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.

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