Sunday 7 June 2015

A day of herping

While birding has taken up a rather large chunk of my time over the last six of seven years, my first love was reptiles and amphibians. I don't get out looking for them as often anymore but I try to make the most of my opportunities when I get a chance.

My good friend Todd Hagedorn was itching to get some herping in, and I had a brief window in my busy field schedule, so we planned a quick 24 hour-long herping trip to one of my favorite locations near Gravenhurst, Ontario. We did not arrive at our destination until after sunset, but as we opened the car doors several booming Common Nighthawks greeted us, while the Eastern Whip-poor-wills started up shortly after as we were setting up the tent.

Rip-roaring campfire

The following morning dawned cool and sunny with a light breeze, and we were anxious to find some herps. We wandered off on a little known trail through rock barrens, while many bird species typical of that habitat serenaded us, including Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Indigo Bunting and Brown Thrasher. The nearby oak-maple woods held a different assortment of birds and amongst the numerous Ovenbirds, American Redstarts and White-throated Sparrows, we soon added Scarlet Tanager, Black-and-white Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeak to our growing bird list. Surprisingly, the biting insects were in short supply. Normally this area is notorious for the flocks of deerflies and mosquitoes that almost carry you away.

rock barren habitat - Muskoka District

The first snake of the day was a neonate Eastern Gartersnake (an uncommon species in these particular rock barrens), followed shortly by a pair of Ring-necked Snakes. These diminutive salamander-eating snakes are always fun to come across!

Northern Ringneck Snake - Muskoka District

The Five-lined Skink is Ontario's only lizard species, and while listed as a species at risk it can be quite common in suitable habitat. We ended up tallying over 20 during the morning. Some of the females were looking rather large and will be laying their clutches of eggs in the coming weeks.

Five-lined Skink - Muskoka District

The sun rose higher in the sky, burning off the cool morning air and allowing reptiles the opportunity to regulate their body temperatures by lying in the sun. As Todd walked by a juniper bush, this pretty lady alerted us to her presence with a quick shake of her rattle. It was a gorgeous Eastern Massasauga, warming herself in a nice sheltered spot on the lee side of the juniper bush.

Eastern Massasauga - Muskoka District

Eastern Massasaugas are without a doubt my favorite species that calls Ontario home, and always a treat to come across. Despite their reputation, rattlesnakes would much rather be left alone than to waste their precious venom on biting something other than a potential food source. During the time we watched this massasauga she sat quietly in the sun, tolerating our presence but certainly not acting aggressive in any way. It's interesting to note that the vast majority of rattlesnake bites occur when someone is trying to handle the rattlesnake, or attempting to kill it (illegal to do in Ontario, by the way, as Eastern Massasaugas are listed as a Threatened species). We are lucky here in Ontario to have such a highly specialized and unique species as part of our herpetofauna.
Eastern Massasauga - Muskoka District

A shot showing the pattern of the massasauga's scales...

Eastern Massasauga - Muskoka District

We left the Eastern Massasauga to continue soaking up the warm rays, and continued on to see what else we could find. I stumbled upon two separate Smooth Greensnakes within the course of an hour, both out in the open along the edges of the rock barrens. Smooth Greensnakes have to be one of the most beautiful and docile of Ontario's snakes - I don't think a Smooth Greensnake could bite someone if it wanted to! Unlike the vast majority of Ontario's snakes, Smooth Greensnakes are the only one to regularly eat insects.

Smooth Greensnake - Muskoka District

In the early afternoon Todd and I began our walk back to the car to have a late lunch. We were only a few hundred meters from the vehicle when Todd looked down and spotted this...

Eastern Hognose Snake - Muskoka District

It was a neonate Eastern Hognose Snake, all six inches of it stretched out along the trail. This was an incredible find, as this species is known to be in the general area, but has never been found before at this particular site, as far as I am aware. It also happened to be Todd's first ever hoggie!

Eastern Hognose Snake - Muskoka District

Eastern Hognose Snakes are listed as a Threatened species in Ontario and are often found in relatively low densities throughout the province, making them quite difficult to find in most areas. They dine almost exclusively on American Toads in Ontario, and prefer habitat that contains sandy or loamy soil. Their upturned snout is a unique adaptation they have, used for borrowing in the sand. This particular area has very little sand (it is mostly bedrock interspersed with wetlands), or toads, so it is not that surprising that Eastern Hoggies are rather rare in the area.

Eastern Hognose Snake - Muskoka District

Eastern Hognose Snakes are famous for the elaborate "death-feigning" display that they perform when threatened in some way. It may involve them rolling onto their back with their tongue hanging out of their mouth, while spraying feces around as they writhe on the ground. The whole purpose of the display is to make them seem thoroughly unappetizing to a would be predator. We were careful when observing the snake not to stress it out too much to cause the display, as I can't imagine it is very pleasant for the snake, as well as quite energy-taxing.

Eastern Hognose Snake - Muskoka District

After such a productive morning, we decided we would spend the rest of the afternoon birding at the Carden Alvar - an extensive area of prairies, alvar, and low-intensity livestrock grazing. Many grassland species call the alvar home, species that are in general declining across their range as low-intensity agriculture is being replaced with "efficient" monocultures. Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds are some of the common birds here; species that are always fun to see!

Tree Swallow - Carden Alvar

We had a productive few hours on the alvar, finding a pair of Upland Sandpipers right next to Victoria Road, observing several Loggerhead Shrikes from the various gravel roads that crisscross the area, and listening to at least four Sedge Wrens rattling away in the aptly named Sedge Wren Marsh on Wylie Road. Our last stop was the Prospect Road Marsh, where we were treated to close views of a Least Bittern as it flew low over the marsh in perfect lighting.

It was a simply amazing day in a beautiful part of Ontario. We ended up with close to 100 bird and 9 reptile species for the day.


The Furry Gnome said...

Great collection of snakes!

Allen Woodliffe said...

That is an impressive 24-hour foray, Josh....well done!