We knew winter really was over and spring was firmly taking hold on the wilder side of Oakland County when my hiking companion and I unexpectedly encountered an ancient amphibian ritual deep in the woods of Bald Mountain Recreation Area. Although light rain fell the evening before, the sun was shining. Only a few, very small remnants of snow remained on north facing slopes of the glacially sculpted, wooded hills, and the temperature had just reached 55°F. Those environmental conditions were perfect for the encounter that was about to occur.
“The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home.” That is perhaps my favorite quote from Gary Snyder in his celebration of the ways of nature in The Practice of the Wild(Snyder, 1990).
I have friends who revel in Snyder’s words. They share stories of wildlife encounters with excitement and joy. However, when it comes to sharing encounters with snakes, sometimes their words and phrases confirm their extreme anxieties and near-phobic horrors of even seeing a snake. These colorful days of October remind us of winter’s approach. That means, it’s time to share snake facts with a disclaimer: although I am not a herpetologist by any means, I am an unabashed partisan of these slithering creatures that often take center stage for a few weeks during the season of leaf fall. Perhaps you are too.
When a large northern water snake(Nerodia sipedon sipedon) swims alongside your canoe and then suddenly looks straight at you on a sultry summer day, one thing is certain; it has your undivided attention. Northern water snakes are one of the most common snakes of Oakland County and are frequently encountered as the days of summer sizzle on and we relax and recreate near ponds, lakes, marshes and rivers. They are often under-appreciated, and at times heavily feared because of their appearance and bold, opportunist behavior. Herpetologists and nature lovers in theknow are enthralled with their behavior and patient observation helps to better understand their ways and coexist peacefully. Sadly, some people “know” they are venomous. They are not!
The lifestyle and behavior patterns of the elusive red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) is very strange, at least in the eyes of humans. The red-spotted newt, and its reddish-orange terrestrial sub-adult stage known as the red eft, is perhaps our most beautiful salamander, a creature herpetologists refer to as a “gape-limited predator.” For the lay person, that translates as “If it fits in your mouth, its food.”
Most people have never seen an adult red-spotted newt in the wild, unless they are an amphibian lover that flops down on their belly and stares into a vernal pool in the early days of spring on a rainy night, hoping for a glimpse of their underwater courtship ritual. That takes planning, persistence and patience. Encountering the juvenile land-trekking terrestrial form of the red-spotted newt, known as the red eft, is far more likely for those that wander woodlands with an eye to the ground, watchful for movement among leaves on the forest floor. Continue reading →
Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. A summer vegetable garden is not only beautiful, but in the eyes of an Eastern Garter Snake, it’s an oasis of plenty. There, slugs, snails, spiders, grasshoppers, millipedes, bugs, and the occasional low-to-the-ground tree frogs may be hunted. Thamnophis sirtalis, more commonly known as the Eastern Garter Snake, is without a doubt the most commonly seen snake of Oakland County.
A bit of name clarification may be in order as well, for as much as garter snakes are attracted to gardens, there is no such snake species as a “Garden Snake” or “Gardener Snake.” The incorrect name Garden Snake seems to stay with us, and is sometimes repeated by teachers and even park professionals without a strong knowledge of snake species. Continue reading →