Saturday 18 June 2016

Herping trip to Georgian Bay - Day 1 of 2

Last weekend, Todd Hagedorn and I headed north for our third annual summer herping trip in Georgian Bay. Two years ago we explored Georgian Bay Islands National Park, last year was a night at my go-to Massasauga spot further east on the mainland, and this year we decided to return to Georgian Bay Islands National Park.

Located less than an hour north of Barrie, but only accessible by boat, the islands are simultaneously easy and difficult to access. The drive up from southern Ontario isn't too long (as long as you can avoid the weekend cottage traffic heading north from Toronto), however since you have to take a boat to access the islands there are rarely large numbers of other campers on the islands. Todd and I took a water taxi on our last visit to the islands, but this year saved a bit of money by taking Todd's dad's boat.

While there were several yachts and sailboats anchored offshore our chosen island, we were the only ones actually camping on the mainland. As this is a national park, camping fees were actually quite reasonable - about 15$ a night. A nice change from the 40$ a night at provincial parks!

Todd and I both worked on Friday, and combined with the weekend traffic and a gravel spill on Highway 400, our arrival was a bit later than we had hoped. However, the boat was in the water an hour before sunset and we made our way through the channels between the islands until arriving at our destination.

We heard a few Gray Treefrogs and American Bullfrogs that evening, but they stopped vocalizing as the wind picked up in the late evening. There was a "Special Weather Statement" for the area, which ended up materializing as an hour or two of hard rain during the middle of the night. Fortunately we were dry in the tent, as we had set up under a gazebo near our campsite!

It had stopped raining by dawn and Todd and I set out, eager to see what we could find. These islands provide habitat for a rather large proportion of the reptiles and amphibian species native to Ontario. Five of the eight turtle species, eleven of fifteen snakes, and the only lizard in Ontario can be found here, along with six salamanders and ten frog/toad species. That is a total of 33 species, out of 47 found in the province.

The ground was saturated in areas and the sun was hidden behind a dense wall of clouds, preventing many reptiles from basking out in the open where they would be easier to find. We ended up hiking around all morning, carefully flipping the occasional rock and scanning rock piles, shrubby areas with juniper, and edge habitats in hopes of encountering a snake.

Somehow we managed to go the entire morning without seeing a single snake - something that is really hard to do here during June! However, there were many other things to keep up the interest level. As we walked through the more heavily wooded areas we had to watch our step to avoid these colorful little gems.

Eastern Newt - Georgian Bay Islands NP

While hiking through a rock barren characterized by Red and White Oak, Eastern White Pine, Red Maple and American Elm, we came across this beautiful Blanding's Turtle, plodding her way through the barrens in search of a suitable nesting site.

Blanding's Turtle - Georgian Bay Islands NP

As you can see, this individual had suffered a wound some years ago to her carapace, likely caused by the propeller of a boat (the area has a large amount of boat traffic). She had survived the injury and each year makes the long and somewhat awkward trek, likely over a km in length, over rocks and through woodlands and wetlands to find the perfect spot to lay her eggs. One has to admire the resiliency of these turtles, some which have been known to live for over 80 years.

Blanding's Turtle - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Categorized as a Threatened Species in Ontario and Canada, Blanding's Turtles have been declining due to a combination of factors - road and boat mortality, habitat loss, and egg predation by raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes among other species. It was pretty special to observe this individual, doing what Blanding's Turtles have done for millions of years.

Blanding's Turtle - Georgian Bay Islands NP

The Blanding's was not the only turtle with a damaged shell that we found - Todd located this girl digging a "test hole" in some shallow soil on the bedrock near the shoreline. Like the Blanding's Turtle, it also exhibited an old propeller wound.

Snapping Turtle - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Snapping Turtle - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Our luck with snakes finally changed around lunch time. Todd discovered the first snake of the trip, an Eastern Milksnake, along with an Eastern Gartersnake.

The sun finally broke through the clouds in the early afternoon. After an hour or so of hiking, I happened to spot an Eastern Massasauga coiled amongst some rocks at the edge of a clearing.

Eastern Massasauga - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Eastern Massasauga - Georgian Bay Islands NP

While we were photographing the first individual, a second buzzed off from a few meters away, hidden under some juniper branches. We spent the next little while photographing the first rattlesnake as it lay quietly on the dead leaves and moss. It was a pretty thick individual and my guess is that it is a pregnant female. For much of the next 5-7 weeks she will bask in the sun, ensuring quick development of the embryos inside of her.

Eastern Massasauga - Georgian Bay Islands NP

We continued on to let the 'saugas thermoregulate in peace, and happened upon this Eastern Gartersnake stretched out across the trail. It tolerated my slow but steady approach until my camera lens was only six inches from it. Often if you move slowly snakes have a difficult time of detecting the movement and become more approachable.

Eastern Gartersnake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

When exploring the rocky barrens and maple, elm and oak forests, we couldn't help but notice other, less obvious species. This was especially true when we weren't finding any snakes!

I spotted this jumping spider with its unfortunate victim in a brush pile along the edge of an open area.

Jumping spider sp. and prey - Georgian Bay Islands NP

The excitement for the day wasn't over as we returned to camp around 6 PM. After grabbing some refreshments, Todd and I set out to explore the shoreline near our campsite. I was happy to spot a huge Eastern Hog-nosed Snake around 50 meters away from where we were camping. We had a lot of fun taking photos of this impressive snake!

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes are one of my favorite species found in Ontario. They can appear in a variety of patterns and colours, incorporating yellows, reds, oranges, browns, and blacks. Hoggies are toad specialists, and prefer areas of sandy soils for which they can excavate their nests. The next photo shows the shovel-shaped snout evolved for this purpose.

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

This individual had blueish eyes, an easily observable sign that it will be shedding its skin, likely within a week's time. Often when snakes are "in the blue" they hide under cover more frequently, perhaps because of their reduced vision during this time or to help facilitate ideal shedding conditions by being somewhere warm and humid. Usually a couple days to a week before ecdysis, the eyes become clear once again.

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes are uncommon and sparsely distributed in Ontario, though they can be locally common in a few select areas. I rarely encounter this species, having observed 13 individuals in the decade or so that I have been herping in Ontario.

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Georgian Bay Islands NP

My next post will cover the following day on the island, including photos of a few more impressive snakes.


Allen Woodliffe said...

Great post, Josh, with some impressive photos of these herps. Looking forward to the next one!

Nathan Miller said...

wonderful shots Josh!

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Thanks Nate!

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Much appreciated, Allen! I'm glad I decided to dust off the macro lens for the first time all year.