Monday, September 23, 2013

Copperhead, on a dark Kentucky backroad

A full moon brightens the inky darkness of a backwoods Kentucky night. I spent a few days over the weekend past exploring the Red River Gorge area, and did a lot of nocturnal exploring. The Harvest Moon sure seemed to bring the critters out; the nighttime woods were crawling - literally - with animals.

My primary quarry was caterpillars, and they did not disappoint. This is a Waved Sphinx caterpillar, Ceratomia undulosa. It, and one of its brethren, were feeding on a white ash. To seriously seek caterpillars requires going out after dark. Most cats secrete themselves quite well during the day, waiting until the cover of darkness to emerge and feed. Many of their predators - wasps, tachinid flies, birds - pack it in after dusk, allowing caterpillars a greater likelihood of remaining uneaten or unparasitized as they slowly eat through the foliage.

The ash that produced the Waved Sphinx was a "super tree", and also harbored this gorgeous Fawn Sphinx, Sphinx kalmiae. Caterpillar-seekers lust for such trees, which may have an abnormally high nitrogen content, or some other positive factor that induces moths to lay their eggs on them in great numbers. One can look at tree after tree of the same species, and see very little. Then - BINGO! A super-tree, full of caterpillars.

While roaming around at night, it's impossible not to notice all of the other members of the night shift. A hidden army emerges, both prey and predator. Caterpillars would most definitely constitute the prey. This beast - absolutely a predator, and a rather high-end one. It is a fishing spider in the genus Dolomedes, possibly D. tenebrosus. They have a tendency to rest motionless and head down on tree trunks, rather near the ground. I would not want to be the lesser beast that attempts to climb the trunk, unaware of this palm-sized spider.

Beautiful but deadly, an ornately marked assassin bug works the leaves. Note its proboscis. A quick stab with that, and it's curtains for whoever is on the receiving end. Assassin bugs often take young caterpillars.

Some of the predators are cute, such as this American Toad. Toads galore were out on this particular night - I must have seen over 100. This warty little guy was snapping up various small bugs that bumbled into his sphere.

This was the crown jewel of predators on this night, though. I was slowly navigating my car down a seldom-used gravel lane high on a ridgetop when a pair of snakes created a mad shuffle on the verge. I stopped and leapt from the vehicle for a better look, and was delighted to see a beautiful pair of Northern Copperheads, Agkistrodon contortrix! Both animals are together in this shot, and I believe that's the male on the right.

We move in closer for a good look at the coppery head of the male, complete with cat eyes. A handsomer snake would be hard to find. It is venomous, of course, and copperheads should be treated with utmost respect. I was safely out of their zone of discomfort, and neither snake threatened me. I've come across many copperheads, and have never had one act aggressively. But, I've always seen them before I was too close for an incident to occur. Most bites probably occur when someone reaches into a hiding spot sight unseen, and surprises the snake. The effects of a bite are unpleasant, but rarely if ever cause death.

Anyway, it appeared that I had stumbled into an amorous couple. The snake pictured above seemed to be the aggressor, and it looked like it was pursuing the other. When I rudely came on the scene, it was the one that held its ground, while the other copperhead slithered into a nearby cavity at the base of a tree. Northern Copperheads apparently mate in both spring and fall, and fall-mating females can delay gestation for several months.

If Senor Copperhead was successful in his pursuit of the girl, this will be the result. I photographed this yearling copperhead last year in southern Ohio. Copperheads are live-bearers, and the newly minted snakelets are carbon copies of the adults. Except for the rather bright greenish-yellow tail tip, which can be seen in the far left of the photo. Young copperheads eat amphibians, lizards, and insects, and supposedly use their colorful tail tip as a lure to attract prey.

All in all, an excellent night in the dark woods.


Jack and Brenda said...

A very nice collection of wildlife! We were in the Red River gorge area in August and I got to see a Copperhead then. A really unique color, and well named snake.

Doug Marcum said...

Man sounds like a fun trip. Sweet macro shots of the insects too!