Thursday, 15 March 2012

First snakes of the year

With the blazing hot weather yesterday, I couldn't resist spending the afternoon looking for some early season snakes at one of my favorite spots. I headed down with Pauline and Chris, first stopping at Mountsburg to see what waterfowl were in. Not a whole lot was around compared to yesterday, maybe 10 species of the common things, so we headed west to check out Puslinch. On the way we paused to watch the antics of a few Eastern Meadowlarks.

Eastern Meadowlark

I really like this shot for some reason...its a little bit different. What do you think? Being limited to a 300 mm lens, about equivalent to 6 or 8 x zoom, means I have a lot more of these types of photos and less of the full frame, close-ups of birds. Even the meadowlark shot above was cropped a fair bit.

Eastern Meadowlark

A few roadside ponds had turtles basking - all Midland Painted Turtles of course. 

Midland Painted Turtle

We eventually made it to our spot and started looking for snakes. As I was walking a hillside I heard Chris yell that he had a snake - the first Northern Ribbonsnake of the year. 

Northern Ribbonsnake

It was great to get reacquainted with this beautiful species as I've spent hundreds of hours with it in the past. Without a doubt it is my favorite Ontario snake, though the Massasauga and Queen Snake aren't far behind.

Early in the season ribbonsnakes are quite approachable as they bask quietly in the sun. With any quick movement they take off, but if one exercises a bit of stealth it is possible to get quite close. In the past I have had ribbonsnakes that I was photographing crawl over my hands or my camera. This photo I took yesterday was from a snake I had crept up to. Full-frame.

Northern Ribbonsnake 

As we walked through the woodland signs of spring were apparent. Skunk cabbage were well on they way through the wet soil, chickadees attempted to outdo each other with their "fee-beee" song, and four species of woodpeckers were making a racket as they chased each other around and drilled cavities into trees. By turning over a few stones we found our first Ambystoma of the year - a young Blue-spotted Salamander.

Blue-spotted Salamander

Eastern Redback Salamanders were also plentiful under every other stone. This species occurs in 2 general colour morphs, with the occasional intermediate individual. This one is of the more common "redback" form, while some individuals have no red strip and are a coal gray/black colour on their dorsum. Over the years at this location, 74.9%  of the Eastern Redback Salamanders I have classified as "red-backed", 25.1% have been "lead-backed" (n=606). 

"redback" phase Eastern Redback Salamander

We heard several choruses of Spring Peepers as well as one or two lone Western Chorus Frogs. W. Chorus Frogs have been decreasing steadily in Ontario over the past number of decades and they are a candidate to be a Species at Risk. This part of Ontario still has strong populations, but it was a little disconcerting to only hear a couple of them mixed in with the peepers. Normally they readily sing in the daytime early in the season while the peepers have their loudest choruses at night. Hopefully the lack of W. Chorus Frogs was due to the early date and not a decline in their numbers. Here is a photo of one from a previous spring...

Western Chorus Frog

Chris keeping a wary eye out for snakes

Pauline - herper extraordinaire

Anyways, as the afternoon wore on we kept seeing good numbers of both N. Ribbonsnakes (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis) as well as the slightly less numerous Eastern Gartersnake (T. sirtalis sirtalis). These are the two earliest snakes I see at this site, with my first snake of the year usually a N. Ribbonsnake. Within a week or two Northern Brownsnakes, followed shortly by Redbelly Snakes should appear. Northern Watersnakes will be out any day, and the remaining snakes at the site (Smooth Greensnake, Eastern Milksnake, N. Ringneck Snake) don't usually appear until mid or late April. Most of the gartersnakes and ribbonsnakes we saw on the day were very close to known hibernacula, and I didn't see any in areas where I suspect there are no hibernacula. To me this means that they had recently emerged and within a few days they will probably disperse over all the hillsides.

Northern Ribbonsnake

I would elaborate more on Northern Ribbonsnakes, their hibernacula, and other things, but I've already made this long-winded enough. They are a fascinating species though, and its good to see several populations in the Cambridge/Guelph area that are doing very strong as they are a Species of Special Concern in Ontario. 


  1. Enjoy your blog and pics.
    I love the last snake cute!!!!

  2. Nice report Josh, glad to see the north is thawing for you as well. Had a similar experience today, well more than a dozen Ribbons were active in a small area. Happy herping!