Wednesday, June 03, 2009

I believe I have regained the ratsnakes' favor. They had chosen to ignore me for a couple years, leaving me to wonder what I had done to offend them, but a few weeks ago a black ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoleta) revealed itself to me, and I believe (hope, pray) that I am again in the fold.

You probably get the impression that I am a little crazy for black ratsnakes. If I had to choose my favorite species of snake to observe and to catch, I would pick the black ratsnake - that sounds kind of childish (flashback to the 6 year old Billy chattering to his parents about how neat snakes are), but the time away from ratsnakes had been wearing on me.

Almost every herping trip I've been on outside the city has had ratsnake potential, including the mountain trips I've taken, ostensibly for timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus). Friends and other herpers have reported beautiful ratsnakes, baby ratsnakes, ugly ratsnakes, from places I go all the time. Scott, who got out about half as often as I did over this time period, found at least three.

It's difficult to target ratsnakes - they live in almost all the Delaware Valley's non-urban habitats, but tend to hide in inaccessible places (tree stumps, root holes, hollow logs and trees). You don't find them so much as you stumble across them, and none were presenting themselves before me for stumbling. So I did all I could do, which was seek the more predictable creatures in places where ratsnakes supposedly abound, and keep my eyes open.
Simon and I headed out to one reliable rattler spot at the beginning of May, a place where we found a nice adult black ratsnake two years ago (my last one before the drought) but that since then has produced only rattlers (and one little garter snake - Thamnophis sirtalis). I know I'll earn no herper sympathy for finding "only rattlers" but it was still bugging me that the more common species so completely eluded me at the perfect site.
As we approached the target set of rocky outcroppings my eyes fixed on the thin black shape stretched out from a horizontal crack in the rock. My long search was finally over.

I quickly mentally mapped out a route to the top of the ledge and told Simon to spot me - to guide me from below so I could reach over and pick the snake up even if I couldn't see it from above. I got a little nervous at the last maneuver on the damp, slippery, downward sloping edge of the ledge - lying down on my back, holding onto a dead sapling with my left hand and reaching out just so with my right to pluck the snake from the rock.

It was worth it. I know it's a small ratsnake, but isn't it beautiful?

Here's Simon hamming it up with the snake:

We did also find our official target for the trip, a rattlesnake, but only one. We were happy to see it, but we were perplexed that we saw no others.

We hiked on, undertaking a really, really long trek including some wicked and steep cliff faces and long boring stretches of trails through the woods. It all seems reasonable when you plan it out on paper, but after five or six miles of climbing and hiking you just want to be back in the car.

The local toads demonstrated much more energy. Lots of puddles were full of eggs, and this one including adults producing them:

We found newts (Nopthalmus viridiscens) and lots of tadpoles in other puddles. The tadpoles were probably wood-frogs-to-be (Rana sylvatica). Here's an adult enjoying another puddle:

The strange second highlight of the trip was a black racer (Coluber constrictor). I know what you're thinking, aren't black racers the super-common species that's always chewing on us in New Jersey? Well, I've always stuck up for the black racers, even where they're common, and in the mountains of PA they're not all over the place like they are in the Pine Barrens. Simon and I were trudging along towards a beautiful creek we were going to search for wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta - no luck). Simon spotted a long black snake on the side of the trail, and for a split second I thought, 'ratsnake?', but in a flash it was gone, shooting over the leaves in perfect racer fashion (no ratsnake moves that fast, and a ratsnake would have climbed one of the oodles of trees around us rather than stick to the ground). Simon took off behind it and I flanked it, but the racer matched our full run for a few seconds there. It was doing about 8 miles per hour by my estimate, which is really fast for a snake. It stopped the chase by pulling up into a tall, tough defensive posture, rattling its tail in the leaves nervously and facing us down like a real fighter. Some snakes bluff, but you know a racer is serious.

The first shot is Simon's, with me off to the left waving at the snake to get it to give Simon a view of the side of its head.

We also found some salamanders relatively early on in the trip - one half-grown spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus oddly under rocks a few yards from water; we usually find these in the water or right at the edge):

Here's one of the more usual suspects, a slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosis):

A little later in the week Eitan, Scott, and I came back. I think we hit the site a little too late in the day, since in spite of the pretty, sunny weather we only saw one rattler, a small black one that ducked out of sight before we could get a photo.

Of course we found another toad, this one a youngster:

and then Scott somehow spotted this bizarre and bittersweet little specimen in the brush next to a rock:

It's a dessicated little hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos), half eaten by something, sad to see but like all dead herps a sign that they live there, that that mountainside supports a population of the fun, hard-to-find (at least in PA) snakes.

On our way out I pointed to some rocks alongside the trail and complained that the rocks along that particular trail on that mountainside never seem to host any small snakes. I flip rocks along trails like that all over the state and find snakes, why on that particular mountainside should I find none?

Out of spite or stubborn herping habit, I lifted one of those perfect rocks and of course found a half-grown ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus). It squirmed too much for decent photos, but here it is:

Scott leaned down to flip another of the rocks and found number two, another squirmer that gave us only a blurry shot of its attempt to bite Eitan, adorable in such a small snake:

Gifts from the ratsnakes?