Thursday, June 19, 2014

A "life" snake!!! And more snakes!

I've got a lot of friends who are really good amateur herpetologists, and they're a lot of fun to get afield with. This is one of them - Josh Dyer, who works for the Crawford County Park District. As fortune would have it, I had to speak to a teacher's workshop last Tuesday morning in Bucyrus. Part of the agenda involved an afternoon field trip, so of course I arranged for our group to connect with Josh and have a hike around one of the park district's properties. We had a blast, spending several hours in the 90 degree heat traipsing around and finding all manner of interesting flora and fauna. But it was snakes that ruled the day.

QUICK ASIDE: The Crawford County Park District is one of Ohio's jewels when it comes to conservation and outdoor education. The organization owns many interesting properties, and puts on a full agenda of excellent programming. To learn more about CCPD, CLICK HERE.

Josh took us to a "secret" meadow where he has long monitored the local snake population. One of the big problems with keeping tabs on snakes is that most of them are so darn secretive. It takes special search techniques to ferret out snakes, but the herpetologist does have a trick or two up his/her sleeve.

An easy way to lure snakes in is to simply place sheets of tin or wood on the ground. The reptiles will often find them to be good, dark, and warm hiding spots and develop a habit of secreting themselves under the sheets. It's one of these "tins" that Josh has flipped up in the first photo, and in the shot above he has a pair of female common gartersnakes, Thamnophis sirtalis, that he just grabbed from under another sheet.

The common gartersnake (syn: eastern gartersnake) is perhaps our most common and widespread snake in Ohio. We caught about 20 of them on this day, all or nearly all of which were female. Here, the snake flicks its beautiful orange and black tongue at the photographer. It is collecting detailed information about its surroundings with that tongue - CLICK HERE for an interesting article about snake tongues and how they work.

Although gartersnakes are completely harmless, they do have a good built-in repellant. When seized, a snake will typically let loose with a load of "musk" - a whitish malodorous paste. After an afternoon of handling numerous gartersnakes, an accumulation of musk has dried to form an ill-scented crust on Josh's arm.

I was quite pleased to see this gorgeous eastern milksnake, Lampropeltus triangulum. Milksnakes are highly beneficial, eating numerous rodents and other lesser animals. These snakes do have a propensity for hunting in and around sheds, barns and other outbuildings, and this behavior often brings them into contact with ignorant humans who kill them. I receive numerous emails every year of decapitated milksnakes from people wanting an identification. They often think it was a venomous copperhead.

Milksnakes are accomplished climbers, if they choose. We placed this one on the trunk of a massive bur oak, and it easily traversed the vertical bark-face. This animal was about 2.5 feet in length; they can exceed four feet.

Note the triangular dark patch atop the head - the source of the specific epithet triangulum (I presume). Milksnakes have a stunning pattern of alternating bands, and a fresh animal that has just shed its skin is striking indeed. The common name milksnake stems from their habitat of frequenting barns with plenty of rodents. This led to an old wive's tale that the snakes were there to tap the udders of cows and drain the milk. In reality, they are doing the farmer a service by taking out, or at least thinning, the barn's population of mice. Being a constrictor, a milksnake wraps its victim in several coils of its body, and exerts enough pressure to stop breathing and suffocate the prey, which is then swallowed whole.

Yes! This, bar none, was the find of the day! Josh flipped a tin to reveal a smooth greensnake, Opheodrys vernalis! The assembled teachers must have thought we were a bit touched in the head, as we whooped it up upon seeing this exotic rarity. I had long thirsted for a smooth greensnake, but they're not easy to find, at least without a special effort. Indeed, the day the we found this animal, the Ohio Division of Wildlife announced that its status had been changed from Species of Concern (a "watch list" category) to Endangered.

There is another much more common albeit range-limited greensnake in Ohio, the rough greensnake, Opheodrys aestivus. I've seen those many times, and once wrote about them RIGHT HERE.

Smooth greensnakes once occurred in 22 or 23 Ohio counties, but are probably only extant in four or so today. The remaining animals are strongly associated with prairie remnants, and surely would have been far more common prior to settlement, when prairies covered some 5% of Ohio.

These are exceedingly gentle and beautiful little animals. The stunning lime-green upper surface allows them to blend well with grasses or the foliage of low shrubs and trees. The smooth greensnake only reaches a maximum length of one and a half feet or so. Nonetheless, the little charmers are death on insects, which make up their primary prey.

Seen well, the scale pattern of a smooth greensnake is a true work of art and would be at home on a gallery wall. The deep green scales are trimmed with hyaline (translucent) margins and pinstriped with a lemon colored band. This photo illustrates why it is called a "smooth" greensnake - the scales are flat and unblemished by corrugations or ridges. In the rough greensnake - which can attain lengths of 2.5 feet, much larger than this species - the scales are keeled; a small ridge runs down their center.

As you may recall from art class, yellow and blue makes green. Greensnake scales are comprised of the former two colors, leading to the beautiful green animals that we ooh and aah over. In this shot, we can see a few scales where the blue pigment is bleeding through. When a greensnake dies, the weaker yellow pigments rapidly deteriorate, creating a dead bluesnake. CLICK HERE for a post with photos of a blue greensnake.

While not as arboreal as their rough greensnake counterparts, smooth greensnakes can and do climb well. Here, our subject poses in a bur oak sapling.

I really appreciate Josh working with us on this field trip; I think everyone (sans two, perhaps) were absolutely thrilled to see this greensnake, and were nearly as interested in the other snakes that we saw. For me, it was especially enjoyable to see a new reptile, and one that I've long coveted.


Lisa at Greenbow said...

Congrats on your new snake sighting. It is a beauty. Seeing this will make me take a closer look on any green snakes I come across here in SW IN.

Anonymous said...

I don't see snakes that often when I am hiking in NE Ohio. I occasionally see garter snakes or a big black rat snake sunning on a trail. And, there are the water snakes along the rivers. Many years ago I saw a green snake in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It was in a small tree in a field uphill from the Jaite area where there are crabapple trees. I went back there many times to look for another. But, I never did find one. That was back in the late 80s. Wish I still had the photo I took that day.

Ken Andrews
Maple Heights, Ohio

jaredmizanin said...

Congratulations on that green snake, Jim! Seems you had an awesome day out snaking. I will have to disagree with your statement about them being present in only four or so counties. I would guess there is several more counties hosting this rare snake. I myself have found them in three counties...none of which were where you found your green.

Ken--interesting observation. I have seen a couple very near where you found yours. They are still present.

Jim McCormac said...

I suspect you're right, Jared. But it's not really my statement - I took the four extant county info from the Div. of Wildlife reptile publication, which isn't that old. Maybe the soon to be released tome on Ohio's reptiles will shed more light on this...

Hallie said...

beautiful snakes! they are just fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Jarad: Cool! I will have to go back there. I do like finding snakes when I go hiking. They are nice to find because they are not very common...compared to birds, I guess. I remember that I was once hiking in the spring near Columbia Road in the CVNP. I walked past a collapsed bank along a creek. There was a small hollow exposed in the bank where a ball of muddy garter snakes were swarming. Probably their wintering spot?


jaredmizanin said...

Ken--The CVNP is a wonderful spot for snakes. I really don't know too many places where so many species occur together. In the past few years I've had: Eastern Garter, DeKay's Brown, Northern Water, Eastern Milk (these four species common), Ringneck (fairly common-uncommon, Red-bellied (scarce), Smooth Green (2 records), Racer (2 records), and Black Rat (1 record). Combined with Queens at Hinckley and Ribbons in nearby Portage Co we have 11 species in the area to seek. Not shabby. I find most snakes by flipping railroad ties, discarded boards, etc. Evenings are best. But regretfully I haven't done much searching this year; embarrassingly I am a bit turned off by the abundance of ticks in the fields. I hope to brave them soon though...I miss snakin'! And that muddy ball of garters does sound like a hibernaculum to me!

Jim--I recently became aware of the new Amphibian book, but am curious when the reptile book may be released. Any details?

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Jared, I believe it is slated to appear later this year, but don't quote me on that. It will be another voluminous tome, hundreds of pages, along the lines of the amphibian book.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim I've been looking for a while for a few good herping spots near geauga ohio and I noticed your board flipping field is quite the spot for some of my target species such as the eastern milk snake and a smooth green snake. I would really appriciate if you could give me an adress near a good spot to find my lifer snakes.

Herpetologist, Matt K
Instagram @Mk_the_herper