Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Mill Creek Farm is up and running again for the 2009 season, which also means I've been excited to check out the brown snakes (Storeria dekayi) that live there. On Wednesday (March 25th) they had their second volunteer workday, and I showed up to help turn over their beds, and of course check around for brown snakes.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and in the high 50s, and I had a good time working the broad fork - kind of like a gigantic hair pick with two handles that you jam into the soil and then pull back on to pry up the soil.

I checked around for brown snakes, even slipping alongside the bee hives by the back fence (still haven't been stung yet, and there's something oddly calming about the buzz of bees leaving and arriving back at the hives) to check some cover there.

I was a little surprised to find no snakes at all. The co-directors, Jade and Johanna, report that they haven't seen any snakes at all yet this season, and this is about when they started seeing them last year.

I can't say I'm not a little concerned. Brown snakes have been showing up elsewhere in West Philly for a couple weeks already - in front of Jim's house, at Mt. Moriah Cemetery, even at a friend's community garden as I learned Friday night at a dinner party.

The city knocked down a decrepit, abandoned row house to the back of the Mill Creek Farm, and I'm a little worried the demolition activity might have disturbed the snakes in the middle of the winter or wrecked their hibernaculum completely. I'm probably jumping to an unnecessary conclusion, and I hope to be proven wrong in the next few weeks.

I rode from the farm down to Mt. Moriah cemetery, where I finally turned up an adult brown snake. Scott and I were joking about how we take an absurdly high number of photos of the first critters of the spring, even if they're common species we'll probably see dozens more times through the year, and this pretty female was a victim of my delight to be holding an adult brown snake again. Here are a couple of the shots I took:

I turned over another piece of cover to reveal three snakes sitting together, but two escaped before I could grab them, leaving me with just this plain male for photos. His belly looked awful - spotted with what I assume is some kind of skin infection. Hibernation isn't always good for the skin, as the ugly looking snakes we find in March and early April demonstrate, and I think he should look better after his first shed.

Last, here are a couple shots of one of the omnipresent redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), this one the leadback phase.

One last little interesting anecdote: at the Mill Creek Farm one of the neighborhood kids was talking with me about catching snakes, and he told me about a vacant lot not too far away where he and his friends catch brown snakes. I asked him a little more about the vacant lot, and he said that it's one of the cleaned-up lots with grass and a nice little wooden fence around the border, but that he and his friends set down some old car wheels - the metal part, sans tire - and a few days later they come back and check under the metal to find the brown snakes. It was cool to see 9-year olds figuring out what it can take herpers years to figure out, that laying out artificial cover can make it easier to catch snakes.