats flying out of a tree stump and turning into vampires.

We've joked about more realistic encounters - that some day I'd find a body there to go with the used condoms and other dumped trash. Of course we say same the same thing about Cobbs Creek, not to mention oodles of rural trash dumps that draw our herping attention.

On Saturday the 15th the weather was a little better than expected with a sunny break after the rain and with temperatures up into the high 60s. I found nothing at Mill Creek Farm, but I figured it couldn't hurt to dash on down to Mt. Moriah to see what I could see.

When I got there, however, what I saw were a couple unmarked Crown Victorias and a truck with a body bag in it. I waved to the detectives and one of them came over and told me a body had been dumped in the cemetery, something that he said happens from time to time. He thought it was a murdered homeless man.

I mentioned this to Scott, and a week later he called me with a bizarre but depressing twist to the story. Scott is an emergency medicine resident over at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Scott mentioned the body I'd found to one of the other doctors at the HUP emergency department, and the doctor stopped him mid-story and gave it a new ending.

Apparently right after I left the cemetery the body took a breath. The truck drove the apparently alive man to the HUP ER where Scott's colleague took care of the man, who was suffering from severe hypothermia. Unfortunately the time out in the cold was too much for him, and he died later in the week in Intensive Care.

I'll encourage everyone reading this to make a donation to the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness, Project HOME, Bethesda Project, or another homeless charity of your choice in memory of our anonymous neighbor from the cemetery.

To strive for an up note at the end of this post, I'll close with a couple photos of a brown snake found on a different day a few yards from where I talked to the detective:

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I guess the season has ended. I'm a little depressed about it; I had a hard time summoning some positive vibes on Scott and my drive back from South Jersey on Veterans Day (November 11th) - the same spot I'd visited with Chris and Frank just a week and a half before.

That November 1st trip was unlikely too, but the temps were up in the 60s, making the difference for the box turtles and fence lizards, at least.

Earlier in the day on the 11th I'd turned up a baby brown snake in the Mt. Moriah Cemetery:

Scott and I had been debating going out into South Jersey for a few days. The forecast high temperature of 50 degrees was probably too low, even with a nice blue sky and direct sunlight. Anything basking would be showing just a coil or two, and more likely than not it would be under something close to its den.

However poor the odds, we still had to give it a shot, if for no other reason than this is what we do: we herp, and if there's even a glimmer of hope, it's better than almost anything else we could be doing.

That said, the drive back had a mournful quality, like driving back from a funeral. We spoke little, and what we said was about the cold, sterile time to come.

It isn't all that bad; we're probably being babies about it. The one nice thing about winter is that in four months it will be spring again, and damn if we won't appreciate that when it comes.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

[The introduction to the post is now hard to read - leaving it in is an act of masochism]

Maybe the season never ends. Maybe we'll keep saying, "this is the last nice day..." and the herps will keep proving us wrong. I sure hope so, but I hope so in the same way that I hope I'll win the lottery on Wednesday - I know it isn't going to happen, but it's an entertaining fantasy for a little while. In fact by now, when I've scheduled this post to run, we should have nights dropping consistently into freezing, keeping our cold-blooded friends safely underground.

On Saturday November 1st I joined up with Frank and Chris to herp a lovely track of land on the edge of the Pine Barrens.

You might wonder why I didn't head back to the mountains on Saturday, a sunny day with a high in the low 60s and great prospects for basking timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) and black ratsnakes (Pantherophis obsoleta).

I guess the reason is those black ratsnakes, the ones that have kept me unhealthily obsessed with the weather where I think they might be spending the winter - some likely den sites up in the mountains.

It makes no sense that I'd be trying another place when place is probably not the reason I'm striking out with ratsnakes: I'm hitting good spots up in the mountains; I'm probably just profoundly unlucky. Still, why hit my head against the same wall when I can try another wall?

So, east I went instead of north and west. Frank and I carpooled and got to the site a few minutes ahead of Chris. I flipped some boards I'd laid out last year and quickly turned up an adorable pair of fence lizards. These aren't easy for me to catch when they're warm, but when they're cool in the morning like this they're a lot easier to grab. Once in hand, whether hot or cold, I've found that fence lizards freeze up - probably from sheer terror.

I love their texture. I know that's a strange thing to say about a lizard, but their pointy scales make for a very rough feel, like something made of the bark and pine needles they call home.

The female is on the left, with the sharper and darker lines. The male on the right has the more orange pattern.



It's even easier to tell them apart when you flip them over to check their bellies. The male has blue patches on the sides, brighter than this in the breeding season, while the female's belly is just speckled with black:

When you put them down they stay still a moment, and I don't feel quite right (worried they'll get picked off by a hawk or something) until I tickle their tails to wake them up and get them to scurry off under cover again.

We struck off on a walking route for the next few hours, basically checking all the places Chris had ever seen ratsnakes or pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) late in the season or early in the spring, trying to see if we could find a hibernaculum.

We had no luck, but we did come across a couple box turtles basking in the trails. It's never a bad day when you find a box turtle, even if no ratsnakes turn up. Finding two on the first day of November was truly a pleasure, even if I still haven't found any ratsnakes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Sunday October 26th, the day after my birthday and way later in the year than I ever thought would be worth herping, a sunny day brought me back out. I was incredibly tired, having stayed up late the night before watching the Phillies win game three of the World Series at nearly two in the morning (Carlos Ruiz is the man - why the Rays loaded the bases for someone who was, at that point, the only Philly hitting the ball reliably, I'll never understand, but I'm delighted they did it), but I hopped in the car and drove out to Upper Roxborough to the spot where earlier Scott had found a road jerky milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum). I poked around and scoped out a stone wall where I'll bet you they're hibernating, but I didn't see any.

I ran into a nearby homeowner, and I asked her about milksnakes. In this case I didn't even have to knock on her door (she was outside giving the business to a guy riding up and down the street on a loud ATV), but never be too timid to do this. Asking someone to herp on their property is a bigger deal, but I have yet to find someone who wouldn't tell me what kind of snakes they see in their back yard. Even in Philly, a notoriously unfriendly city, people open right up to talk about the little baby garters they see in the garden (usually those are brown snakes - Storeria dekayi). As for this homeowner, I'd been hoping for an answer like, "oh, they're right over there," but unfortunately this particular homeowner hadn't seen any milksnakes - just garters (Thamnophis sirtalis).

When I recounted this story to Scott, he pointed out how many different kinds of snakes lay people assume are garter snakes, but I had described milksnakes in a lot of detail and I'm pretty sure they hadn't seen any. Let this also be a lesson in the secretive habits of milksnakes. We know they live (and die) half a block away from that house, but the neighbors had no idea.

I took off for another area to herp for milksnakes, but had no luck there either - just a few redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) and this American toad (Bufo americanus). I guess I should hype this toad - all I've been posting lately have been brown snakes and redbacks, and it was a genuine pleasure to see this toad, with its beefy forearms, hopping across the newly fallen leaves on the forest floor.

I decided to wrap things up at the Mt. Moriah Cemetery, where I found one beat-up adult male brown snake. It now occurs to me that this is a really crappy photo to show off an interesting critter, but I'd like you to note a couple things - first, dig that big scar towards the base of its tail. It had several more scars on its belly and back down its tail. You never know exactly what scars are from, but I figure this brown snake was lucky to get away from something, and it then recovered from some really ugly wounds.

Also note the pattern on the back - the little bars connecting some of the dots. These bars are within the usual range of variation for our brown snakes (the northern subspecies), but if you connected a few more of the dots, you'd have the pattern of the subspecies from the South and Midwest - the Midlands brown snake, or Storeria dekayi wrightorum)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

[From the end of September into October I've racked up a backlog of herping trips/posts. With the barren heart of winter still to come, I'll keep posting these fall trips and look forward to posting some of the posts about my travels once I run out.]

I'm a little worried these brown snake (Storeria dekayi) posts are getting repetitive, but I'm still having a good time with them. The later in the season this brown snake thing goes, the more fun it gets, since the end of October isn't supposed to yield much. October 25th is my birthday, and usually it's a chilly day, when I wish my birthday were sometime in April or May.

The weather on my 32nd birthday was windy and wet. Even with the high of 65 or so, it didn't look great for much besides salamanders. Still, when we ran by the Mill Creek Farm for some veggies, I couldn't resist flipping a few pieces of cover. The first snake I turned up was a baby, a Young of the Year (YOY) as we like to say. I had no equipment with me, so I just took note of where I'd found it and let it go. I tried another piece of cover, and this time found an adult female. She was pretty calm, and Jen shrugged when I asked if we could take her home to mark her, my thinking to bring her back on Wednesday. Here she is in our temporary holding container (she's now set up in a small cage for her four day stay at our place):

With my luck at Mill Creek, I figured why not try the cemetery. Here's another view of the overgrown graveyard, downright spooky with low, spitting clouds and a hard, whistling wind blowing leaves around.

I found one little redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus - what else is new) but I also found this little YOY brown snake. It was too small to mark (or I just lack the nerve to take a cautery to such a tiny snake), but I was able to measure it, and it's always nice to find another snake this late in the season.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I guess the season ain't over till it's over. That sounds a little hokey, kind of like the herping maxim "the snakes are where you find them," but it didn't get above the low 50s today (windy too) on October 22nd, and I still found two brown snakes (Storeria dekayi) in the Mt. Moriah cemetery in the late afternoon.

The redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) were less of a surprise - they're basically out all winter if the ground isn't frozen.

More important than the 'don't give up' idea here is the importance of locating hibernacula - where critters spend the winter. I do this by paying attention to where the snakes are in the early spring and late summer and reading the landscape (features, like walls, exposed to a lot of sun) for likely dens.

Snakes generally don't go into a true hibernation like some mammals such as woodchucks - sleeping straight through no matter what - rather they tend to take advantage of warm spells to come out and bask a bit. A professional herpetologist I know once found pine snakes basking at their den in a December warm spell, and I've found garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) and brown snakes at 'wrong' times of year. So, if we get a bright sunny week in the 50s in the middle of the winter, you know what I'll be doing.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

I've wanted to eat lunch with timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) since my encounter in late August. The idea that these big, beautiful snakes just keep on doing what they're doing as long as I don't get too close just tickles me to no end, so much so that I've wanted to bring a lawn chair with me all the way up one of the right mountains to sit back and chill with them.

On Wednesday October 15th I checked that off my herping to-do list with Eitan. He had emailed me earlier in the week, and with a little finagling I was off work and we were driving up into the mountains. We checked out yet more rocky outcroppings (I think we covered at least eight miles that day) and then a familiar stretch of rock, but it took a little more searching to find the party.

I had followed Eitan up onto a new slab, when he stopped and announced that a big, beautiful yellow timber rattler was basking just on the other side, more or less where we were planning on stepping in another second or two.

We each took our "safety shots," as Eitan calls them, and then he crouched down to take some closer pictures.

I was happy with mine but afraid to step off the rock for fear of startling the snake. So, I started very carefully looking around us, since where there's one rattler... there's another basking fifteen feet away!

Picking out cryptic snakes in a sun-dappled background takes a kind of methodical discipline I usually lack. You have to look around and give your eyes a minute to let shadows or charred stumps resolve into coiled snakes. Usually whatever I'm staring out stays a stump or a pile of leaves (and then there's this pain-in-the-ass black lichen that curls off the rock and looks just like a coil), but every now and then it turns into a beautiful black timber rattler.

And then it happened again. This time I was staring into the shadow of a tree, and again it turned into a snake.

That's about when we declared it a fine time to eat lunch and pulled out our sandwiches. The snakes just sat there doing what they were doing while I munched on my PB&J and we discussed just how awesome timber rattlesnakes actually are.

With lunch over, I circled around to get a picture of the snake behind the tree. What a spectacular snake. I have no idea why it was sitting out in the open and not in the sun, but we were happy to stare at it a bit longer.

We had one more rattler to find, this one through no dedicated or highly focused landscape examination. I simply put my hand down on a waist-high slab of rock with a boulder on top of it and noticed a snake in a crack three feet away. See it?

I walked around for a better look.

We didn't just see timbers on this trip. I know that it will sound horribly ungrateful to complain about seeing only timber rattlesnakes on these trips, but I have been confused by the lack of smaller snakes this fall, when my tried-and-true method of flipping rocks along trails hasn't produced the usual ringnecks (Diadophis punctatus) and garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis). I was genuinely thrilled to see a garter snake in a patch of sun next to the trail. Here's the little guy.

And last, and maybe kind of least, here's a wood frog (Rana sylvatica) that neither of us saw until Eitan accidentally kicked it in the grass.

And here it is hopping away.

Friday, October 31, 2008

I haven't posted enough about my black ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoleta) obsession, or, depending how I look at it, it's best that I don't post about my black ratsnake obsession.

I didn't start the season (back in March?) with a black ratsnake obsession. They were one of my favorite species to find, indeed probably tops on my list, but I could count on seeing at least a few (two in 2006, four in 2007) in a year's worth of slogging around wetlands and lowland forest and hiking through the mountains of PA. Their ubiquity gave me a false sense of reliability - they live in all the habitats I herp - upland, lowland, the edges of wetlands, farmland tree lines, and remote mountain ridges. A snake that I have a chance to see on every trip outside the city should show itself to me at least once, but that's not what's happened.

Other people have suffered black ratsnake droughts - Eitan most famously in my herping circle, and a herper from the DC area who posts frequently on Field Herp Forum recently posted that he broke a four year spell. Even the great Kauffeld wrote about a ratsnake drought in Snakes and Snake Hunting.

As the season has progressed, I've grown more frustrated and focused on black ratsnakes to an emotionally unhealthy degree. What makes this especially infuriating is that it's very difficult to focus on finding black ratsnakes. They're not predictable in the same way as spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) or rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), species that, if you know where they live, will almost always be out at specific times of the year under specific weather conditions. I know several black ratsnake spots, but however often I've visited them this year, I've come up empty-handed. Black ratsnakes frequently cohabit with timber rattlers, for example, and I've spent a lot of time with rattlers this fall, but nary a ratsnake have I seen.

I tried to break my dry spell with a trip to the mountains on the 13th. This was a longer drive than I usually do for a day trip, but I wanted to return to where I'd seen the gravid timber on August 23rd (see my August 27th post). I got in one hell of a hike - about five solid hours of hiking almost directly up a ridge and then scrambling around a line of short cliff faces and boulders.

I should note the spectacular views from the top. I hardly ever post gorgeous vistas like this (this will be no exception), with a valley spread out below me, a patchwork of deep reds, bright yellow, and blazing orange. Basically I'm afraid someone will recognize the landscape and deduce the locale, even when I suspect, as in this case, that it's a place that none of my fellow herpers have visited. You'll have to use your imagination, I guess, but the point I'd like to get across is how surprised I was at how beautiful it was - I don't go out herping for the views, however predictably gorgeous they'll be from the top of the rocky ridge lines I work for rattlers. In addition my eyes are usually on the rocks at my feet, not at the view behind me, so when I turn around and see a view that belongs on a postcard, I'm always surprised and delighted that it's been there behind me the whole time.

However successful the hike was, I ended the day disappointed. I only saw one snake, and then just barely. I had scrambled to the top of yet another rocky shelf sticking out of the mountainside, and as I made it up to my feet I heard a slow sliding noise, that steady rustling of dead leaves that gives away a moving snake. I jerked my head around to look and saw a thin black tail disappearing under a boulder. There was no rattle on that tail, which leaves two possibilities: black racer (Coluber constrictor) or black ratsnake. Now in my notes I've recorded this as a mystery snake (my term for an unidentified snake, kind of like the mystery turtles that dive before I get a good look at them or the mystery frogs that you hear jumping in the water before you know they're there), but I'm leaning towards ratsnake. That wooded, rocky terrain doesn't strike me as racer habitat (I could be wrong, but I associate them more with flat, open woods or overgrown fields), and the snake was not escaping like a racer. Racers tend to zip away in dramatic fashion, kind of like a guy in a sports car showing off. This snake was sliding away slowly, gracefully getting out of sight before I noticed it was there, and of course it succeeded in doing just that.

I'm not counting this as a success. It certainly doesn't feel satisfying; I didn't get to handle the snake (my favorite part of finding ratsnakes) or see it rear back in that ascending zig-zag that ratsnakes use to look tough. I'm obsessed as I was before, and of course now I'm facing the long winter - four and a half hard months of guaranteed ratsnake-less frustration.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I guess a lot of people would find standard herping disgusting. After all I'm hunting what for other people are "creepy crawlies," and they often share space under rocks with centipedes and spiders, ants and flatworms. I spend hours thigh-deep in marsh muck stinking of sulfurous dekay and have snakes spray me with feces and foul-smelling musk.

Yet urban herping presents its own uniquely disgusting hurdles. I don't find so many used condoms out in the woods, but in the Mt. Moriah Cemetery they're almost as common as the red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus).

Also disgusting is discarded clothing. That might not sound so gross on the face of it, but why would you discard clothing in a cemetery frequented by prostitutes and used by homeless people for a camp site? I'll let your imagination race with that one.

On the afternoon of 12th of October (sunny, mid-70s) I came back to Mt. Moriah and my favorite wall there to look for more brown snakes, but I didn't spot any out and sunning themselves as had Eitan and Shoshanna the week before.

The one piece of artificial cover there is an old pair of work pants, moldy and stiff from seasons exposed to the elements, home, I suppose, to a thriving micro- and macro-biological community, kind of like an artificial reef. Using as little of my finger as possible, I lifted up the pants (so stiff they were more like a piece of particle board than fabric) and saw three brown snakes. I grabbed two of them and stuck them in a plastic container, but the third disappeared INTO the pants.

What a quandary that presented. There was a snake in there, but I sure as hell didn't want to reach my hand in there. As gingerly as possible, I lifted the pants by the waist and peered inside. I saw a coil of a snake balanced on a stiff fold of fabric, within reach but again nowhere I wanted to stick my hand.

So, I shook the pants out, expecting the snake to fall out so I could easily grab it from the ground without the unsettling contact with foul cemetery pants.

That little guy hit the ground, but it was not alone. Three others made the short fall too! That's right, I shook four total snakes out of an ill pair of stiff, moldy, crusty old pants. Here they are in the temporary holding container, waiting to be marked and released.

The extra fun part was that two of them were re-captures from the week before.

I'll leave you with a picture of a lead-backed phase red-backed salamander, in the process of wriggling out of my hand. I found these in the cemetery, and again along Cobbs Creek as I searched for earthworms - I had to turn over a lot of cover for two measly nightcrawlers, but had no trouble turning up a half dozen salamanders.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I keep saying ‘this trip to the mountains will be my last one this year,’ and each time I prove myself wrong. Last week I was hurting for some timber rattlers again; it’s now very much like an addiction – not just the snakes but the whole experience of leaving the city, hiking out over rocky trails through the woods, and hopping from boulder to boulder in search of the rough, heavy beasts. Even now I look out the window at the blue sky and know there are probably thousands of rattlers basking in picturesque locales all across PA.

So, I planned a trip Sunday (October 5th), and pretty soon Scott, Simon, Eitan, and Eitan's wife Karyn were coming along as well. In a replay of the week before, the clouds were thick and low in the sky, but there were enough gaps of blue to convince us that it was worth hanging around. After some initial scouting, Eitan and Karyn went for a walk, and the remaining three of us poked around a bit and then stretched out on a cold boulder to chat and stare at the sky. It's hard to watch; the sun pokes through, but you see a swath of gray sweeping towards it, and you then try to find the back edge of the blanket of cloud (hard to call it just a 'cloud' when it's covering one quarter of the sky) and look beyond it for more blue.

After an hour of that the sun gained the upper hand. We now soaked up some rays ourselves even as we felt the rock sucking the heat out through our backs. We debated at what point the rocks would be warm enough to encourage the snakes to climb out onto them, but then I put my hand out on some leaf litter and found it warm to the touch.

That observation was enough to get us up on our feet and looking. We didn't have to look far; Scott peeked in between some stacked slabs maybe ten feet away and called out, "I've got one!"

Simon and I scrambled around behind him and pulled out our cameras. You can see it here peeking out into the sun, enjoying the rays, and making up its mind whether to come all the way out.

I called Eitan on his cell phone to let him know, and they started back. We fanned out to keep checking around boulders and sunny patches of leaf litter, finding no more timbers but feeling energized by the pretty black snake Scott had found.

Soon Eitan called back, I assumed to try to locate us, but instead he was reporting their own great luck: Karyn had spotted a copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)! See it basking so delicately sheltered by the oak leaf and the rock, soaking up that little patch of sun in between?

This last photo is Eitan's:

This is my first PA copperhead, and Scott's as well (come to think of it, it might have been the first PA copperhead for everyone there). I've seen them before in Ohio and in Georgia, and the others had seen scads of them down South, where they're one of the most common snakes you find crossing the road at night. In Pennsylvania they're pretty widespread across the bottom two thirds of the state, ranging through the rolling hills of Chester County, for example, but also found denning up with rattlers and black ratsnakes (Pantherophis obsoleta) on rocky mountainsides.

The hard part about copperheads for me is how darn cute they are; I want to just reach out and pick them up when I see them. Of course that would be stupid. Their bite is generally not deadly, but it's strong enough to land me in the hospital and maybe permanently ruin a finger or two.

After our photo session with the copperhead, we led Eitan and Karen back to the rattler. By then it had curled itself up in a comfortable basking pose.

Eitan and Karyn had to make it to a play that evening, so they headed back to their car before we did. They called on their way back to the car to report another timber, and they were kind enough to mark the trail where they'd seen it so we could find it on our way out. We took a couple hours - we checked out some other likely den sites, and that took a LOT of hiking and scrambling around. By the time we made it to where they'd seen the snake, we needed the pick-me-up.

Here it is, back in a defensive pose.

Interestingly it was far from any plausible den site, at least a quarter mile by my estimation. I think it might still have been on its way back home, but there's always a chance of another den that I haven't found yet. I prefer the latter; it means there's yet more out there to explore.

Last thing, another hiker had introduced me to teaberries the week before. You can see them around the second rattler above, but here's a closeup:

They're not quite as fun as blueberries or cherries, but they have a refreshing minty/cinnamon taste, and I enjoyed munching on them as we hiked.