Friday 23 November 2012

Late-season herps near Cambridge

With the mercury projected to reach about 14 degrees Celsius yesterday, I had to get over to one of my favorite locales to look for some snakes. This particular location (which I won't name, due to sensitivity issues with some of the species that are present) I know intimately, having visited it between 150 and 200 times over the years. In that time I have noted 25 species of herps here - the only two species that occur in Waterloo Region but not here are Queen Snake and Blanding's Turtle. Some of the more notable species I have discovered here over the years are local rarities in Ring-necked Snake, Eastern Milksnake, Smooth Greensnake, Jefferson Salamander, and Pickerel Frog. 

Northern Ringneck Snake - August 16, 2008

Pickerel Frog - April 7, 2010

There is one species which resides here which I have a greater appreciation for than all the rest. While by no means common , it is regular in Waterloo Region and not highly sought after by most herpers. The Northern Ribbonsnake is that species.

It makes its home in the wooded hills and low lying swamps and fens in the area. It is not gaudily attractive, but it has a certain subtle beauty to it. I have grown to know this species over the years, spending countless hours watching its behavior - from it feeding on frogs, to its mating rituals on warm spring days, to studying its thermoregulatory patterns around the hibernacula in late autumn. 

Northern Ribbonsnake - April 1, 2010

The autumn is my favorite time to visit the site. On warm days in October or even early November, any south facing slope will have an abundance of Northern Ribbonsnakes and other snakes, out to gain precious rays of sun for what could possibly be the last time of the year. I can hardly think of anything I enjoy doing more regarding natural history than watching these snakes interact with each other and the environment on a calm, warm October day. 

Unfortunately because my Big Year has taken up so much of my life, I had not been unable to make it over to the site yet this autumn. Looking at the weather forecast and seeing that it was my last chance to find some herps, I decided to spend the afternoon there yesterday.

It took a bit of effort but eventually I found a neonate Northern Ribbonsnake. It was somewhat surprising in that it was in a low-lying area adjacent to a marsh, while normally this time of year all of the snakes are in the hills. Could it be that this little ribbonsnake, being a neonate, was inexperienced in finding a suitable hibernacula? It had found a nice patch of sun to thermoregulate for this afternoon, but perhaps it was not an ideal location to spend the winter. Would it survive? 

Northern Ribbonsnake - November 22, 2012 

I did not see any other snakes in the nearby vicinity, even though I had on previous October visits in other years. I had assumed that while this was a good thermoregulatory area, it was perhaps not ideal for spending the winter. In November visits, when snakes should theoretically be near the entrances to their hibernacula, nearly all the snakes that I have found have been up in the hills.

Perhaps this little ribbonsnake was just inexperienced in finding suitable hibernacula, or maybe this particular area was more suitable than what I had envisioned. Was my previous theory about hibernacula wrong? It is moments like these that really make me appreciate being out, observing natural phenomena such as this. Despite visiting the site hundreds of times, and thinking I have all the answers about certain species and behaviors  I often come away from an interaction with more questions than answers. Every single trip has been worthwhile, in some way or another, in that I learn something, or more frequently, learning that I know far less than what I had thought. Moments like that often give me a greater appreciation of the natural world. 

Continuing on, I walked another ridge where I had seen snakes before on occasion. However, the wind had picked up by this point, and the sun was weak enough that there would not be much incentive for a hibernating snake to come to the surface and bask. I lucked out however, and found an Eastern Gartersnake near the top of the ridge.

Eastern Gartersnake - November 22, 2012

It too was quietly basking in the sun for what would probably be the last time until mid March. While far more abundant the closely related Northern Ribbonsnake, at this site this generalist species is outnumbered. While occupying separate niches here throughout the warm part of the year, when the weather cools they will share space. It is not uncommon to find several individuals of each species near the entrance to a hibernacula.

Eastern Gartersnake - November 22, 2012

I bid my farewell to what will almost certainly be the last snake I see this year. This date of November 22nd is the latest that I have seen Northern Ribbonsnakes as well as Eastern Gartersnakes in Ontario. Combined with the Northern Leopard and Green Frogs I encountered later in the afternoon, it was a very successful day!

And as much as I don't like to admit it, it was kind of nice walking around without binoculars today, not worrying about what bird I had to chase next...

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