If you’re afraid of snakes, please pretend this is a big “S” or close your eyes while you read.
I’m inspired to write about eastern hognose snakes today because summer is prime time for reptiles in Pennsylvania and a remark made in the PA-Herps Facebook group has stuck with me since last winter: “The only way to get bitten by a hognose snake is to smell like its prey.”
The eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos) is native from Minnesota to southern New Hampshire, from Florida to eastern Texas. It is more than two feet long and comes in so many colors and patterns that it defies an easy description.
I imagine that during summer’s heat I might see a hognose snake but the chance is slim. I don’t look for snakes because I can’t identify most of them and some are poisonous. My caution prevents discovery.
When threatened, the neck is flattened and the head is raised off the ground, not unlike a cobra. [Cobra!!] They also hiss and will strike, but they do not attempt to bite. The result can be likened to a high speed head-butt. If this threat display does not work to deter a would-be predator, a hognose snake will often roll onto its back and play dead, going so far as to emit a foul musk from its cloaca and let its tongue hang out of its mouth.
If I managed to get close to a calm hognose I’d see why he has this name — an upturned nose like a hog.
But I’m not eager to get so close. The cobra act would frighten me. The “high speed head-butt” would give me a heart attack. Both the snake and I would be lolling on the ground with our tongues hanging out.
S is for Scary.
(photo of an eastern hognose snake from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license. I have vertically flipped the original image to make an S. Click on the image to see the original at Wikimedia)
On Fourth of July weekend I was hiking at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach when I noticed an odd-looking pine cone in the dappled shade next to the trail. I paused to look more closely.
It’s not just a pine cone!
Here’s a better look.
… and this view from a different angle.
After two minutes of my ever-closer approach this lizard had had enough and ran away.
I know nothing about lizards so I googled images for a “brown lizard sandy shore Virginia” and found a photo whose description said “Matches the pine cone.” How cool is that! Someone else had photographed an eastern fence lizard on a pine cone.
Their scales are keeled, a feature you can see in the photos.
Eastern fence lizards are sexually dimorphic. This one is female because her throat and flanks are whitish where adult males are shiny blue. During the mating season males flash their blue bellies to attract the ladies and tell other guys, “This is my territory.” Click here to see the male’s amazing underside.
That flashy blue behavior is risky. Flashy males are more likely to be eaten by birds.
If you’re like me, you’re in the midst of a low spot in the birding year. There are lots of birds in Pennsylvania right now but they’re secretive because they’re nesting, and they’re going to stop singing in July. Sigh. (Check out this graph of the birders’ emotional year to see what I mean.)
However, it’s Bug Season! Beautiful bugs are here to fill our need for color on the wing.
In June Charlie Hickey and his wife watch for the dragonflies to emerge from the lake at their backyard in Berks County. Charlie posted this Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa) on his Flickr page on June 5, the day they first appeared.
Because I live in the city, I have to leave home to hear frogs calling. Though there are streams and a wetland in Schenley Park, the wetland is too recently restored and probably too isolated to have spring peepers. The park is surrounded by dense city neighborhoods and all of its water flows into a mile-long culvert that takes it to the Monongahela River. Where would frogs and fish come from? Not from downstream.
So I was delighted to hear spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) by the Sunken Garden Trail at Moraine State Park last Sunday. I made a point of sitting near the wetland, surrounded by their sound. Hundreds of them called in front of me but I couldn’t see even one because they’re so small and good at hiding. The video above (from Wisconsin) shows how tiny they are.
As a group the peepers were almost deafening but I heard two wood frogs and a single creaking sound among them. It sounded like a western chorus frog but it was probably an angry spring peeper. Wikipedia says, “As in other frogs, an aggressive call is made [by spring peepers] when densities are high. This call is a rising trill closely resembling the breeding call of the southern chorus frog.”
The video below gives you an idea of what I heard. Listen for the quacking of wood frogs at the beginning.
Jeepers creepers, do you hear the peepers?
Update: Check the comments for places where readers have heard peepers in the City!
Wood frogs are often the first frogs to appear in the spring in eastern North America, quickly followed by spring peepers. As the video indicates temperatures have to be in the 40s for the wood frogs to “wake up,” but western Pennsylvania hasn’t had a lot of warm weather yet.
The cold winter has made a difference. Two years ago we had an exceptionally warm spring and the frogs came out in early March. This year we’ve had a few blips of warm weather surrounded by temperatures in the teens, a discouraging combination for cold-blooded frogs.
Today we’re headed for a spate for warm weather that may signal the end of winter’s grip. We’ll know it’s really spring when we hear frogs calling.
In fact, there were never any snakes in Ireland since the last glacial maximum. St. Patrick’s legend may actually refer to the rise of Christianity and the end of Druid snake symbols.
In recent years biologists in Guam are trying to accomplish St. Patrick’s legendary feat. Invasive brown tree snakes are devastating the island’s native birds. The snakes must go. So far the most ingenious plan has been to air drop 2,000 mice wearing tiny parachutes. The mice were dead bait laced with a very small dose of acetaminophen that kills the brown tree snake but nothing else.
There was no need for Tylenol to eradicate this grass snake from Ireland. Photographed in Europe, it cannot cross the sea.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
(photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)