Kid Chelonia has called for a couple bioblitzes on on Field Herp Forum (which since we’re ignoring all the other plants and animals technically makes it a little less than a bioblitz. How about a herpeblitz?), one of which was for a patch of pinewoods near the Shore that he’d heard has pine snakes on it. The day we were all supposed to go out was a few weekends ago, in the midst of our brutal heatwave (June 7th, when I headed to Chester County instead and found that trippy ringneck snake – Diadophis punctatus), so I postponed my part of the herpeblitz to June 14th.
I headed down early in the morning (hurts to think about it) with Simon to meet Eitan and his daughter Shoshanna near the spot. We quickly got to work flipping trash and strolling through the open places in the woods, carefully examining every patch of ground open to the sun. We were keeping an eye out for the pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) reputed to be there (hence the herpeblitz), but only found a few Fowler’s toads (Bufo fowleri) and fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus - this photo by Simon from later in the trip).
The day was young, so we piled back into our cars and headed for herping spot #2, a road running out into the brackish marsh just off the Shore.
We usually spend very little time herping brackish marshes because not much of herping interest lives there. There are no snakes, no lizards, no frogs, and no salamanders in that brackish water. There are occasionally mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum), but the only real reason we ever hit the brackish marsh is the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin).
Mid-June is the heart of their nesting season, and for the past few weeks thousands of females throughout the Delaware Bay and up the Atlantic Coast of New Jersey have been dragging themselves out of the water (the only time they ever do) to find a good place to dig a nest. I won’t say where we went, but there’s no secret to finding nesting female terrapins: there are probably hundreds of roads that run out from the Jersey mainland to beaches or docks on the ocean or bay, and almost all of them cut through terrapin habitat. Pick your road, check the tide charts and weather, and shoot for a warm day a couple hours after a high tide.
We saw eight in about forty minutes of looking, and we didn’t look too hard. We stopped for our first one, and then as we were taking pictures, another started across the road a few yards down. Then another popped out of the marsh, and another, and so on.
This old battleaxe was the first one.
Dig that chunk missing from her carapace.
These gals vary in color, from relatively plain to really pretty.
Eitan took the best shots (see "New Jersey" p. 6) of the day (as usual) of this, the prettiest turtle of the day:
Eventually we headed inland to hunt pine snakes. We drove through the Warren Grove area on our way. Remember that huge fire last year from the fighter pilot firing a flare too close to the ground? This is what it looks like now, most of the tree trunks blackened, some of the trees alive and growing again, and the underbrush looking quite green and vibrant.
Not too long after that we got to our first spot. We didn’t see any pine snakes, but what we did find more than made up for it. Eitan nearly stepped on this snake sunning itself as we were preparing to flip some boards at the site:
This is a hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos), and it is the most enigmatically hard-to-find snake in the Pine Barrens. I get frustrated just thinking about them. I can’t tell you how often I’ve sworn up and down to Scott, Simon, Chris, Eitan, Jen, and whoever else would listen to me about why the $#*&!! hognose snakes aren’t easier to find in the Barrens.
Hognose snakes eat toads, and that’s almost all they eat. If there’s one thing that is absurdly abundant in the Barrens, it’s toads. If you ever want to blow your mind, go out to the Barrens at the beginning of a warm rain shower and watch all the toads pop out of the sand, or better yet try to drive home without running over any of the suicidal little idiots. Hognose snakes should be the most common snakes out there – tons of prey (stupid, clumsy prey at that), endless sand to hide in; we're talking party central for the hognose snakes.
And yet, in spite of the most ideal hognose conditions anywhere, they are really hard to find. I’d only seen one, and it was dead on the road (but what a beautiful snake it was! - light beige background color with dark blotches).
And it’s not just that they’re enigmatically rare; these are some of the coolest snakes out there. Some snakes bite you, others musk and thrash around, but that kind of amateurish defensive behavior is not for the hognose snake.
These guys are consummate little actors, and they’ve got two acts to try out on you. First, they flatten their necks and try to look really tough and intimidating. They rear up, hiss, and strike (this one is in a classic hognose pose – neck flattened and tail in that little coil), but never actually open their mouths. (See p. 3 on Eitan's New Jersey page for his photos, and watch the clock; I've blown many an hour engrossed in his herping photo essays)
This is odd because they’ve actually got little fangs in the backs of their mouth, and there are mild envenomations recorded for them (swollen arms and mild fever – that kind of thing) when captives have mistaken their owners for toads. However even with that capacity for actual damage, I’ve never heard of a hognose biting in defense.
Act two is the death of the hognose. Unfortunately this one didn’t want to put on act two, but most hognose snakes will follow the “I’m going to kill you” display by rolling over on their backs, letting their mouths flop open, and playing dead. You can roll the snake back over on its belly, but, since right-side-up isn't dead enough, it will then roll back over onto its back.
Even without the full spiel (we figured because it was preparing to shed), this was one cool snake to find, although I can't say Scott was happy to hear we'd found it without him at his spot.
We did try one more stop where we found a worm snake (Carphophis amoenus)
and the nest of some other kind of snake (photo by Simon) under a chunk of concrete.
Black racers (Coluber constrictor) lay eggs with distinctively rough, sugar-grain textured shells, and these were smooth, so we can cross racers off the list. Unfortunately several other snakes lay smooth, oblong eggs about that size – I figure hognose snakes, corn snakes, black rat snakes, and kingsnakes are the options, so really all we can say is that these aren’t racer eggs.