Today at Kingsford – Black Rat Snake(s?)

Black Rat Snake

Our landlord was up at the house today to take care of some yard work, so for Raven’s daily exercise I clipped on her leash and headed up the road. I haven’t been doing that as much since the forest has leafed out and all the birds have returned, since there’s only so much exercise I can give her through walking on a leash, but today I decided to walk down the next road to the neighbouring lake, where I could toss a stick in for her a few times.

It turned out to be a fortuitous decision, because just as we were starting down the last hill before reaching the lake, we discovered this beauty of a Black Rat Snake sunning on the road. At least four feet long, and a good inch and a half thick, it was the largest rat snake I’ve seen so far (admittedly, this is not a difficult accomplishment, as I could count the total number I’ve seen on one hand).

Black Rat Snake

More than other snakes I encounter here in the woods of southern Ontario, Black Rat Snakes have that predatory look to their eye, that fierce glance that one sees in the faces of other carnivores such as hawks and wolves.

Look at the longitudinal muscles running along the sides of his spine – you can see them flexed where his “neck” curves. Snakes are practically all muscle, strong, used to help the creature move across the ground in the absence of legs (and, in the case of some, to suffocate and kill prey in the absence of claws).

Snake skin

By complete coincidence, a few hundred yards beyond the rat snake we discovered this old snake carcass lying at the side of the road. At first I thought it was a shed skin, but as I drew closer I could see the bones sticking out from the dried flesh. I’m not sure of the cause of death; it could have been a roadkill that has been picked over by scavengers and dried out in the sun, or it may be a hawk kill, quite possible the meal of one of the Red-shouldered Hawks in the area. I’m leaning toward the latter, mostly because the head and the tail remained intact, although I must admit I don’t know whether hawks just tear the flesh off of snakes, or if they eat them whole, but in bits.

Snake skin

Check out all those ribs. I’m surprised they’re still as intact as they are. The average vertebrate – you, your dog, the robin on your lawn – has a dozen or two pairs of ribs (the number varies by species; humans have 12 pairs, dogs have 13, horses have 18) attached to the thoracic vertebrae of the back, along with cervical (neck), lumbar (lower back) and caudal (tail) vertebrae that make up the rest of the spine. In snakes, the number of cervical, lumbar and caudal vertebrae are reduced, and the number of thoracic vertebrae greatly increased – some of the longest snakes may have upwards of 300 thoracic vertebrae, each with a pair of ribs attached. One particular gene complex, called the Hox genes, controls which type of vertebrae each segment becomes, depending on which ones are switched on in which segment. They also are involved in the development (or lack thereof) of legs.

I’d planned to do a bit more poking around the ‘net for more information on the eating habits of hawks, and developmental biology of snakes, but we seem to have exceeded our download limit for the day (we’re on satellite internet, which has the disadvantage of having a bandwidth quota), and the connection is reduced to slower-than-dialup speed, so the questions will have to wait for another day.

Monday Miscellany

White-tailed Deer

Is it just me, or has the spring, once it finally arrived, really been flying by? Here we are in May already. I think April must have disappeared when I blinked.

A varied assortment of miscellaneous photos this week. We did a bit of hiking about the last few days, which resulted in a number of them. This White-tailed Deer was actually observed as we were returning from one of our several outings. As we were coming down our dirt road, there were a group of five deer standing in the middle of the road. I’m not sure what they were doing – it’s too late in the season for them to be getting road salt, and I don’t think our road gets salted anyway. But there they were, nonetheless, and slow to clear out. Even once they did, they paused at the road edge to watch us drive by. This photo, cropped only slightly for composition, was taken with my wide-angle lens, through the car window.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

The stream of returning migrants has started to get heavier. In the last week I’ve had nearly as many new arrivals as I’d had through all of the rest of April. One of the more recent species to show up has been the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. These gorgeous birds have been singing in our woods, and we even had a couple of them visiting our feeders, where they come for the sunflower seed. This particular individual was the first one I saw at the feeder. Naturally, as soon as I grabbed my camera he took off and sat in a nearby tree for a bit where he was a bit farther away. It was a dreary day, with a bit of drizzle, but he really added a splash of colour to the landscape.

Juvenal's Duskywing

While out hiking the last few days, we’ve noticed quite a number of these dark little skippers flouncing around a few feet above the forest floor. They hardly settled at all, barely long enough for a quick look, nevermind a photo. It was just by chance that while walking Raven today I this one skipped across in front of us. Raven sat-stayed (she’s been very good with that lately) while I sloooowly slouched over toward where the butterfly landed. I managed to get a couple of serviceable shots before it took off again. It’s got an interesting pattern, with the centre parts of the wings very dark, such that they look like they’re in shadow. These dark wings help to identify it as a duskywing, and the single small white spot in the centre of the forewing makes it a Juvenal’s Duskywing, a fairly common spring butterfly of oak woods.

Garter Snake, hawk kill

Dan and I came across this scene in the park on one of our hikes last week. This Garter Snake was strung over the log, dead but otherwise untouched. The injuries to the snake are all near its head, and the way the head lies over the log while the rest dangles off the side suggests that this was the kill of a hawk. It could have been one of a number of hawk species that live in our area, but the most likely hunter was probably a Red-shouldered Hawk, which are reasonably common in the forests around here. They hunt in the forest, sitting on a branch in a tree to spot their prey, then swooping down from the perch to snatch it. Since the most dangerous part of the snake is its head, the first thing a hawk does is dispatch it quickly by severing its spine. The bird may have been disturbed by something (probably not us, as we didn’t notice any hawks in the area) before it was able to consume its meal.

mica9

My second tiger beetle of the spring, a different species than the first one. This one, I believe, is the common Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, Cicindela sexguttata. It’s the only species we have that is entirely bright green, with pale spots on the elytra. The only other species in Ontario that resembles it is Cicindela denikei, which is also all green, but with either no or almost no pale markings. Although my beetle resembled C. denikei more than the traditional C. sexguttata, I know it had to be the latter if for no other reason than location – C. denikei is virtually endemic to northwestern Ontario.

Baltimore Oriole

Another recent arrival is this Baltimore Oriole. Although they’ve been back in the area for about a week now, this is the first individual I’ve spotted. It was singing in our front yard, from high up in our mature maple tree. It was foraging among the buds, and pausing periodically to sing in cheerful outbursts of melody. I had the window open, and could hear it from where I sat at my desk, so I grabbed my camera and went out to watch and admire it a while.

American Emerald

I’ve noticed a few dragonflies around just over the last couple of days. Today I had a Green Darner zipping along the road, quickly out of sight before I could do much more than have the ID register in my brain. All of the rest of the dragonflies I’ve seen have belonged to this species. I’m reasonably certain this is an American Emerald, Cordulia shurtleffii. Most emeralds have bright green eyes, but the immature females have brown eyes. The diagnostic characteristic of this species seems to be the pale ring around the base of the abdomen. Although some dragonflies will have green markings, the emeralds are the only group where the green is iridescent. American Emeralds are often found along forest edges around bogs and fens, and sometimes vernal ponds in forest interiors. We actually found these in juniper rock barren clearings, without any water immediately nearby. This one was sitting in a juniper shrub, with its wing caught among the needles, so I was able to easily pick it up for a photograph.

Deer skull

There are some wild Canis sp. in the park, but whether they are Canis latrans, the Coyote, or Canis lupus, the Gray Wolf, seems to be a matter of some debate. Coyotes and wolves can interbreed freely, and both can mate with the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, technically a subspecies of the Gray Wolf (with the point of divergence having taken place some 15,000 years ago), so it’s possible that the wild canids that roam the park are even a cross-breed between any one of these groups. Regardless of their taxonomy (the animals themselves don’t really care, do they?), these packs are the primary predators in the park. Every now and then you’ll see evidence of their activities. Scat is most common, but while out recently, we came across the bleached remains of a deer kill. This is the skull and upper mandible of a White-tailed Deer. You can see the bony knobs behind the eyes which the antlers are affixed to.

Cocoon

And the last photo in this installment is of a cocoon. It just happened to be hanging from a low branch immediately over the path Dan and I were walking along. Curled up and secured with silk, the leaf was also attached to the branch by silken glue to prevent it from falling off in the blustery winter months. I don’t know who the architect is for this home, but they seemed to still be in residence. I briefly considered plucking it from the branch and bringing it home with me to see who emerged, but we still had a few kilometers left to hike, and I didn’t have a safe way to protect it from being jostled or crunched while we made our way back to the car, so I reluctantly left it.

Today at Kingsford – Warm weather catch-up

Garter snake

On the same lovely warm day a week ago that I spotted the various butterflies and day-flying moths, I also encountered a number of spring vertebrates. The first was this garter snake. It was just lying in the road, not moving, soaking up the same beautiful sunshine that I was. It seemed somewhat chubby, and I wondered if it might be a pregnant female. It seems rather unlikely, though, since snakes would only just be starting to mate now, and garter snakes gestate for 2-3 months before giving birth to live young (which are independent from birth). On the other hand, females can store viable sperm for multiple years, so would some perhaps make use of that to get a head start on gestation before emerging from the hibernaculum in the spring?

Turtle

Out on Eel Lake I spotted a turtle basking on a log. The water was open, but the ice wasn’t long gone, so I was a bit surprised to see the turtle out and active (if you can call sunbathing active) already. I couldn’t tell what species of turtle it was, and even after coming home and blowing up the photos I still couldn’t discern enough detail to give it an ID (I only had my 100mm lens on the camera, having decided to leave the 300mm at home, and couldn’t get close enough with the shorter lens). However, I did notice when I blew the photo up that there wasn’t just one turtle in the photo, but actually four. Click here for a larger version of the next photo.

Four turtles

There are five species of turtle in Frontenac Provincial Park and area: Blanding’s, Map, Painted, and Snapping Turtles, as well as Stinkpots. Blanding’s have yellow bellies and throats, which seem bright enough to be noticeable even at a distance, so I don’t think they’re those. Snappers are much more craggy. The ones in the photo don’t seem to have a dorsal ridge that Map turtles can show. Stinkpots have a very stumpy appearance with domed shells and thick necks. So I think that leaves Painted. But if I’m honest, I really don’t know for certain.

Fish (Northern Pike?)

And finally, not far from the log with the first turtle, I watched a fish splashing around in the shallows. I think there may actually have been two, but I couldn’t really tell for sure, since there was a fair bit of glare on the water from where I was standing. At one point one of them swam close enough that the fish’s shape could be seen in the shadowy patches, and I think it was a Northern Pike, a relatively common fish in our lakes. In the early spring pike will move into the weedy shallows around lake edges in order to spawn, and I have a feeling that’s what was going on in all the splashing in the shallows here. Wish I’d had my canoe and could’ve floated closer for a better look.

Fish (Northern Pike?)

Today at Kingsford – Red-bellied Snake

snake5

A couple days ago as Dan and I were assessing the property boundaries while scouting out potential net locations for the owl monitoring project, I happened across a small brown snake that appeared to be sunning itself at the side of the road. Thinking it was a Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) at first, I gingerly picked it up by the tail to move it off the road. The snake looked remarkably intact, and its eyes clear, but unfortunately, it turned out I was too late. It had been hit already, perhaps by a flying piece of gravel. It had a small patch of dried blood at the side of its head, crusted with tiny gravel bits, and it hung limp from my fingers.

As it hung from my hand, however, I was able to view its underside, which was a bright orange-red. Though it wasn’t visible while the snake was sitting on the ground, this clinched its ID as a Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata). Some sources call this the Redbelly Snake, and I’ve also seen “Northern” tagged on in front of both versions; unlike birds, where the American Ornithologists’ Union has set official names for all the species, most other groups of organisms don’t have formally chosen English names, so finding information using the scientific name is more reliable. At least the red belly isn’t disputed. Whatever its name, it’s the first I’ve ever seen of the species.

These little snakes, about the same size as the Brown Snake, and together the smallest Canadian snake species, are the same size as an adult as the baby rat snake was that I found earlier in the week, only 8 to 16 inches (20-40 cm). As a youngster they start out at just 3 inches (7.5 cm). The females do not lay eggs, but rather give birth to live young. They eat small invertebrates such as worms and slugs, and can often be found hunkered under logs or wooden boards, or other surface debris. Red-bellies tend to inhabit more natural woodlands and wet meadows, while Brown Snakes share similar habitat but aren’t opposed to living in suburban parks or vacant lots as well. They spend the winter snuggled away in abandoned rodent burrows or other natural crevices, including sometimes anthills.

snake4

Today at Kingsford

Young Black Rat Snake

I took Raven out for a walk late this afternoon, up the road a couple of kilometers and back again. It was a good walk and good exercise for both of us. In my case I’m hoping to offset my obsessive snacking that I seem to suffer from when I sit at my desk working for long periods. In Raven’s case I’m hoping just to wear off some of that puppyish energy (or is it border collie energy?). We were out for about an hour, and for most of it I was walking at a pace brisk enough to keep her at a good trot, and yet she still has energy to spare when we return home. This dog could go forever, I swear, she never seems to tire.

On our way home I happened along this little snake lying on the dirt road. I almost didn’t notice it, and had nearly put my foot down next to it before I spotted it. It was little, about the size of a fully-grown Brown Snake, and boldly spotted. There are two possibilities for species, both being youngsters. One is Eastern Milksnake, but I’m fairly sure that it’s actually a young Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta), as young milksnakes are fairly bright in colour, usually reddish rather than brownish. Found through much of eastern North America, rat snakes are at the northern edge of their range here in Ontario, and because of declining populations are now endangered in the province. They’re mostly found in just two small areas of the province, one down in the southwest, and the other here in the Frontenac Axis. This is only the second rat snake I’ve seen; the first was in the weeds beside the house on the day we signed the lease for it – a good omen, I thought.

Edit: I’ve been corrected! This is actually a young Northern Water Snake, a possibility that didn’t even cross my mind at the time as it was some distance from the lake. This would make it also only the second water snake I’d seen, at least to that point. The info below is still for rat snakes, however.

Adult snakes can get quite large, up to 8 feet (2.4m) long in extreme cases. They have the ability to climb trees because of special scales on their belly that curve upward where they meet the sides, providing better grip on surfaces. They are constrictors, squeezing and suffocating prey, and target primarily rodents, though they’re not opposed to opportunistically taking birds, bird eggs, frogs or lizards. When startled or threatened, rat snakes will vibrate the tip of their tail in the dry leaf litter on the ground, creating a rattling sound similar to that of a rattlesnake.

Young Black Rat Snake

Today at Kingsford

Turtle shell

Well, actually Thursday at Kingsford. When I took Raven out for a second walk in the park the next day, we took a different route, one that hugged the lakeshore, as much as it’s possible to hug the shore with steep ridges and valleys. For the most part, the ridges ran parallel to the shore, so it was easy enough to walk along the top without too much up-and-down effort.

It was while walking along here that I came across this on the forest floor; a turtle shell, long vacant of its owner. It was upturned, belly-up, nestled in the detritus of the forest floor. A few of the scutes, the hard material that covers the bony shell, were still attached in places. The scutes are made of keratin, much like our fingernails are. In theory, it may have been possible to identify the owner’s species with the help of these scutes, but there weren’t enough of them, and what was there wasn’t distinct enough, to be able to discern any pattern.

Turtle shell

The plastron, the “belly” part of the shell, was still loosely attached when I picked it up and started carrying it home, but as I was trying to maneuver myself and a dog into a boat, I inadvertently applied a bit too much pressure to it and it popped in, separating cleanly at the “seams”, the points where the individual bone plates had grown together. It was only after I got it home that I noticed the upper shell itself was cracked, and it was only today as I sat down to write this, amazingly, that I noticed a huge gaping hole in the side of the shell. I can’t tell if this hole was created posthumously or was itself the cause of the turtle’s death, but it kind of looks like holes created by a bird with a sharp beak. The front of the plastron is also broken off, perhaps also an indication of predation.

Interestingly, removing the plastron makes it much easier to examine the inside of the shell, and you can see the backbone, fused to the shell, running its length. The shell itself is really just modified ribs, broadened and fused together to form a continuous surface. The plastron is the equivalent of our sternum, again modified to provide bony armor for the turtle’s underside. As such, it’s impossible to remove a turtle from its shell, the way you could remove a hermit crab from its shell – it would be like trying to remove us from our ribcage.

My milk snake brings all the boys to the yard

Eastern Milk Snake

I’m not a fan of most R&B/hiphop music, and I don’t even particularly like this song, but I couldn’t stop it from going through my head as I was doing the research for this page. It’s probably true that as a schoolkid, if I’d had a beautiful big Eastern Milk Snake like this it would’ve attracted a lot of attention. I spotted it basking on the road earlier this week. There wasn’t any sun, but the road pavement would still have picked up enough of the radiation that did manage to pierce the clouds to be just a bit warmer than the surrounding vegetation. Concerned for his longevity should he continue to stay there, I got out of my car, ran a few photos off, and then shooed him back into the nearby ditch with the help of a longish stick.

Eastern Milk Snake

Strictly speaking, the milk snakes, while they can give a painful bite, are not dangerous in the sense of being lethally venomous, so the stick was mostly to ensure my skin remained intact. It doesn’t use venom to subdue its prey, but instead catches it with its teeth and then constricts it to kill it. It is primarily a nocturnal hunter, and tends to be hidden during the day, under or behind objects. As adults their diet mostly consists of small rodents such as mice, but they’re opportunistic feeders, eating anything it can catch that’s small enough to fit down its throat, from birds’ eggs to frogs to invertebrates. A young milk snake will mostly eat invertebrates befitting its much smaller size.

The Eastern Milk Snake is actually a subspecies of the Milk Snake, Lampropeltis triangulum. The Eastern is the nominate subspecies, L. t. triangulum. There are 25 recognized subspecies of Milk Snake, ranging from southeastern Canada south to Ecuador and Venezuela in South America. In North America the Eastern has perhaps one of the largest ranges of the milk snakes that are native to here, found in deciduous forests from Quebec and Maine, west to eastern Minnesota, and south to northern Alabama. Different subspecies will achieve different lengths, ranging from 50 to 150 cm (20 to 60 inches). This one was on the smaller side of that range, perhaps a couple of feet.

Red Milk Snake (L. t. syspila), by Mike Pingleton, from Wikimedia Commons

Some of the other subspecies are known as kingsnakes, and/or resemble the highly venomous coral snakes. It’s surprising to think that the above snake is actually related to the one that we find around here. In fact, some of the milk snake subspecies may eventually be split off into their own distinct species, but for the time being they’re all one group. In the south, the venomous coral snakes can be told from the non-venomous milk snakes by a rhyme that goes, variously, something like, “red beside black, you’re okay Jack, red beside yellow, you’re a dead fellow.” If you look closely at the Eastern Milk Snake you can begin to see how the blotches may have started out as bands (or vice versa).

Eastern Milk Snake

If disturbed, the Eastern Milk Snake will sometimes rear back and rapidly vibrate its tail in the ground litter. This can sound a little like a rattle and with the brown spots along the back the species can sometimes be confused for a rattlesnake – obviously to its advantage since nearly everything will back away from the threat of a rattlesnake. The individual I came across was either too cool still to be active, or completely unconcerned about any threat I posed. I was able to get quite close (slowly, cautiously) with the macro lens on the camera, and it just sat there until I pushed it gently with the stick to encourage it to move.

Eastern Milk Snake

The Eastern Milk Snake resembles a couple other species found in the east. Both the Fox Snake and the Copperhead have similar blotchy patterns, but the milk snake is more slender, and has a distinctive pale Y or V just behind the head. Since coral snakes don’t occur this far north, it’s likely that the milk snakes of this region have evolved to resemble the venomous snakes that do, both in behaviour and appearance. This is called Batesian mimicry, when one non-venomous/poisonous species evolves a visual appearance that resembles another species which is, such that the non-venomous species benefits from predators’ experience with the real ones. The same thing is seen with the Viceroy butterfly, where they superficially resemble Monarchs through the north, and Queens through the south, according to the unpalatable species in the region.

The name Milk Snake may have come from the species’ habit of frequenting barns and barnyards, where there are plentiful rodents and cool, dark interioris. A myth arose from this association that it would suckle cow teats for the milk. The myth is false, but the name seems to have stuck.

Eastern Milk Snake

Milk Snakes lay eggs to reproduce. They mate in early May to late June and lay the eggs in June or July in sheltered spots such as beneath logs or rocks. The clutch of about 10 eggs, on average, hatch after about two months, in late summer. Like with most species, the first year of life is the most dangerous and the youngsters run the highest risk of death while they learn the ways of the world, but once they’ve made it through that first year they can potentially live as long as 12 years.

Eastern Milk Snake

In Ontario and Canada the Eastern Milk Snake is a species of special concern, and it may be partially due to persecution, run-ins with cars, and other human-related causes of death. However it’s apparently also a popular snake in the pet trade (probably more so the brightly-coloured subspecies of the south). To try to avoid this individual from becoming another casualty, I coaxed it over to the nearby ditch where it slowly slithered into the grass. When I peered over the edge to where it was sitting, its defensive response finally kicked in, and it coiled up its front part to show me it wasn’t afraid to strike if I got too close. I respected its privacy now that it was in a safer spot and returned to my car. Safe travels, buddy.