Tag Archives: Eastern Garter Snake

Bear Creek Nature Park: Snow, Sleet but Spring Arrived Anyway!

Red-winged Blackbirds in an April snow squall

Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above,  along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.

We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.

Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.

Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?

This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.

A Canada Goose rested among the dead reeds at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell.

In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!

A Northern Cardinal looking a bit shocked at the snow and the icy wind ruffling his crest.

Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.

The silhouette of a Turkey Vulture coping with an April snowstorm at Bear Marsh.

During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.

A lone Grackle looking back  toward the south on a snowy Michigan day

Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely;  it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!

An Eastern Phoebe, in its brown and white plumage, almost disappears into the branches and the snowfall.

Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.

Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of  American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.

A Tree Sparrow stocks up on food before leaving for Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada or perhaps the Arctic tundra.

During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.

The Dark-eyed Juncos are preparing to depart to Ontario and points north.

Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More

For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The  Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.

Last November the Wood Frog found a spot to hibernate in a log or under fallen leaves.

The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!

On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.

A Song Sparrow lets the wind carry his song into the Eastern Meadow.

On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.

When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).  This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!

The Woodcock probes for worms with that long beak and performs an elaborate courting dance as the sun sets.

A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis) seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.

This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.

The Hairy Woodpecker has a thicker, longer beak than the similar Downy.

Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!

A Brown-headed Cowbird pauses while foraging in the Eastern Meadow.

The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of  sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!

Nine Painted Turtles turtles basking in the sunlight on the first warm day.

While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.

Eastern Garter Snakes mating. The male snake is much smaller than the female who needs to carry the live young.

With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.

A Sexton Beetle on its way to bury a carcass of a mouse or bird on which its larvae can feed.

I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.

At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!

Stewardship Projects Proceeded

A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects.  Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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The Promise of Full-fledged Spring

A young girl flies her kite at Bear Creek Nature Park on a spring-like afternoon.

We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.

Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us.  Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert!  Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  and others as cited in the text.

BEAR CREEK: Is It Spring Yet? Ummm, No… plus Tracking Bear Creek Itself

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

What a crazy February and March, eh?  Snow, ice – and then suddenly mud, warm sunlight, even a butterfly! – then icy winds again.  Such schizophrenic weather complicates life in the natural world.  A snake basks in the sun one day and a few days later, returning sandhill cranes peck along the surface of thin ice.  Ducks leave wing prints and webbed feet tracks on a snowy pond and a few days later, a female crayfish emerges with eggs under her tail.  Never a dull moment in the parks! Meanwhile I set off to track the meandering course of Bear Creek itself.

 

Early February – A Normal Winter for the Birds

Robin in evening sun BC
A Robin plumps against the cold on an early February day

American Robins (Turdus migratorius), despite their association with spring, know how to cope with cold days:  find dried fruits on old vines, turn your dark red breast to any sunlight available and plump up your feathers to create some down insulation.

The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the western slope found sun at the very top of a tree and decided to try out his mating call on an icy morning.  “Peter, Peter, Peter,”  he trilled,  despite the snow below.

Singing Titmouse BC
A Tufted Titmouse tried out his spring call – “Peter, Peter” on a sunny, very cold morning

A small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) passed contact calls back and forth in the small trees and shrubs.  The male  below probably spent this odd winter at Bear Creek and appears to be just fine.

A male Eastern Bluebird pauses on the branch of a small tree

Nearby, a small bird busily wound its way up a tree, poking at the bark every few seconds and moving on.  That upward spiral was a clue.  It was a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), a funny little bird with a small head and a long sharp beak good for winkling out bugs and larvae from tree bark.  If you look carefully in my hastily shot photo, you can see its right eye and curving black beak.

Brown Creeper 2 BC
A Brown Creeper always works its way around and up a tree when foraging.

The longer days brought a  warm weather migrant to the marsh, the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). It probed the grassy clumps protruding from the ice, looking for tidbits – seeds, perhaps?  This  sparrow’s cheerful mating song will burble forth all over the park when real spring arrives.

Song Sparrow BC Marsh 2
An early Song Sparrow poked about in the grasses of the marsh exposed above the ice.

Then, Suddenly, Spring, Off and On

Residents take immediate advantage of a spring-like day at Bear Creek.

Somewhere near the middle of February  the temperature rose, the ice began to melt, and the snow turned to mud. Humans, that most adaptable of creatures,  came out to enjoy a respite from winter cold. And so did some other animals who may have been fooled into emerging a bit early!

This Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) probably spent the winter as an adult under the bark of a log or in a hollow tree. It’s common to see them alone in a sunny spot in early spring – but not usually in February!  I hope this one went back to its winter digs as the temperature dropped!

Eastern Comma Butterfly BC February
An Eastern Comma butterfly emerged from hibernation as the weather warmed unseasonably in February.

Further along, an Eastern Garter Snake  (Thamnophis sirtalis) basked in the sunlight on the trail before slipping off into the grass.

A basking Garter Snake slipped off the path into the grass.

On another warm-ish day, the birding group came upon 30-40 talkative year ’round residents, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), flitting from tree to tree and whistling in their thin, high voices. Cornell Lab recently posted that scientists are exploring the idea that the waxwings with the most red waxy dots on their wing tips are the most mature adult birds and the most likely to be successful at mating.

Flock of Cedar Waxwings BC
A flock of Cedar Waxwings whistled and flew from tree to tree in late February.

The birding group was greeted by the waving claws of a small, but assertive female crayfish sitting in a puddle on the trail near the pond. Under her tail, she carried quite a load of eggs.  Michigan has eight native species of crayfish, and one aggressive, invasive one, called the Rusty Crayfish.  This one could be the invasive because according to U-M’s Biokids site, they take an aggressive claws-up stance to fight off predators (as she did when we approached) and she also had smudge-like spots on the back of her carapace. But crayfish are  difficult creatures to positively identify, so for now,  we’ll just say she’s a crayfish.  If her eggs hatch despite the cold that returned the following day, she will carry her young through several molts, until they fall off and start life on their own.   Thanks to Ben for his great photo.

Ben's photo Crayfish w eggs BC
A crayfish with eggs under her tail

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) floated above her reflection in the Center Pond.  Some of the birders wondered if it could be classified as the subspecies of Lesser Canada Goose, since its neck is shorter than most Canada Geese. But since its body and beak are large, it’s hard to say.  It may just be normal variation – or maybe it had a Lesser Goose  or Cackling Goose relative (Branta hutchinsii) in its past!

Lesser Canada Goose BC
This Canada Goose has a remarkably short neck so it could be part of a subspecies called the Lesser Canada Goose.

In the unseasonal warmth, a native Hazelnut  bush (Corylus americana) extended its long male catkins that will fertilize the tiny female flowers on the twigs when they emerge later.  The little flowers eventually produce clusters of nuts.  The farmer who lived on Bear Creek during the Depression and WWII gathered these nuts as a boy, as reported in an earlier blog. 

hazelnut-catkins-1
These male catkins of the Hazelnut bush will fertilize tiny female flowers on the branch to produce  – what else? – hazelnuts!

Winter Returns, Sigh…

The marsh froze over again – thinner ice that water birds could peck through to forage in the water below.  One morning in a cold wind, a pair of  Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) poked about on the ice near Gunn Road, stalking back and forth on their knobby legs.  They didn’t seem to be finding much to eat.

Sandhill Cranes poked at the thin ice when the marsh re-froze after the false spring.

At the Center Pond, it looked as though some ducks had walked on the ice and then taken off, leaving some decorative webbed foot tracks and wing prints in the snow.

Duck feet and wing tracks Center Pond BC
The prints of duck feet and wings on the Center Pond’s snowy surface.

The next morning, the sun broke through and thinned the ice. A male Canada Goose found a break in it and stuck his head down, looking for food. Brrr…glad they have plenty of fat and keep their layers of feathers well-oiled  by preening from an oil gland at the tip of their tail like other water birds.

Two Geese in icy marsh BC
The male Canada Goose searches for food in an open patch in the thin marsh ice.

On the western slope, a male Eastern Bluebird repeatedly swooped down into the grass and back up into a nearby bush, evidently finding some seed he liked on a cold morning.

Flying bluebird BC
A male Eastern Bluebird glides to the ground to look for seeds.
Coyote tracks BC Lane
Most likely coyote tracks on the Walnut Lane

And along the upper part of the Walnut Lane, tracks revealed the path of what might have been a Coyote (Canis latrans) from the size of these canid tracks.  Like the fox, when they trot, they place the back foot where the front was – hence the single tracks.  Wish I could see this animal in the park.  Its scat is everywhere!  We can be assured, I think, that this animal does just fine no matter what the weather!

 Tracking the Meandering Path of Bear Creek Itself

Occasionally a park visitor asks me why the park is called Bear Creek.  Well, I don’t know why the creek was called “bear” because there are no bears.  At one time, the marsh was reportedly called “Bare Marsh” because of the many dead trees standing in the water years ago.   But some people ask because they haven’t noticed the little creek  and its meandering path that eventually reaches Paint Creek.  I never paid  much attention to it myself once it left the Center Pond boardwalk.  But in February, I decided to follow it.

It begins, I believe, in a spring that I saw  years ago during a drought that dried up the pond.  All that was left was a wet spot at the west end of the pond,  with water seeping eastward in a feeble stream.  In a normal year, when the water is high, a small creek flows out  under the boardwalk at the pond’s eastern end.

bear-creek-begins-out-of-center-pond-bc

From there, it runs east through the woods, enters Bear Marsh and picks up ground water. In the photo below, it exits the marsh running north out of  the culvert under Gunn Road.

Bear Creek n of Gunn Road at marsh

The little creek then takes a left hand turn, flowing back west.  In the woods somewhere, it evidently takes another left, bending south until it crosses under Gunn Road again right across from Pine Needle Trail, near Collins Road.

Bear Creek at Pine Needle Trail off Gunn BC

It wends it way south behind various houses, appearing again at a culvert under the aptly named, Bear Creek Court off Collins Road.

Bear Creek off Bear Creek Court

Just north of Oak Hill , near the entrance to the Township Hall,  the creek crosses under Collins Road.

Bear Creek going under Collins Road BC

 

It flows  along a ditch on the western side of Collins Road and curves behind the Paint Creek Methodist Church and the Lyon Gear factory,

Bear Creek behind church BC

At that point, the creek takes a dive under ground, crossing Orion Road and appearing again at what appears to be its final destination, flowing out of a culvert as it joins Paint Creek behind the Cider Mill parking lot.

Bear Creek empties into Paint Creekk at Cider Mill

A Creek with a Past Flows Toward Its Future

It’s wonderful to think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of spring mornings during which this little creek has wended its way from a modest pond in a field off Snell Road to merge at last with Paint Creek.  Long may it meander across the landscape.  If we are careful stewards of the natural beauty granted to us, then for generations to come, the bluebirds will still forage in the meadows on azure wings, the coyotes will still trot up the lane on a winter night, and the butterflies will still slip out of tree bark into the sunshine. My thanks to all of those whose efforts and resources make that future possible!

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes; Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich; Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia)and websites linked in the text.

Enjoying an Evening of Turtles, Salamanders, Frogs and, oh yeah, a Rattlesnake!

Last Thursday, Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted a well-attended event on rare/endangered “herps” (Herpetofauna), that is, amphibians and reptiles.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

At this time of year, talking about snakes, turtles, salamanders and frogs may seem a bit odd to you.  Actually though,  the Herpetology expert and presenter, David Mifsud of Herpetological Resource Management (HRM), told us that he sees Spring Peepers, Eastern Garter Snakes and Red-backed Salamanders moving around in Michigan winters when temperatures warm up as they have lately.    So for starters, here are three that he says we might look for during this winter thaw:

 

Garter snake closeup GC
Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) may be moving on warm winter days.
red-backed-salamander-1
You could see a Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) in a vernal pool created by snow melt.
Spring Peeper largest size
Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) can occasionally be heard/seen on a warm winter day.

And even if you don’t see one of these herps “in person” this winter, it’s just pleasant to think about springtime creatures in the dead of winter, right?  So here’s a brief trip through some of the important and lively information that David shared with about 30 of us last Thursday night.

Note:  Because some of these creatures are rare, some of the photos this week are courtesy of photographers at iNaturalist.org.  Please check the captions for names of these gifted people and many thanks to Creative Commons, iNaturalist and these photographers for sharing their work!

How Important are Amphibians and Reptiles?  Let Me Count the Ways…

  • Canaries in the coal mine. Amphibians and reptiles accumulate toxins and other contaminates in their bodies and most live both in water and on land.  So they are effective gauges (bio-indicators) of what’s getting into both environments.
  • Many eat invasive species.  For example,  the very homely Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), an aquatic salamander, favors eating invasive Zebra Mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) and  invasive Brown Gobies (Neogobius melanostomus), both huge problems in the Great Lakes. I grant you  this much-maligned aquatic salamander is not pretty. But it’s eating these invasive species, crayfish, worms,  and insect larvae! There’s no evidence that they reduce game fish populations (see Harding 1997). So please!  Return them with care to the water if you catch them on your hooks winter or summer.
original
Mudpuppies eat invasive species not game fish. Photo by Marcus Rosten CC-BY. I lightened and cropped slightly.
  • Predator and Prey. Herps can be both predator and prey, meaning they’re important in nature’s food web.  For example, dragonflies, like the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) on the left below,  lay eggs in vernal pools.  The  nymphs that hatch feed on the eggs of salamanders who deposit their eggs on sticks in vernal pools, as seen in the center photo.  But when the Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) on the right – an inhabitant mostly of western and southern Michigan –  reaches adulthood,  it in turn eats dragonflies.  This kind of food cycle helps keep a healthy balance between predator and prey in the ecosystem and builds the ladder system of the food web.
  • Our natural heritage. And of course, these creatures deserve our care because they are native to the habitats which are our natural heritage. And just as we preserve historic homes, we need to preserve the habitats for plants and animals that share our natural inheritance.
  • Just because. These beautiful creatures deserve a place to call home too!

And the Prognosis for Michigan Herps?  Uh, Not So Good…

Unfortunately, in Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, more than half of our species of amphibians and reptiles are declining. Why?

  • Amphibians and reptiles spend time on land and in the water. So those pollutants and contaminants that they accumulate, making them bio-indicators, can also kill them. Plastic beads in beauty products, pesticides from lawns and agriculture, hormones from our medicines in waste water, and agricultural run-off can affect these creatures.
  • Many reptiles have to live a long time in order to mature and reproduce.  The Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), found in our township,  is listed as a Species of Special Concern in Michigan. It takes up to 20 years for these yellow-chinned turtles to mature enough to produce young and they can live up to 90 years! This one on a road near Draper Twin Lake Park is demonstrating one of the hazards – habitat loss or disruption.  In this case, a road cut through its habitat. If you see a turtle on the road and can safely do so, be sure to move it gently in the direction it was going or it will turn head right back the way it came. Turtles are very focused on getting to and from their breeding grounds!

    Blandings Turtle near Draper
    A Blanding’s Turtle has to survive up to 20 years before it produces young!
  • Creatures with long lives like turtles especially need connected habitat corridors since they require both water and dry land, where they lay their eggs. Here a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is laying her eggs high on a sunny slope in Bear Creek before she returns to the pond. She demonstrates a common natural hazard. A female Snapper has a strong scent from living in marshes so it’s easy for predators – like foxes, coyotes, or raccoons – to track down her nest of eggs. And the mounds of earth she leaves behind are a big clue too!
snapper laying eggs
A Snapping Turtle leaves a strong marsh scent on her trail that lead predators, like raccoons, to her nest of eggs.
  • As cute, and as pesky,  as raccoons can be, they are serious predators of amphibians and reptiles and over-populated in some parks. Their numbers are often higher in urban areas than they would be naturally because they are “subsidized” by the food we provide unwittingly, such as our trash and the dog food we leave outside. After racoons leave the feast in your backyard, they return to a local natural area to snack on amphibian and reptile eggs, often causing over 90% nest failure. To keep park environments in balance between predators and prey, please remove food sources from around your home, and don’t transport trapped raccoons or other animals to our parks! 

 

raccoon in hole
Raccoons are efficient predators of “herp” eggs and young. So please don’t transport yours to the parks or we’ll have too many! This one peeked from a tree at Bear Creek.

Of course,  birds and other creatures prey on amphibians and reptiles as well.  This Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is heading for quite a feast!

cr cooper's hawk with snake
A Cooper’s Hawk prepares to dine on a snake.
  • Unfortunately, salamanders and turtles are sometimes poached from the wild for pets, both by wildlife traffickers and uninformed parents and children. This has had a devastating effect, for instance,  on the very cute and tiny Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) who’s only 3-5 inches long! And the same thing has happened to Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) and even Common Snappers, which are sold overseas as well as domestically for supposed “medicinal” purposes.
spotted-turtle-cc-no-my-photo
Photo of the tiny Spotted Turtle by Todd Pierson (CC BY-NC-SA) whose numbers have declined due to treating them as pets.

The Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), which appears in our parks, is also a Species of Special Concern in Michigan due to its declining numbers. This lovely frog with its emerald body and oval spots has unfortunately been poorly studied. So researchers still need to find the reasons for its distress.

leopard frog
The Leopard Frog’s numbers are declining and no one yet knows exactly why.

OK, but what about that Michigan rattlesnake???

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Photo by Andrew Hoffman CC BY-NA-ND 4.0. No changes were made to the photo.

Most of us have heard of, but never seen, Michigan’s most venomous snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) (a couple other snakes have weak venom that only causes irritation). This very shy, low-key snake only grows to about 2 feet long. According to Michigan DNR, it has one set of rattles at birth and develops more as it sheds its skin several times each year.  Its head is triangular like most rattlesnakes, though it is the smallest and least venomous rattler in the U.S.  Look also for a vertical eye slit and saddle-shaped spots.

The likelihood of you being bothered by this snake is low.  In 2016 it was listed as a Federally Threatened Species, which means its numbers are becoming drastically low.  And these snakes just want to avoid you. David reports having searched for this snake with a tracking device and after hearing a loud “beep” from his device, found it under the grass between his feet!  As he moved the grass aside, the snake silently slid over his shoe and away. That’s a conflict-avoiding snake! And a herpetologist with nerves of steel, I might add.

So if you do get to see one, consider yourself lucky. Don’t hurt or handle these docile snakes, since folks most often get bitten when harassing a snake that just wants to get away. Many bites are “dry,” meaning no venom. It takes lots of energy for the snake to produce the venom, and it doesn’t want to waste it! But if you get any kind of bite from this snake, see a doctor right away. Luckily, Dave informed us that no one in the US has died from such a bite in 100 years.

In spring, when these snakes are most active, they’re seen near wetlands, but they are likely to move to drier, upland areas in the summer. While they been seen recently at Stony Creek Metro Park in our area, we have no recent sighting in our township parks. Let us know if you see one!

Massasaugas overwinter for up to six months under logs, in small animal burrows and often in the “chimneys” created by crayfish, like this one.

A recently refreshed Crayfish hole among the detritus
A recently refreshed crayfish hole can hold many creatures over the winter, occasionally including Massasauga rattlesnakes.

Evidently, these burrows fill with ground water which maintains a more constant temperature in the winter than above ground – and that’s what important to an animal that can’t control its body temperature internally.  What’s amazing is that they often share these chimneys with other small creatures during the winter when all of them are in hibernation mode.  A kind of winter “condo” as David described it.  Imagine that!

Befriending Our Local Amphibians and Reptiles

Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.
The “Von Trapp Family”  Painted Turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Our parks are great places to see all kinds of “herps.”  Snappers and painted turtles cruise Bear Creek’s ponds and marshes.  Our wetlands in every park fill with a chorus of frog song every spring.  Snakes bask in sunny spots and quickly disappear into tall grass.  And in moist woodland uplands, salamanders emerge on the first warm night to make their way to vernal pools to mate and lay their eggs.  We need to care for these interesting creatures and their habitats  to be sure that they still thrive in our world when our children or grandchildren go looking for them.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Harding, James H. (1997) Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.