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.

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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

We’re moving!

House as seen from the lake

After some five years here in Toronto, Blackburnian and I decided it was time for a change, time to move on. Neither of us are city people, and when circumstances allowed that we could move back out to the country, we jumped on it. We’ve spent the last three weeks or so driving around a good portion of southern Ontario checking out house listings, which, it turns out, are few and far between when you’re looking for a rental (we want to both save up a bit and also make sure that we really want to be in the area before we commit to investing in a home). Yesterday we spent a long day on the road, checked out four listings, two of which we absolutely loved. The view from the one of them finally won us over, and we went back today to take care of paperwork. While we were out that way (it’s nearly three hours from where we currently live, so not exactly around the corner!) we revisited the house to take some measurements and also some photographs to share with people.

View from the upper balcony

It was the view that really drew us to the place, and the general setting. It’s right on a shallow lake, with the house at the top of a small rise, looking through the trees at the water. It’s surrounded by forest, with small open patches here and there. Unfortunately, both days we visited it was later in the day, past the hour when birds would be active and singing, but it’s starting to get late in the summer to hear much anyway. The timing of the move isn’t great for experiencing the local bird life (we may have to wait till next spring for most of the residents), but we’ll get to see all the migrants through the fall and feeder birds in the winter, and in the meantime there’s still lots of other wildlife to be seen.

Lake

A view looking up the lake from the dock. It’s a relatively small lake, and quiet. Apparently most of the water traffic is human-powered, with just the odd motor boat going by. The other shore is only about 200 meters/yards away, an easy paddle, or even an easy swim if one was so inclined. The other shore is part of Frontenac Provincial Park, another reason why boat traffic is quiet. A short canoe paddle will take you to miles of hiking trails through relatively untouched wilderness.

Looking back from point

Part of the 2 acre property swings out into a little point. This is looking back toward the dock and shoreline from the point. The water in this area is fairly shallow, only a couple feet deep through most of it. The water is pristine and clear, and you can see right down to the gravelly bottom. There are plenty of fish in the water, and what I would consider to be larger stuff (fisherpeople would scoff at that description, I know), bass and sunfish and others that are easily six or eight inches long. There are even bass spawning beds in the gravel just offshore (Blackburnian had to point them out to me; he used to fish and knows all this stuff much better than I do).

Muskrat

To make up for the lack of birds while we were there, other stuff put in appearances. Here’s a muskrat that was paddling around in the lilypads just off the dock, while we were standing there.

Black Rat Snake

And a Black Rat Snake that we startled from the shrubs at the edge of the lawn (I’m actually not sure who was more startled, the snake or us). It’s the first one either Blackburnian or I have seen in Ontario, where their range is extremely limited, and the species is declining and listed as threatened. They’re only found in a few patchy locations in the southwest, and in the Frontenac axis in the east. Unfortunately, I only had my wide-angle lens on the camera, not anticipating to be taking photos of wildlife. It seems that there will be lots of good fodder for future blog posts from there!

Main deck

Not sure if you can tell, but I’m excited to move! We officially take possession August 1, but are hoping to arrange to be in a few days earlier, if possible, both so we could overlap the move with our last day at this apartment, but also simply because we’re really looking forward to moving in!