Monday, June 09, 2008

I recently learned of a hillside in northern Chester County that is home to a population of copperheads (Agkistrodon contortix). I’ve seen these in the Hocking Hills in Ohio, I’ve seen them in Lullwater Park in suburban Atlanta, but I’ve yet to see one of ours. These guys are more widespread than our timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) - we've even got them as close as Valley Forge, but they appear to be in decline around the state.

Last weekend (June 7-8) was too hot to do just about anything outdoors. I had been planning on helping out with some herp surveying on the other side of the Pine Barrens, but with highs in the 90s, I would have had to get there by around six in the morning to get in much worthwhile herping, and to get there by six I’d have had to leave my place at 4:30am, which would have meant waking up at a time I didn’t want to consider. So, I postponed the trip and decided to go closer to home.

Copperheads are beautiful snakes with hourglass-shaped bands in shades of fallen leaves: chestnut, tan, light orange. Of course this makes them difficult to spot while they’re sitting still. They hang out in and around fallen leaves where they’re perfectly camouflaged, and there are a lot of photos on Field Herp Forum of ‘the copperhead I almost stepped on while I was…’

They den communally, much like timber rattlers, with several individual snakes spending the winter around the same rocky outcroppings, and indeed it’s not uncommon to find rattlers and copperheads at the same den sites.

Although it’s late in the season, I figured it couldn’t hurt to check out the rocky outcroppings that are this population’s den site. Pregnant female copperheads like to hang around open rocky areas where they can soak up the sun, ‘cooking their babies,’ in herper slang.

At Sunday’s temps it wouldn’t take much sun to overcook the babies, so I showed up around 6:30am. The temperature was in the low 70s, but it was already oppressively humid as I headed up the slope and tried to find the outcroppings. I’m glad I got directions. You’d think a swath of car-sized boulders would be easy to spot, but in the summer with all the trees and bushes fully foliated, I didn’t see the rocks until I was almost on top of them.

I consciously switched from active hiking mode to slow-motion observation. I studied every pile of leaves I passed, and I spent several seconds perched on rock after rock, studying the patches of sunlight for coils and scales.

This wasn’t exactly scary, but I was highly aware that there could be a venomous snake hidden just about anywhere I could step or put my hand. I was wearing boots, and copperheads are famously placid, preferring to rely on their incredible camouflage to stay hidden rather than strike, but I still wanted to avoid finding a snake by feel rather than by sight.

I made four passes up and down that hillside, and I didn’t see a single copperhead. This was a better early spring exercise than a late spring exercise, and any copperheads around might have been hidden away, feeling no need to bask to raise their body temperatures. At least I know the terrain now, and I might just check the site out in the fall when everyone’s heading back to settle down for the winter.

I did see a lovely box turtle. She felt very heavy (gravid?) and she had sticky, gummy matter all over her beak. She had probably just finished munching on a snail or a slug. All in all it’s not uncommon to find box turtles with food on their faces. They’re sloppy eaters and they just love gooey, slimy invertebrates.

The weirdest thing I found was a ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus). I know what you’re thinking, “Huh? He finds ringneck snakes all the time!”

I’ll set it up by showing some pictures of the second ringneck snake I found on that hillside, the normal one. Note the bright yellow belly and ring around the neck:

Now check out ringneck number one:

It’s yellow has been replaced by a pale blue-gray color. This kind of thing is not unheard of. There are many types of color mutations documented in herps, some of which have become quite popular in herpetoculture. Some involve a lack or reduction of dark pigmentation (melanin). These are usually referred to as amelanistic and are sometimes called albino, which isn’t quite accurate since albino usually refers to a total lack of pigmentation. Those missing red coloration are called anerythristic, and those missing yellow are axanthic. So, what I found was an axanthic ringneck snake. I found a photo of another axanthic ringneck snake on Pennsylvania Wild, a site about PA wildlife, but otherwise this is the only one I’ve ever seen.

Here's an American toad (Bufo americanus) on the path.

I wound up the trip with a pass around a pond near the marsh. I spooked this frog, who hopped away from a large puddle in the embankment and into some bushes. I thought it was a bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), but in this photo, the little ridges/folds of skin running down the sides of its back show that it's a green frog (Rana clamitans). Both species were calling from around the pond: the bull frogs with their deep jug-o-rum, the green frogs with that loose banjo string plunk.

This garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) turned up under a rock near where I'd parked my car. Here you'll see it attacking my hand in an effort to get free. It then attacked my backpack, and once I'd set it and my backpack down, it took it a moment for it to realize it was free to disengage and slither away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! look at the fangs on that thing! You're lucky you can still type!
Nice shots,