Posts Tagged ‘snakes’

Throwback: Stuffed

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Monday, December 10th, 2012

Common Gartersnake eating a Green Frog

Having just returned from a Thanksgiving vacation in Massachusetts, I had hoped to write about something uniquely New Englandy. To me the greater Boston area is all about clams, lobsters, shorebirds and cranberry bogs. Granted it’s a narrow, stereotypical view but if I could expand my limited expectations then my trip would be a success.

Unfortunately I only spotted a few dumpster gulls and a couple of Deer Ticks (Ixodes scapularis). I probably should have gotten out more. But you know how Thanksgiving is. It’s all about the thanking and the eating and despite picking up a cold on the plane ride up (thanks open air sneezer in seat 24A!) I still managed to eat more than any normal person should at any given meal. It’s a funny thing, I don’t need to eat so much. I just want to and this makes me wonder how much joy a snake gets when it consumes a feast much larger than it appears it should.

A few years ago I was leading a summer camp in Vermont. A couple of kids heard a strange noise in the woods, called me over and we discovered a Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) eating a Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). Several kids were horrified but for the most part there was great interest in the likelihood that this slender snake could eat this wide-bodied and seemingly unflappable frog. The snake meticulously maneuvered its ever widening mouth to position the frog into an easy transition down its throat.

Once in the intestine, the gartersnake has the ability to elevate its metabolic rate, increase enzyme activity and blood flow to the digestive system and increase the mass of the intestine, liver and kidney to aid in removing and storing nutrients from its prey. It can just as quickly reverse all of these functions and revert to normal conditions. Ultimately the quick digestive process prevents a snake from slithering about with a large meal in its belly.

No such luck for me on Thanksgiving. My digestive system is used to a pattern of thrice-a-day feedings and I had clearly overwhelmed my system. Happy Belated Thanksgiving.

Glass-blown Snake – The Eastern Indigo

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Monday, November 19th, 2012
Eastern Indigo Snake

Eastern Indigo Snake © Jungle Pete Corradino

Glass-blown Snake – The Eastern Indigo by Jungle Pete Corradino

There’s a snake that reaches lengths of over 8 ½ feet and subdues its prey with an incredibly powerful bite that is disappearing from the Southeastern United States. Most people might be fine if a snake species disappeared forever but this snake is nonvenomous and even eats venomous snakes. It’s gorgeous and it deserves to keep its place in the ecosystem. I’m referring to North America’s longest native snake – the Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi)

Eastern Indigo Snake

Eastern Indigo Snake © Jungle Pete Corradino

The problem is four fold.

1) They share subterranean Gopher Tortoise dens, as do rattlesnakes. For years collectors and hunters would gas the dens to round up the rattlers and the Indigos and Tortoises paid the price as well.

2) This hefty snake is amazingly beautiful with gleaming blue-to-black scales from head to tail that give it a glass-blown look. Certain individuals, including the one in my arms, also have a sunset-red pattern under the chin. These snakes were prized for many years by collectors and despite their protected status today, are still poached from the wild.

3) Invasive fire ants do harm to snakes and eggs, while feral hogs destroy nests as well.

4) The greatest problem facing the Indigo today is habitat destruction. The snake prefers dry habitat such as Saw Palmetto scrub bordered by a water source. They feed on a wide variety of species including reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and birds. (Growing up at the Florida Monkey Sanctuary, we had an Indigo famously slither into a cage and sadly, eat one of the rescued animals. It had to wait until it had fully digested its meal before it could exit the cage.)

Eastern Indigo Snake

Eastern Indigo Snake © Jungle Pete Corradino

When land is slated to be cleared in Indigo habitat, developers are required to post educational Indigo Snake Protection Plan posters to inform the public about the species whose habitat they have just destroyed.

On a more positive note, an Indigo was recently spotted on Captiva Island in SW Florida for the first time since 1988. November is the start of the Indigo breeding season. Indigo boys and girls mate and disperse but what comes next is a mystery. It has been suggested that the Indigo girls nest in tortoise holes where eggs incubate for roughly 90 days to the sweet melodies of American folk rock. Or so I’m told.

Make No Mistake – Pygmies and Diamondbacks

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Monday, November 5th, 2012
Rattlesnakes

Top Photo: Eastern Diamond-back Rattlesnake Bottom Photo: Pygmy Rattlesnake © Jungle Pete Corradino

Make No Mistake – Pygmies and Diamondbacks

A young boy about the age of nine came to my place of employment and with snake in hand, asked what kind it was and if we wanted it. It was a Pygmy Rattlesnake. As boys will do, he saw a snake and picked it up, having no idea how dangerous the venomous pit viper was. It was safely taken from him and returned to the wild.

On a recent tour of the Everglades, I spotted a dark line across a back country road ahead of the tour van. “Lines” often turn out to be palm fronds, shredded tires or shotgun-peppered beer cans but as I approached it became apparent it was a snake. As I drove closer I could see that what appeared to be an 18-inch snake had a triangular head, typical of pit vipers, so I announced “rattlesnake” with a great deal of enthusiasm. (top photo). A tourist yelled “run it over”.

Blame it on the early morning 48-degree South Florida chill, the late afternoon glare of the sun, or the garlic biscuits I had at lunch. I called it a Pygmy Rattlesnake. I was really wrong. Both snakes in the photo are roughly the same size. Both are rattlesnakes found in the Everglades. Both have distinctive patterns. My brain directed me to the tail and the modified keratin skin cells that make up the rattle. From the safety of my perch in the driver’s seat I could see little to no rattle and the size suggested it was a Pygmy Rattlesnake which only get to be about 30 inches. I did note that the distinctive brown spots between the black spots were missing.

I failed to notice the most obvious characteristic that identifies this snake – the diamonds on its back. Yes, this very young snake is an Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake. Duh.

Tire tracks seemed to lead right up to it and over it and the snake looked flat in the road. It did not move and I jumped to the conclusion that it had been run over as many snakes often are out of fear and ignorance. I got out of the van, picked up a palm frond and cautiously nudged it. It twitched, inflated itself and slithered off the road.

Diamondback or Pygmy, make no mistake, both are dangerous but still a sight to see.

All We Have To Fear…

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Monday, October 29th, 2012

All We Have To Fear © Jungle Pete

All We Have To Fear… by Jungle Pete Corradino 

Arachnids with web spinning architectural prowess
Long-legged daddies with eight legs more or less
Brown furred mammalians with leathery wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Snakes striped with colors that will kill-a-fella
Turtles accused of passing salmonella
Poisonous ivy that desperately clings
These are a few of my favorite things

Aquatic finned creatures with razor sharp gnashers
Thundering, bumbling, honeycomb crashers
Well armored grubbers with nine banded rings
These are a few of my favorite things

When people fear them
When they kill them
This makes me mad
Please would you respect my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Rattlesnakes: Don’t Fear the Viper

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Friday, August 10th, 2012

Rattlesnakes: Don’t fear the viper by Sheri Williamson

The return address on the envelope was in New York City.

I’d love to visit Arizona to see the hummingbirds, the letter began, but I’m wondering if I should be worried about rattlesnakes.

Thanks for your concern, I typed, but the rattlesnakes are doing just fine.

I immediately apologized for the flippant response and assured the writer that it’s all about what you’re used to. Venomous snakes don’t bother me because they’re something I live with, but muggers and pickpockets would make me think twice about exploring the Big Apple.

I added our standard educational spiel about rattlesnakes:

  • They’re beautiful and interesting creatures in their own right.
  • Being shy and mainly nocturnal, they’re seldom encountered by visitors.
  • They’re more afraid of us than we are of them.
  • You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than die from snake bite.
  • The typical snake bite victim is young, male, and under the influence of alcohol and/or recreational drugs.

Start your visit at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, I suggested. It’s a great place to get acquainted with all kinds of desert wildlife, including snakes, in a safe, non-threatening environment. And please let us know if you need any additional help in planning your trip.

We never heard from her again.

Mojave Rattlesnake

With nowhere to hide, a frightened Mojave Rattlesnake adopts an S-curve striking stance. © Sheri Williamson

Rattlesnakes are such icons of the desert that it’s hard to convince the average visitor to the Southwest that they’re unlikely to see a live one except through the glass wall of a zoo exhibit. Sadly, most wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a shame that the demonization of snakes in our culture has made it almost impossible for people to enjoy them the way we enjoy birds, mammals, and even most other reptiles.

Though many people wouldn’t use this adjective, we consider ourselves blessed with viper diversity here in the Southwest. Our 13 rattlesnake species (of 16 found north of Mexico) range in size from the dainty Massasauga to the burly Western Diamond-backed and Mojave. They come in colors and patterns as varied as the environments they inhabit: black, rust, pink, olive, blonde, and gray, barred, banded, blotched, mottled, speckled, and of course diamond-backed. The legendary Sidewinder is a rattlesnake, too, though one with an unusual mode of locomotion adapted for sandy deserts.

Rock Rattlesnake

A Banded Rock Rattlesnake retreats from an intruder © Sheri Williamson

Excellent camouflage plus sluggish behavior help to conceal rattlesnakes from both their prey and potential predators. Of course, you can’t avoid something you can’t see, and this rightly puts many desert travelers on edge. You could walk right by a rattler nestled under a bush or tucked away under a rock ledge and never be aware that it’s there. It’s a dangerous myth that they always rattle to let you know they’re there. They may not be aware of you until you’re too close, or they may opt to keep quiet if they don’t sense immediate danger. I’ve had a couple of close calls with quiet ones when traveling off the beaten path (another good reason to stick to roads and well-marked trails).

For such well-armed creatures, rattlesnakes are surprisingly timid. They’d prefer to avoid a confrontation with you, but most are so heavy-bodied that they can’t move very fast. Larger specimens in particular tend to stand their ground when threatened and wait for you to retreat. The appropriate response to seeing one in the wild is to stop and, if necessary, back off to a distance at which it feels comfortable (you’ll know because the rattling will stop). If you only hear one, the safest response is to freeze and determine where it is. Once you locate the snake, back slowly away until it stops rattling. Then you can enjoy it from a distance comfortable to both parties and give the snake enough room to make its getaway.

Though snakebites are extremely rare, it’s important to know what to do and what not to do. Despite what you may have heard about cutting, suction, tourniquets, ice, and/or whiskey, you risk complicating the injury and delaying expert treatment if you try any of these discredited first aids. Snakebite specialists now recommend just washing the site of the bite, immobilizing the affected area (below the level of the heart, if possible), and getting to a hospital as soon as possible. Our friend Alan Tennant, author of The Snakes of Texas, liked to emphasize this point by jingling his car keys when asked what snakebite kit he recommended.

Another dangerous myth about snakebite is that it’s important to catch or kill the snake and bring it to the hospital. All rattlesnake bites are treated with the same antivenom, so it’s not crucial for the ER staff to know which species it was. Leave the snake where it is and use your Audubon Guides app to identify it.

Rattlesnakes may not live up to their mythical reputations, but encountering one is still a thrill and a privilege. Be safe, and savor the experience.

Birding Ain’t for Wusses Part II

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Friday, June 1st, 2012

Black Vultures, adults © Doug Wechsler/VIREO

Birding Ain’t for Wusses Part I

Potoos are members of the nightjar or frogmouth family (Nyctibius). They’re weird-looking birds. Shaped like owls, they sit erect like owls, and they hunt at night like most owls. But they have wide, thin beaks, similar to a nighthawk. They look like a weird cross between an owl and a frog.

Because they’re so well camouflaged and hunt at night, they are difficult to find. They are at the top of most birders’ “must-see” lists in Central and South America.

Led by our guide Domingo and his assistant Felix, we set out at dusk one rainy evening from Sani Lodge in the Amazonia section of Ecuador. It was about 5:30 pm; the sun sets in the area at 6:15 or so, every day of the year.

We were all looking up for the potoos. We should have been looking down too.

All of a sudden Domingo, who was leading our group of five searchers, jumped sideways and backwards right into me. I staggered back into the next guy, figuring we were all going to topple over like dominoes. At first it was weirdly funny.

Then: “Essnake,” said Domingo, by way of explanation.

On the path four feet from my leg was a thick, brown snake with beige markings and a triangle-shaped head. I’d seen one of these vipers years ago in Costa Rica but from considerably further away. It was a Fer de Lance (Bothrops atrox), one of the deadliest vipers in the tropics.

We all backed away very slowly. Although they are well known for being aggressive, this one did not strike again.

We all eyed it for a couple of moments, waiting to see whether it would slither away. It didn’t. So Felix cut a new path through the jungle with his machete, and we proceeded with our hunt. We looked both up at the trees for potoos and down at the path for snakes.

After much searching, Domingo finally spotted a Rufous Potoo (Nyctibius bracteatus). Because it wasn’t roosting in its usual spot, it took us much longer to find it. And it was perfectly disguised – sitting on the top of a rotting, broken-off tree trunk like an extension of that trunk. It was on a nest, a simple hollow in the top of the trunk.

On the way back to the lodge Domingo used his spotlight to illuminate the path, especially where the Fer de Lance had been. He walked very warily. We all did. Luckily, the snake was gone.

Before we got to the lodge we heard and then spotted a second potoo, a Common Potoo (Nyctibius griseus). Plus a Tropical Screech-Owl (Megascops choliba). And we heard but couldn’t see a Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl (Megascops watsonii). Our search for it was at best half-hearted. It was pitch dark now, and the Fer de Lance had gotten inside all of our heads.

At our nightly tally we noted that the most numerous birds of the day were TVs and BVs – Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures, far too ironic and ominous!

Turkey Vulture © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Later Domingo admitted he hadn’t seen the Fer de Lance until it was inches from his leg. He recognized it in mid-strike from the whiteness inside its mouth. It had missed him by inches, me by maybe a foot. Whew!

When pressed he said that no one among his people had died from a Fer de Lance bite in about four years. There was anti-venom at the lodge.

Three lifers and one huge scare. Ah, jungle birding! The epitome of adventure birding at its best.

Birding Ain’t for Wusses!

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Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Summer Tanager adult male, Western © Joe Fuhrman/VIREO

I wasn’t the least bit afraid of heights when I was young. I remember standing on the third step from the top of a 30-foot extension ladder to paint the peak of a house one summer. No problem.

I guess I’ve gotten smarter. Heights now make me very nervous.

When I decided to go to Ecuador, I knew I was going to have to deal with this. Getting up into the canopy of trees or above them via birding towers is crucial.

At the Sani Lodge on the Napo River in Ecuadorian Amazonia I got my chance to test my resolve. Early one morning we hiked out to a green, steel tower about ten or twelve stories high; I deliberately didn’t calculate the height or even look up to see how tall it was.

Scarlet Tanager adult male, breeding © Rob Curtis/VIREO

To keep myself from bailing out, I deliberately went first. Wet, mesh steps and minimal rails made it an added challenge. I put a steely grip on both handrails and willed myself up.

About two-thirds of the way up the tower I had to stop and catch my breath in the middle of a stairway. As I stood there looking straight ahead, neither up nor down nor sideways, our guide Domingo ducked under my arm and went ahead.

Within seconds he touched my arm. I was concentrating so hard, I almost jumped out of my skin. “Essnake,” he whispered in his version of English.

Ahead in a corner of the next landing was an eight-inch coil of lime green, diamond-headed snake. If I’d gone two steps further, I’d have been staring right into its small, beady eyes.

Continue up or head back down?

With instructions from Domingo, I turned sideways, grabbed the right handrail behind me with both hands, and cautiously inched past the snake.

Flame-colored Tanager adult male © Robert A. "Spike" Baker/VIREO

My knees were jelly when I got to the top of the tower. A 12-foot bridge was all that separated me from the wooden platform at the top of a giant kapok tree. I grabbed the rails with both hands, closed my eyes, and crossed it.

Once on the platform I opened my eyes and reached for a wooden support nailed to a tree limb. Domingo grabbed my arm. “Bullet ant,” he said, pointing to a huge ant about an inch and a half long. “Bullet ant?” “If eet bite you, it feel like you heet by bullet.”

We had a productive morning in the canopy. Lots of parrots and macaws and aracaris, an Ornate Hawk-eagle, and many kinds of brilliantly colored tanagers, to name just a few. The climb was sure worth it.

Going down was no easier. In fact, it was scarier. The snake was still there, and I couldn’t help but look down.

Back at the lodge we discovered that the snake was an Amazonian Palm Viper, sometimes called a two-striped forest pit-viper (Bothriechys bilineate). No one at the lodge had ever seen it on the tower before. It would have to pick my day on the tower as its first!

Hepatic Tanger adult male © Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO

Slightly Rattled – The Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake

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Monday, March 26th, 2012

Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake by Jungle Pete

Not everyone has the good fortune of seeing an Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)  in the wild and most are probably content to keep it that way. There’s also a vast difference between spotting one from a vehicle and having one slither across a path in front of you.

The Big Cypress National Preserve in the Western Everglades is home to four species of venomous snakes including the Eastern Diamond-backed. On a recent trip down an old logging road, I spotted a four and a half footer winding its way across the road. As I approached it in the ecotour van, it coiled, rattled and decided to move on. As it slithered past, it raised its neck and head in an S-shape and retreated into the sawgrass prairie where it was lost to my eyes in a matter of seconds.

A few days later I was walking with friends in the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed in Collier County, FL. The area is primarily pine flatwoods with Slash Pines (Pinus elliottii), Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) and Cabbage Palms (Sabal palmetto) – perfect Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake habitat. Sliding silently through the underbrush and onto the path several feet in front of us was a massive rattler that without my tape measure I would estimate was nearly six feet long.

Saw Palmetto © Kent McFarland

It continued on into a Saw Palmetto thicket, coiled up and watched us as we watched it. Rattlers can strike two thirds of their body length, which would be about four feet. This means eight feet was as close as I needed to get. The buzz of its rattle validated that thought. Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes don’t always rattle. Sometimes they remain silent to protect their location and in some cases the rattle may have fallen off.

Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes are born with a segment at the end of their tail that will develop into a rattle. As snakes grow and scales need to be replaced, the old skin will shed, sometimes several times a year. During each shed, a new segment or “button” becomes loosely attached to the previous segment. The rattle is made of keratin, a fingernail-like substance that is equally fragile and susceptible to breaking over time. The number of segments does not indicate the age of the snake – the birthday does.

The smaller Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake in the top photo has six buttons including the original pear-shaped segment. The biggie in the bottom photos has ten buttons but the final segment is not the original. Either way the alarm system works.

Despite the close encounter on the trail, I was thrilled to have crossed paths with the Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake, even if slightly rattled.

Stuck – The Southern Black Racer

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Monday, March 5th, 2012

Souther Black Racer by Jungle Pete

It’s Sunday night and I find myself in a predicament. The story I wish to write involves a mystery to which I never solved and I’ve invested all of my time and thought into writing about this particular subject matter. I am stuck but I have no choice but to plow forward. My wife found a Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) in our back yard in Lehigh Acres, FL. It was dead with its head firmly entrenched in a hole in the ground. The body was unscathed. I have no idea how this happened.

Ignore the “constrictor” part of the species name for the racer. The snake most often uses its speed to chase down prey. Once in its toothy grasp, it will eat its prey live rather than squeeze it to death as the species name might imply. The racer is most likely to freak out those with snake phobias. When threatened, it will rapidly shake its tail, causing nearby vegetation to vibrate and simulating the sound, as best as possible, of a rattlesnake. More commonly they will simply dart off with impressive zip. You can’t really call it a slither. More aptly they tear off like black lightning.

None of this helps me come any closer to solving the mystery of the snake with its head buried in the sand. I grab it by the tail and by its midsection, attempting to retract it from the hole. A series of internal pops discourages me from pursuing this tact. I switch to a shovel, which ironically is how many snakes die. In this case I gently pry the sandy soil from under the snake to discover that the hole was no deeper than the two inches the snake had progressed. The snake had nothing in its mouth and nothing seemed to be hanging on to the snake.

Southern Black subspecies © Brian Kenney

Had the snake chased after prey in an undiscovered subterranean hole? Had the snake investigated a hole and simply got stuck? Or had a predator chased it and the racer died trying to make its own escape route? I don’t know and I’m left with a mystery and stuck with a story I don’t know how to end.

Stop It – The Burmese Python – Part II

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Monday, February 20th, 2012

Burmese Python by Jungle Pete

In 2008 the USGS released a potential range map for Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) in the United States. The startling suggestion was that the lower third of the continental US could be prime habitat. What it neglected to point out was that this tropical weather-loving snake can’t take the cold.

As evidence, in 2000 the Everglades National Park removed two Burmese Pythons. In 2005 they removed 94 more. In 2009 they removed the highest number ever at 367 followed by a decline in 2010 to 322 and in 2011 only 169 were found. In 2010 Florida suffered a sustained period of cold weather. For ten days, the temperature remained un-Florida like and the consequence was the death of many of the invasive species (as well as many of our native one like the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus) and American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus).

West Indian Manatee

The snakes are a huge problem. Necropsies have found the endangered Florida Woodrat (Neotoma floridana), Big Cypress Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger avicinnia), Wood Storks (Mycteria americana), Everglades Mink (Mustela vison evergladensis) and recently a 76 pound deer in the belly of the snakes.

Wood Stork, adult © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Compounding the problem is the protective nature and prodigious offspring output of a female Python. One female can lay up to ninety eggs. Cold will keep them from spreading north. Strict laws are being put in place to ban the importation of the largest and most dangerous of the invaders and most of the locals are intent on dispatching them.

If only I could enlighten the media a little.
1) Alligators rule the Everglades
2) A handful of pet Anacondas have been found and they are not known to be breeding in the Everglades.
3) The Everglades is over four million acres. The study of mammal population declines occurred in the Everglades National Park. The pythons do not have “voracious appetites”, nor are they “picking the Everglades clean”.
4) The media has a stranglehold on their readers. We have a right to well researched, well written information. Not sensationalism.

To those that would release invasive snakes into the Everglades and to those in the media who perpetuate the python myths – Stop it.