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.

What is herping for me? Is it primarily leisure activity? Is it a quasi-mystical way of communing with nature? Is it an addiction, scratching an itch that drives me insane if I don’t get out at least once a week and catch something? It’s probably all of the above, but it’s also a way to contribute to conservation efforts, a way (at the risk of cheesing out the reader) to make a difference.

I’ll note that this is not how it’s always been. My sense (primarily from talking with older herpers) of the early days is that collecting used to be a much bigger part of field herping. This was back before field herping and herpetoculture (keeping and breeding herps in captivity) split into relatively distinct hobbies. Thirty years ago you went out to the Pine Barrens and if you saw a really nice pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus), spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata), or king snake (Lampropeltis getula) you bagged it. Back then there was less of a focus on breeding snakes in captivity to supply the pet trade. There was also less of a sense that herps were a finite resource, that populations could be depleted by collecting or by other pressures.

These days captive breeding is largely regarded as the correct (morally, environmentally) way to produce captives. (For the most part I agree, but I don’t see much wrong with the occasional temporary captive: a lot can be learned by keeping a critter for a few weeks and then letting it go again, provided it’s a common species, it’s legal to collect it, and you take care to avoid transmitting any diseases or parasites from your permanent collection.)

We’ve also become aware of just how fragile some of our herp populations are, as the same old timers lament the local declines of critters they used to see all the time: “Years ago you could catch spotted turtles in that pond…” or “we used to catch bags of corn snakes [Pantherophis guttata] along those tracks and sell them by the foot back in Philadelphia…” I remember having a conversation with a guy who’s been herping for at least seventy years and who remarked how common my coveted milksnakes (Lampropeltis triangulum) are in old barns in Delaware County. I’m not sure when the last time was that he drove around Delaware County, but I politely informed him that there are no longer many (any?) old barns left in Delaware County. Delaware County, like much of the region, is mostly sprawl now (If you can take me to an old barn in DelCo where I can flip milksnakes, I’ll buy you a six pack of the beer of your choice). Sprawl wipes out herps in many ways, habitat destruction and increased road mortality foremost among them. Pollution has hurt populations of other species (cricket frogs – Acris crepitans – in much of our area, for example); collection has probably had an impact on others, for example those spotted turtles and possibly box turtles (Terrapene carolina).

I’m pleased to see that a lot of my contemporaries have become active with conservation efforts. Over in New Jersey, Kid Chelonia has gotten close with state biologists and works with them to help survey herp populations. A lot of folks active on the Field Herp Forum Northeast forum report finds to their state Herp Atlas Projects (see the links on the sidebar).

On Saturday May 31st Jen and I attended a presentation at a marsh preserve in northern Chester County, PA. The people who own and manage the land are actively involved in bird conservation efforts, and they talked about how they’d like to use the property for educational and research efforts.

We watched a slide show and then popped outside for a quick nature walk on the embankment around one of the ponds at the edge of the marsh. It was a mixed group of local land owners, staff from conservation organizations, and local biologists. I was a little surprised by how many people weren’t aware that there are hobbyist field herpers out there. I guess we need to do more to promote our existence, and I suppose this was just such an opportunity.

I got to play the expert when we found a dead painted turtle (Chrysemys picta). Someone spotted it a few feet away. No painted turtle hangs out that close to that many people, and I declared it dead before I fished it out of the water. It’s carapace was split at the back and its plastron scraped. I think a snapper (Chelydra serpentina) might have crunched it, but it still strikes me as a little strange.

I pointed out the green frogs (Rana clamitans) calling like loose banjo strings around the pond, and then Jen spotted a little American toad (Bufo americanus). I showed it around and talked about how we’d seen them breeding back in April.

The last show-and-tell herp was a female stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus) who looked to be digging a hole as if to nest. However she was really skinny; I don’t think she had any eggs in her to lay. Everyone thought the name ‘stinkpot’ was funny for a turtle, but then I waved her under a few noses and everyone understood. Stinkpots (a.k.a. musk turtles) have scent glands at the bridges of their shell that release a strong, acrid odor kind of like burning rubber.

The most fun news to come out of the property, however, was that a local biologist will be doing some research to follow up on Scott and my observations of spotted turtles Memorial Day weekend. This is a direct result of my having reported the finds to the PA Herp Atlas Project. The biologist is concerned that the spotted turtles are in trouble in PA, and he’s planning on marking turtles there, the first step in gauging the health of the population.

This development is incredibly gratifying. I’m an avid environmentalist, and I’ve always been happy to report finds so that our state agencies can build robust databases for herp conservation efforts. However to see some of our observations generate additional research makes the contribution a little more tangible.

I’ll close with some pictures from a little road cruising we did in New Jersey. We joined Scott on his first cruising trip of the year. We’d been expecting temps in the low 80s with light rain and high humidity. We got the rain and humidity, but the temps were in the low 70s and high 60s – far from ideal. Still, we managed to find a few turtles.

Here’s a mud turtle (Kinosternon rubriventris) we helped across the road. It was a female, and there's a good chance it was a female heading onto land to nest.

Here’s a young snapper for whom we did the same favor. Snappers can also musk, as he demonstrated on my hands.

We were about to drive through a large puddle in a dirt road when we realized there was a turtle swimming in it. It was a female painted turtle. I wonder what she was thinking. Was this a break in a hike to go dig nest holes? Was she going around in circles, trying to find the deep end?

I’ll end with a shot of a fowler’s toad (Bufo fowleri). Around dusk we were walking around, and it popped out of the sand right in front of me.

Jen had a blast the whole night chasing these guys around on the road. At one point we got out to listen to calling frogs (mostly Fowlers toads and carpenter frogs - Rana vergatipes). Scott and I looked around after a couple minutes and realized Jen was a good 200 yards down the road, her headlight dancing back and forth as she scooped up more of her hopping little friend.

Now I’ve got to get around to writing up the report for the NJ Atlas project…