A Snake’s Perspective

Garter snakes, our most common serpent, have been underfoot and slithering around all over the place since the warm, dry weather arrived. They add a bit of excitement and interest to the landscape (my dog freaks out over a shed skin!), and are beneficial predators.

The forked tongue is a marvelous sensory organ with multiple functions: taste and smell. It is in constant motion, sampling airborne as well as soil particles.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

White Admiral

Many butterflies visit animal carcasses and dung to obtain nutrients. In this instance, a road-killed rattlesnake attracted at least four species, including the White Admiral in the photo.

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Photo by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

The Snappers are Laying!

Old abandoned railroad beds are a centerpiece of our outdoor recreation resources. “Rails-to-trails” projects provide wonderful opportunities for hiking, dog-walking, nature photography, cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities. These long green corridors also connect villages and spur cooperative, community-based conservation efforts.

This morning I had a call from the walker shown below to let me know that there were Snapping Turtles all over the place, digging nests and laying eggs. It was warm, overcast and rainy, a perfect day for turtle activity. In fact, I stopped along the way to remove a Painted Turtle from the middle of the road, reminding me of my post from 2013 entitled “Slow Down for Turtles”!

https://nicksnaturepics.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/slow-down-for-turtles/

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Abandoned railroad bed converted into a popular walking trail

Abandoned railroad beds attract turtles in late spring because they are often in close proximity to wetlands and provide ideal sites for egg-laying: high, dry and sunny, with coarse-textured substrate.

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Snapping Turtle on its nest, laying eggs

These egg-laying snappers, working along the edge of the railroad bed just a couple of feet from the main pathway, are totally committed to the task at hand. They’re more or less oblivious to mild disturbances, tolerating walkers (some with leashed dogs) and curious onlookers (like me) just a few feet away. They don’t leave until the seeds for another generation of Snapping Turtles are secure!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

Discovery Walks

One of my favorite things to do in spring is to grab some field gear and walk, slowly and without purpose. It’s exhilarating, the vivid colors, species richness and animal activities teasing all of the senses. A purpose may materialize around the next bend in the trail, or not. The anticipation alone is a recreational high. And the rewards invariably appear.

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Great Crested Flycatcher, nest-building

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Midland Painted Turtle; searching for a wetland habitat

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Blue-winged Warbler, foraging for insects in a wild apple tree

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Wood Frog in a moist, poorly drained woodland habitat

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Raven

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Flowers and developing leaves of a mature Red Oak tree

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Baltimore Oriole, male, foraging on insects (possibly nectar too) on a wild apple tree in full bloom

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11-month-old white-tailed deer, buck, browsing on the new foliage of woody plants

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The mother of the young buck, feeding on the new leaves of Sugar Maple

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Sidetracked

Yesterday I had a six-hour window to haul firewood from my woodlot to the house before a week of rainy weather would make the old wagon trail too soft for truck access. I had my camera on the front seat of the truck and allowed myself to get sidetracked a few times and capture a bit of the activity around me.

At this time of year, many of the wet, open places in my woodlot are dominated by a coarse, two- to five- foot tall herbaceous plant called Hellebore. (Veratum viride). It has a sturdy stalk and huge leaves but the terminal flower clusters aren’t much to look at. They’re small, yellow-green flowers that rarely seem to attract a lot of insects. Yesterday was an exception: I spotted a White Admiral butterfly working the flowers on a patch of Hellebore next to my work area and captured the moment.

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White Admiral butterfly on Hellebore flowers

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When turning my truck around in a damp, weedy opening, I happened to notice movement just beyond the front wheel. I had disturbed a Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), which leaped up from the wet ground cover, landed on a stump and posed briefly for a photo. This amphibian, common in the U.S. and Canada, is easily identified by its dark mask (a “robber’s mask”). Most of my close encounters with Wood Frogs occur in early spring, when they create quite a spectacle, moving to vernal pools as soon as the ice is gone to call, breed and lay eggs.

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Wood Frog

The humid, 90-degree weather took its toll – coming down the hill to the house with my 5th load of wood, I was desperately in need of a diversion. I walked into a brushy field, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Great Crested Flycatchers feeding their young, but instead found a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) perched in a Balsam Fir tree, singing. Just the break I needed!

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Song Sparrow

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Slow Down for Turtles

What does a nature photographer do when faced with three weeks of rain, and sunshine as fleeting as a colorful sunset? To confound the issue, assume that this particular photographer is neither experienced with, or geared up for, capturing quality images under dark, rainy conditions…………..Look for turtles!

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I had been seeing turtles, dead and alive, on my travels in and around wetlands and decided to make the most of the opportunity. My featured species are the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys spp.) and Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), both very common and widespread.

Prime turtle habitat generally consists of quiet, shallow surface waters with soft, muddy bottoms and an abundance of aquatic vegetation. These diverse wetland habitats are rich in aquatic life of all sorts and provide the key ingredients for turtle success: animal (and plant) life to eat; places to hide or bask in the sun; and a soft, subsurface medium to burrow into and hibernate for the winter.

The four photos that follow illustrate the aquatic life typically associated with turtle habitat.

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Yellow Pond Lily (also Bullhead Lily; Nuphar variegatum)

I had to slip into about 10 inches of muck and water to confirm the identity of this White Water Buttercup. Just as my boot entered the water, a huge Snapper slowly backed away into deeper water. Had I known it was there, I would have waited for it to poke its nose up in between the flowers!

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White Water Buttercup (Ranunculus trichophyllus). This small plant has clusters of feathery, threadlike leaves below the surface.

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Leaf of a Water Lily

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Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), usually found in the same habitats as Painted and Snapping Turtles

The Painted Turtle is  the most widely distributed turtle in North America, and probably the species that is most often seen by the viewing public. Flourishing in spite of human disturbance, and in some cases because of it, they are found in a wide variety of aquatic habitats. These include drainage ditches and farm ponds as well as natural wetlands and surface waters.

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Basking Painted Turtles

Generally, when a small turtle (4-10 inches long) is seen basking on a rock, stump or fallen tree in a shallow water body, it is a Painted Turtle. Close inspection reveals a striking mix of vivid red, yellow and dark markings that gave rise to the common name.

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Basking Painted Turtles

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Basking Painted Turtles; one just slipped back into the water, perhaps to feed after getting warmed up

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Basking Painted Turtles

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Painted Turtle; this was one of four turtles on a secondary road bisecting a marsh, three Painted Turtles and one Snapper. I believe they were searching for nest-building and egg-laying sites.

Snapping Turtles and Painted Turtles have much in common in terms of food and habitat preferences and reproductive behavior. However, Snapping Turtles are much larger (15-20 inches long and up to 35 pounds or more in weight), have economic importance as a source of food and, as stated in my Peterson field guide “Reptiles and Amphibians”, they are “Ugly in both appearance and disposition…..”.

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Snapper on her nest, laying eggs

One of my references says that Snappers, unlike other turtles, rarely bask in the sun. This snapper is climbing a downed tree in the middle of a small farm pond to bask!

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Snapper climbing a snag in a pond, looking for a place to bask in the sun (1 of 2)

After photographing the basking Snapper, I spotted this hen Merganser along the far shoreline. She speared a frog, gulped it down and headed toward the downed tree. I assumed she was going to drift in among the limbs and rest on the water, but to my delight she hopped up on to the snag. I don’t think she knew she wasn’t alone!

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Hen Merganser preening and resting, in the company of a basking Snapper

Snappers can be nasty when cornered and disturbed on land. They have to be – they’re too massive to withdraw into the protection of their shell. However, if they have access to water when disturbed, they will often float with just their eyes and nostrils showing. The dorsal position of the nostrils allows them to “snorkel” and evaluate the nature of the threat.

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Disturbed Snapper in a deep puddle on a poorly drained hiking trail

Both Painted Turtles and Snapping Turtles leave the comfort and security of water to build nests and lay eggs. This snapper has just emerged from its watery home to search for a nest site.

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Snapping Turtle searching for a nest site.

The preferred nest site is an open, sunny spot with coarse-textured soil. Old railroad beds bordering wetlands and, in the following sequence, the coarse surface of a canal towpath, are examples.

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Snapping Turtle preparing to lay eggs in its nest.

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Claws of a road-killed Snapping Turtle, well adapted for digging

At a glance the nest appears to be a shallow excavation, but a deeper hole lies within to receive the eggs. Several dozen eggs, somewhat like small ping pong balls, will be deposited in the hole, then covered. Incubation is 9 to 18 weeks, depending on the geographic location. In the cold North, hatchlings might remain in the nest until spring (amazing!).

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Snapping Turtle laying an egg in her nest

PRESERVE WETLANDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.

A Canal Towpath/Trail Walk

Late this morning I decided to battle cabin fever (its been raining for days) and investigate a local wetland and historic, canal waterway. The canal and towpath date back to the middle of the 19th century. Thanks to an active, volunteer conservation group, they are now an important wildlife sanctuary and recreation resource.

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Chenango Canal and towpath/trail

Two “alien” or non-native plants are in full bloom now, both of which were growing at the edge of the canal.

Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), a native of Europe and Asia, has escaped from gardens and become naturalized. It prefers moist soils, but isn’t too site-sensitive and groups of plants are blooming everywhere – roadsides, field edges, vacant lots, etc. This tall wildflower looks like Phlox, but unlike that common garden plant, has just four petals and an alternate leaf arrangement. I like its colorful floral display and the fact that the small, tubular flowers attract butterflies and other insects.

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Dame’s Rocket in a damp, uncultivated area next to active farmland

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Dame’s Rocket

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Crescent butterfly on Dame’s Rocket

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White Admiral butterfly on Dame’s Rocket

Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus), of European origin, is another species that has successfully escaped from cultivation. It is a wet site plant and extensive stands are locally common in marshes, on floodplains and along stream banks. In some areas Yellow Iris has received the status of “invasive”. The plants occur in large clumps, 2 to 3 feet tall, and are vigorous and sturdy. I often see large, expanding colonies along stream banks that seem immune to severe flooding and fluctuating water levels.

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Yellow Iris

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Yellow iris

I visited the canal hoping to see waterfowl, perhaps a family of Wood Ducks. A feather was the best I could do, but I had some great turtle sightings that offset the disappointment!

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Waterfowl feather lodged against a cattail stalk

Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are active now. I saw a road-killed female on my way to the canal and thought of a recent warning in the local newspaper: “slow down for turtles when driving near wetlands”.

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Snapping Turtle swimming in the fertile, slow-moving water of the canal

Of the nearly 20 species of turtles native to New York State, the Snapping Turtle and smaller Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) are the most common. Painted Turtles are often seen sunning on logs and rocks in the shallow, sluggish waters of swamps, marshes and ponds.

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Eastern Painted Turtle at rest

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.