Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Short-headed Garter Snake in Ohio

Bald Eagles are good enough, but finding a very rare snake for Ohio is even better. I had the opportunity to check out Thamnophis brachystoma, the Short-headed Garter Snake with Ray Novotny, who seems to be the only person interested in their status for Ohio. Ray surveys the population of these snakes in the Youngstown area of Mahoning County. He has also discovered a population just north in Trumbull County.  As promised, I will not disclose the exact locations they are found.

These snakes, like many other species, like to hide under boards in open fields. After checking under the first board, all we found was this American Toad, Anaxyrus (Bufo) americanus. One must be patient and keep trying.

Upon lifting the second board, a pair of surprised and confused Meadow Voles Microtus pennsylvanicus  were the only thing found. Boy, I was hoping we wouldn't strike out today.

Third time is a charm. Finally, Ray lifted a board and there it was. It's tough to squeeze on down and get a shot before it slithers away. We found several that day, some more skittish than others.

My first impressions were mixed. In one sense it just looked like a regular baby garter snake. On the other, the color reminded me more of Dekay's Brown Snake. That idea quickly disappeared when we found a Brown Snake sitting right next to one of these.

Short-headed Garters are small snakes, averaging a little over a foot in length. The largest recorded is around 22 inches. They live in grassy fields, often in urbanized settings, and feed strictly on worms.

Simply put, Short-headed Garters have a smaller, more blunt face and head. More importantly, they seem to lack a neck. It looks like there is no clear dividing area between the head and body. If you don't look at snakes on a regular basis, this description probably doesn't tell you much.

The overall color is brown. Like other garters, it does show the light colored side and dorsal stripes. Black stitch marks scattered along the body is also typical for a garter.

Click on the photo if you can't see it, but the end of its tongue is sticking out. The only other place this snake is found is south-west New York and north-west Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania counties bordering Ohio all have populations. So the question remains, are these snakes introduced or do they occur here naturally? This is the age of genetic studies, so there is a nice thesis waiting for someone here.

I included a couple of stock photos below of our common Eastern Garter Snake that everybody has seen. Notice the head is much bigger, and that there is a narrowing into a neck region. This is what is absent on the Small-headed.

Spring Springs Twice

It is interesting to go out in the field here in southern Ohio and watch things come and go. It's another to drive to northern Ohio and watch it happen all over again.

Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, has pretty much finished flowering in southern Ohio, but not so in the northern part of the state. I spent the week in Mahoning County looking for early spring bloomers. While the leaves are starting to pop up, the flowers are still hanging on.

Skunk Cabbage is known to produce heat inside the flower, even when outside temperatures are freezing. Carrion is known to generate heat as it decomposes, so besides the nasty smell and appearance of the plant, the heat may also serve as an attractant to pollinators.

The inside of Skunk Cabbage even has the look of rotting flesh. The green-maroon hood is known as a spathe, not true leaves, but modified leaves that surround the flower.

The hood protects the round, golfball like flower structure inside. Bustling among the yellow pollen is a small gnat. Flies are some of the most common insects drawn to Skunk Cabbage.

Growing in a large area with the Skunk Cabbage was this plant I had never seen in flower. I had come across the leaves before, but didn't recognize the bloom. This is Butterbur Petasites hybridus, a member of the Aster family.

Before getting too excited, I had forgotten this was a non-native. Butterbur has large round basal leaves similar to Coltsfoot, of which it is a distant relative.

Butterbur gets its name from older times when people churned their own butter and would wrap it and store it in the leaves of this plant.

Figuring where there's one exotic, there is probably more. Sure enough, the Myrtle or Periwinkle Vinca minor was everywhere. Myrtle is a common ornamental used as a ground cover plant. The flowers are showy, but it does have a tendency to escape and spread if unchecked.

Growing mixed with the Myrtle was this attractive plant. It's Scilla sibirica, the Siberian Squill. A very early bloomer, it was introduced into the country as a showy garden plant. Like Myrtle, it has the potential of being invasive.

Another sure sign of spring, all the woody plants are busting their buds open. This is Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina, and yes it's native.

It may be spring, but there are plenty of signs remaining from the previous season. This is Basswood fruit, Tilia americana. The nutlets dangle from a leafy like bract that acts as a hang glider to help spread the seeds.

Besides the woodlands, I got out into some nice wetlands. These areas were dominated by Silky Dogwood, Pin Oak, and the scraggly looking Swamp White Oak, Quercus bicolor.

Swamp White Oak twigs are light brown and the buds are small and blunt. This species often shows hair-like stipules sticking out between the buds.

This mysterious picture is not a hairy caterpillar. It is a willow in flower. The following is just a collection of various species of Willow I found in bloom. Willows have either male or female sexed trees. The first couple of pictures are female flowers followed by the males.

Waterfowl migration is beginning to peak also at this time. With limited telephoto ability, I was 'somewhat' able to sneak up on these mated pairs of Ring-neck Ducks.

And what am I suppose to make of this? Why a flock of Shovelers of course. You can always click on the photos to be sure.

Just because I could hide in the brush along a dike, didn't mean I could get very close. Here's a series of shots of Blue-wing Teal taking flight.

What did you expect, eyeball shots?

I was getting ready to leave when I noticed something way off in the distance grab my attention. Could this be an Osprey nest, seemed too big. Wait a minute, eagle?

Sure enough, as I got closer, it turned out to be a pair of Bald Eagles nesting. It's only my third visit to this site, but I had no idea this nest was even here. Now I've seen my share of eagles and nests before, but never with a camera in hand. Good news, Bald eagle sightings continue to increase in Ohio. In the last couple years at least 200 nests have been recorded with over 150 of them being active.

I also know better than to walk out in the open in front of a nesting pair. I was lucky to have a large series of dikes in this wetland to hide behind. These aren't fantastic closeups like other people may capture. My old 400mm telephoto doesn't work with my current camera, but I shot with the largest files possible, then cropped repeatedly. So it looks closer than I actually was. Neither bird ever flew or moved, but I still got out of the area as quick as possible.

Also, this area is not open to the general public. I acquired a permit that allows me access to the grounds, so I will not disclose the location. Regardless, it was a nice way to end the week.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hibernation Is Over!


Most of the cold weather is probably over. Time to pull the winter butt plug out (of the camera that is), and get back to the field. After giving a winter dendrology final, I went back to the site looking for things to photograph.

One of the first plants to bloom in our area is the Harbinger-of-Spring, or the Pepper and Salt Erigenia bulbosa. This tiny plant, with even smaller divided leaves, only reaches a couple inches in height. It can be found in multiple habitats, but was very abundant in the wet bottomland forest.

Aw cool, two pink crab spiders mating! You can even see the strand of silk. Not really, this is the flower of the American Hazelnut, Corylus americana. I was a little late in photographing these last year, but here it is in its prime.

She is waiting for the male catkins to soften up and elongate. Pollen will then be blown onto the flowers red stigmas.

Should fertilization occur, we could harvest these edible nuts come fall. The commercial European Hazelnut is often sold as Filbert Nuts.

Another sign of spring are the Allium species beginning to sprout. The hollow stemmed Wild Garlic and the broad leaved Ramps or Leeks. With lots of students walking the area, the look everybody was giving to each other was priceless. "What's that smell?"

Tree buds are starting to look a lot different than they did in January. The black and red fuzzy leaf buds keep their shape, but the flower buds are nearly exploded. This is Red Elm, Ulmus rubra.

Here the flowers are just popping out. The green is the tubular shaped calyx, (fused sepals).

Here is a closeup of the male flowers with their long protruding stamens.

The female flowers show the pinkish-red stigmas. There are no petals on Red Elm flowers.

Restricted to wet bottomlands, the Kingnut Hickory, Carya laciniosa, has buds and bark similar to the Shagbark Hickory, C. ovata.  In the winter, look for very light colored new growth twigs. Shagbark twigs are dark brown.

Also preferring wet bottomlands is the White Walnut or Butternut, Juglans cinerea. The buds are tan in color and more elongate than Black Walnut. The leaf scars of both walnuts are monkey-faced or Barn Owl faced, but look at the top of the leaf scar. White Walnut has thick fuzzy eyebrows on top.

Of course once you've seen the zebra striped bark of White Walnut, you couldn't mistake it for anything else. It's bad enough these guys are disappearing from a fungus disease, but all the trees I mentioned above have been severely cut back at this site. I understand power line right-of-ways of course, but all these trees were barely 20 feet tall. The wires are up at 100 feet, so what was the point?

Up on the hillside is a frequently encountered sight. I call this the totem tree. It's actually an infected Sassafras tree. This is caused by a Nectria Canker fungus. To me it looks like a bunch of Great Gray Owls smashed into the tree and left their face imprint. Oh yes, another season of blogging means putting up with my wild imagination.