Monday, July 30, 2012

The Corn Stalkers

The early part of the summer was abysmally dry here.  We went from mid-May through mid-July with no appreciable amount of rain.  Everything was suffering....including our resident amphibians.

For example, the Cope's Gray Treefrogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) that usually hang around the house had been M.I.A. since May.  I imagine the dry and hot conditions forced them to find better hiding places to wait for it to cool off.

Then things started to change.

Two weeks ago, we got 2 inches of rain in one evening.  Then last week we had at least three substantial evening rain storms. 

So, it's alot more damp out there than it has been, and the amphibians have been loving it!

Our little plot of popcorn was a favorite resting place last week.

Below, one of our treefrogs takes a siesta among the corn stalks.....

There are usually two individuals that hang on our back patio doors in the evening, hunting the moths that are attracted to the light from within the house.  These hunters in the dark are lots of fun to watch (see here).

 But, the dry conditions in the early summer meant they weren't out hunting.  I started to miss the little fellas.  Finally, at around dusk one night last week I found both of them in preparation for an evening of feasting.

The first was hiding behind a drain spout....

The other one was resting above a window on our back porch...
The posture is classic for a treefrog at rest in the heat of day: feet, hands, arms and legs tucked under the body in a tight ball.  It is important to note that amphibians have incredibly thin skin (only several cells thick in some places).  This means they can absorb water readily through their skin (and have little need to drink water with their mouths).  BUT just as they can absorb water through their incredibly thin skin, they can just as easily lose water across this same membrane.  Thus, dehydration is a serious concern for amphibians. 

So...the posture above reduces the amount of the body's surface area exposed...thus, reducing the potential for evaporative water loss.  In other words, the less skin you have exposed to the air, the fewer avenues there are for your body water to evaporate into your surrounding environment.

Once the sun starts going down, though....the posture changes from one of resting to one of hunting.  Note the legs and toes are splayed in this posture, which is neccessary for springing at unwary moths.  Obviously, the potential for water loss is greater with this posture, which is the reason why they usually reserve it for the cooler evening hours.

Treefrogs on our glass once more!

I knew they were doing their job eating the resident insects, because I started seeing their scat again clinging to the vinyl siding near our windows.


Cope's Gray Treefrog is not the only species that hangs around the back porch.

This weekend, we found some rather sizeable piles of scat. 

On closer inspection....lots of insect body parts,  There are lots of beetle carapaces visible in this scat, and also tail parts from Earwigs, which have become super-abundant this summer. was clear we had a critter despositing scat on the back porch.  At first this made me alittle uncomfortable, given all of the feral cats, raccoons, and skunks around here, and the potential for them to transmit any number of nasty tapeworms, and roundworms through fecal material.  The size of the scat and the chitinous parts from insect exoskeletons within didn't scream mammal scat to me (although mammals will eat insects and the scat was bigger than what I thought a toad would typically excrete).  Yet, we were still thinking perhaps this belonged to a toad.  During the dry spell, my wife found an adult American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) burrowed into the soil of a potted geranium on our back porch.  The pot was a good 6 inches high...which is a heck of a leap for this little guy...but it must be worth the trouble to have access to the moisture and insects on the back porch.  So, it was plausible to assume the scat pictured above came from the warty little fella in the flower pot.

The biggest problem with the toad theory: there was hair in the scat...which indicated it was deposited by a mammal.

So...what to do? 

Well, as any self-respecting camera trapper would do....when life presents you with a wildlife mystery, you stick a camera over it!

After one night of the camera on the deck facing the geraniums, I got these....

...and I rounded it off with a cute clip of an Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus)

In summary, three important points:
(1) We can safely say we have a toad living on the back porch and he is eating a ton of insects....
(2) Upon further inspection, I believe the hairs were from our dog (a Great Pyrenees) and incidentally ingested by the toad as it grabbed bugs of the porch.
(3) something the size of a toad was large enough to trigger the camera!  This opens up lots of possibilities for future camera trapping endeavors!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thanks for the well-wishes, Mr. Fantastic.....

The scent sticks in the clips below are part of an ongoing research project.  The field work for this project was initiated back in early spring....and I've discussed it briefly here.

These are new camera sets and scent sticks for this same project.

Mostly, there's been the same cast of characters (which I would expect).

This camera set, however, must be alittle closer to the resident fox family's home, and Mr. Fantastic Fox has showed up a time or two to check things out.  He (or, perhaps,'s hard to tell) usually act with alot of apprehension, as you can see in this clip from about 4 am on Independence Day (wait until the very end and you can see one last backward glance in the upper left-hand of the screen).
A rather interesting series of events occurred over the last week at this particular camera.

Our center stick is given a bit of attention by an Oppossum on July 11 at 9:55 pm....but not much attention.

The next critter to focus on this stick is a youngish buck on July 13 at 10:30 pm.

But, Mr. Fantastic apparently doesn't think much of these other critters (or our study, it appears) and lets this be known.

Thanks for the well-wishes, buddy!

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Wise Ones of the Wood

There are few camera trap captures that excite me more than owls.  It's rare that I get photos or video clips of them, but I've decided that "catching" owls requires alittle skill and ingenuity (see this post by The Codger, and a related post by Random Truth).  Of course, I'm nowhere near as talented in the ingenuity department as those two, so I have to rely mostly on luck....and consequently my stuff isn't as good as theirs!

But, the fact of the matter remains: I got me some owls (and that makes me smile)!

I've had some luck with Barred Owls (Strix varia) in the past on a squirrel carcass back in NC (see here).  But I've never gotten pictures of the big guys, like the Great Horned (Bubo virginianus).  I heard Great Horned Owls calling in the woods behind my house back in January.  In May, I accidentally flushed one from an old oak tree at one of my research sites, and then watched a bunch of crows mob the poor Bubo until it high-tailed it out of the area. 

My parents even had one sitting in a spruce tree along their back lot line one morning about three weeks ago.  The neighbor came by with a camera that had alittle bit of "reach" to it, and she got some decent shots (considering it was through a window from inside of the house).  Check out the talons on that last pic!

Photo by C. Weimar
Photo by C. Weimar seems Squirrel Nutkin's Nemesis is fairly common 'round here.  Thus, I knew there was always the outside chance for a few camera trapped shots of Old Brown.

Recently, my camera trapping luck with owls improved, and I got some video captures of them as bycatch from one of my ongoing research projects.  Note: I can't figure out if its possible to make these clips show up bigger as imbedded into the blog post....thus, they may be easier to see if you maximize their size in your web browser.

First, one of the big boys flies down to nail a bit of dinner at one of my camera sets back in mid-May.  I can't tell if he's successful, or not.......

After that, no owls for quite some time.  Then, in late June a smaller individual flies down to take a stab at an unfortunate critter.  This one appears to actually get his meal.  I had trouble with the ID on this one, so I sent it over to my colleague and bird ID extraordinare, Bill Mueller over at The Future of Birds.  He said (although it's hard to be certain) his guess was a young Great Horned Owl.

Finally, a closer daytime clip of Old Brown from just last week (notice the Robin trying to take a whack at him towards the end).....

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Herpin' The Upper Midwest, Day 2: The Prairie

Continuing with my series of posts regarding Dave's visit in May, it's time to tell you all about the second trip we embarked upon.

The Prairie

The prairies of the upper Midwest are near and dear to my heart.  I spent a fair amount of time in this type of habitat during graduate school and I remember my time with fondness.  Thus, no herping trip to our area would be complete without checking out the praries.  A group of students taking a herpetology course with a colleague of mine at a nearby university also joined us on this trip.  The more eyes the better, for catching critters....

Our first encounter was a rare species in our neck of the woods, but one that is relatively common at this site: the Racer (Coluber constrictor).

The distribution of this species is broad, ranging from the midwest to the eastern U.S.  Across this geographic area, Coluber constrictor is divided into sub-species that are delineated by location.  For example, back in NC we frequently dealt with the Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus), which appears much different than the critter in the upper Midwest (see pics in this post).  Here we get the Eastern Yellow-Bellied Racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris).

The common name (yellow-bellied) is apt.....

This is a quick-moving, sleek snake that is always a treat to find (and even more fun to try and catch!).

Although they don't get as large, overall, as the Black Racer, these Yellow-Bellied Racers can still get to a respectable size.....
Another species that we hoped to encounter was the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata).  This incredibly rare species is hard to come by.  Collectors decimated their populations in this region during the 70s, 80s and early 90s....which is an absolute shame.  I've made this comment before in other posts, but it staggers me that someone would take a critter like this from the wild (where it rightfully belongs, not only for its own well-being but also so that it is available for others to appreciate) and hide it away in a glass terrarium.

Unfortunately, a combination of collecting, habitat loss and incredibly slow development and low reproductive output have put this species behind the 8-ball.

As such, I didn't know if we'd see one.

At first we saw only the evidence that box turtles were moving about, including some "divets" or "forms" dug into the soil by box turtles attempting to escape the heat, or hunker down for the night.

However, not far from the "forms".....success!!  A nice adult female resting among the Prickly Pear Cactus.

We were also fortunate enough to encounter some of the local box turtle stewards for this site, who were collecting box turtle eggs for a long-term head-starting program.  The goal of this program is to find the nests of wild box turtles....bring their eggs into captivity and incubate them.  This eliminates the potential for mortality due to mesocarnivores, such as Raccoons, Skunks and Oppossums which find turtle eggs to be quite a delicacy.  Once the turtles hatch, they are released on-site at the locaion where their nest was first encountered.

So, we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of some recently excavated turtle eggs!

The warm-blooded critters were giving us a show as well.  We happened across this young White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) fawn.  The group was within a few meters before noticing it.  Even in this short grass, the tactic of freezing in place is very effective to avoid detection from we visually-oriented primates.

Sometimes they refuse to actually give in and make a break for it........
Photo by D. M.

Prairie plants are another a great reason to get out in May and do some hiking.  Many of my favorite late spring species were in bloom, such as the Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.).

We also checked out a nearby rock formation for one of my favorite herp species in this region....the Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi). 

While poking around, Dave managed to scare up a nesting pair of birds (his cat-like reflexes saved him from a scalping)....

Unfortunately, of the Bullsnakes, all we saw was this cast-off skin....

But, Bullsnakes and Racers are not the only snakes present on-site!  We came across this busy little gal as we walked over the sandy terrain: an Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platyrhinos).  She was carefully excavating a burrow to deposit her eggs.

We disturbed her, which wasn't very nice, I suppose...but she forgave us and held still for a photo.

And also allowed us to palp her a bit, to determine if she had deposited her eggs already.  Based on her lack of plumpness and the folds of skin along her sides, I guessed she had.
Photo by D. M.

It's easy to see why they are called Hognose snakes, after you take a close look at them.  That upturned nose (or rostral) scale is unique to this genus in the Midwest.  They use that nose to aid in burrowing through sand or loam.  They are very interesting snakes (both behaviorally and morphologically), which I might get a chance to tell you about in the future, should I see any more......

After our successfull day at the first site, we decided to head out to a second site with a specific goal: to find a very rare species in our neck of the woods.

The landscape and sky combined in a very picturesque fashion, as we made are way to this particular location.

After roughly 30 minutes of searching, we came across the critter we were looking for: the Lined Snake (Tropidoclonion lineatus).  It's a rather small, somewhat drab and non-descript snake, to be honest.  It superficially appears somewhat like a gartersnake.  However, lined snakes are more gray with cream-colored stripes, whereas gartersnakes are black with yellow stripes.

Lined snakes also have markings on each belly scale, that appear similar to two half-circles side-by-side.  Gartersnakes belly scales are mostly without patterns.....

All-in-all it's a very poorly-understood snake.  Small, non-descript, and fossorial (or living below ground most of it's life), it is rarely in the limelight and, thus, rarely attracts the attention of graduate students looking to complete master's theses and doctoral dissertations!

Thus ended our second of three trips during Dave's visit.  Much like the Bog, our trip to the prairie was also a success!

One more trip to share with you all, and it's a doozy!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ghost of the Forest

These pictures are from a camera trapping project that Dave and I were working on back in NC.  The photos are from last year.  Been saving them for a time when I was swamped and couldn't get to the blog for a while.

The landowner told me she had an albino White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) on-site.  It didn't take us long to get photos of it. 

It did take some time to get nice daytime shots, though.....

Obviously, albino critters are neat...and lots of folks "oohhh" and "aahhh" over them (especially deer, for some reason, which recieve extra reverence....while albino turtles, frogs and snakes are considered "gross", but whatever!).  Yet, the ecologist and evolutionary biologist in me can't help but wonder if this is just the result of too few large carnivores on the landscape.  One would think this albino deer would stand-out like a sore thumb, and get taken out by a carnivore long before reaching this size. 

But there aren't any large carnivores here. 

The closest thing being the coyote (Canis latrans), which will definately eat deer if the circumstances are right....but is often just as happy eating rodents and bunnies, or other small game that's easier to take down than a deer.  We've gotten rid of the big 'uns....the wolves, bear, and Cougars....who's left to weed out these genetic mutations?

So, perhaps this albino white-tail is just another construct of humanity...... 

The result of our preferential elimination of things that would otherwise eat them.....

I've never seen any research on this topic, but it would be interesting to know if the frequency of adult albino deer is higher in areas with lower densities of their primary predators.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Herpin' the Upper Midwest, Day 1: The Bog

Well, for anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows....I had a research student in NC who was a very enthusiastic (and effective) budding field biologist: Dave.  You can actually click on his name in the "Labels" section along the left-hand side of the blog to see some of the stuff he and I were working on down can also check out his cool blog, Salameandering

Anyways, after I moved north Dave and I stayed in contact and continued to work on several of our research projects through correspondence (with Dave doing the field work, and the two of us analyzing data sent via email).

Last fall....during one of our email discussions about some data Dave was collecting....we started to concoct a plan.  By the time the plan was solidified, we had decided Dave would come up to our neck of the woods this spring for a week-long visit.  I'd show him some of the great natural areas and wildlife our region has to offer.  We'd focus on species and habitats that were either absent or not common in NC, so he could see some different stuff.  Basically, we decided to have some fun.

So, last month the southern boy found himself in the north and (as we had planned) fun was the result! 

BUT....this was not a "sit around and relax" type of trip.


'Cause there was field work to do!

The night he arrived, like a good omen, we found a female snapper (Chelydra serpentina) nesting along the roadside.  Most of the time, turtles along roadsides are of the "pancake" variety.  But not this one.  She was alive and well and in the act of depositing her eggs.  So, we took a picture and moved on, hoping no one would be heartless enough to swerve and hit her.  She was an easy target, and I've seen some very ruthless (or completely unattentive) drivers smack turtles that could have been I was a tad nervous.

The next day, however, we passed by this spot and there was no dead turtle.  I felt much better.

Occassionally, there are flickers of hope for humanity, I suppose....

Anyways....we visited three habitat types during Dave's trip.  I'll talk about each in separate posts, starting with....

The Bog:

I've spent a fair amount of time at this site.  I've taught a weekend field herpetology course at the field station on-site for a number of years....which I'll post about later.  But I knew we could get some amphibian and reptile species there that don't show up (or are rare) in NC.  Plus, Bogs are just neat habitats....with many unique plant species that are found nowhere else.  This site doesn't only contain a bog, however.  There are nice sedge wetlands, grassy meadows, and a beautiful Beech forest that is heavily managed to control Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata).  For those of you not familiar with this nasty little plant, its a particularly prolific invasive that will blanket the understory of woodlands 'round here if allowed to exist unfettered.

The site also has artificial cover objects (for surveying snakes) that have been in place for many years.  They are all in the grassy meadows and fields adjacent to the open wetland habitat on-site.  Thus, they attract snake species prone to using wetlands or grassland or both.  So...if you're looking for snakes....flipping cover objects on-site is obviously a good place to start!

But first, you've gotta walk out and find them in the long grass......
Photo by D. M.

....then you can flip them....

...and reap the rewards of your effort!
Photo by D. M.

Eastern Milksnakes (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum) are relatively common on-site, and we found a number of them under the cover objects...
Photo by D. M.

Photo by D. M.

Although eastern Milksnakes were common, also present were a pair of gartersnake species: the Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) and the Butler's Gartersnake (Thamnophis butleri).  More on those species in a later post.

As we conducted a complete circuit of all the coverboards on-site (a few dozen of them), we crossed the driveway into the property.  At that time, we came across a Common Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) thumping her way over the concrete....probably looking for a good nesting location.

Upon closer inspection, I realized this was an individual I had marked #3 via marginal scute notch with a file in June of 2008.  In 2008, I had also found her crossing a road.  Snapping turtles are generall only seen during the nesting season, as the females must come on land to lay eggs.  Otherwise, they have no reason to leave the water.  In fact, most spend their days buried in the bottom of a mucky pond somewhere sucking down anything that strays too close.  While they eat mostly animal material (vertebrates and invertebrates) they are also known to eat a fair amount of vegetation (duckweed, aquatic plant tubers, etc.).

She really didn't appreciate my close inspection, though....
Photo by D. M.

While checking the boards we also came across an incredible carcass, where the board transects bisected a game trail.  As anyone who is interested in wildlife knows, finding a good carcass is about as exciting as finding a good pile of poop (both are awesome finds...usually worth photographing.... and both also make most average folks cringe).

This was a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) carcass...which is normally on the lower end of the "cool scale", seeing how common they are. 

But this one was better than most.....

This was obviously the carcass of a very nice buck.  The base of the antlers were enormous!  What it was doing there, I can't say.   Our location was very near a little-traveled dirt it's possible the buck was nicked on the road and managed to get as far as this spot before collapsing.  Perhaps it was also winged by a hunter, but was able to make it to this point before it succumbed to its wound.  Most of the bones for the rest of the carcass were intact (not cracked, or crunched...and were mostly articulated).

After our success in the meadow, we decided to head deeper into the property to search through the Beech Woods on-site.  You may or may not notice from this picture that there is not a sprig of Garlic Mustard to be seen....and that is no accident.  The staff on-site exert a huge amount of effort in the hand removal of this nasty invasive plant.  The result is obvious, though....and it's a beautiful forest.  With little under-story vegetation, several nice ephemeral wetlands.......

......and some beautiful old trees, such as this giant American Basswood (Tilia americana)!

There is also a wealth of amphibians back in the woods.  During our brief visit, we found two frog species, a toad species and a salamander....

First, the Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvatica).  This is a fairly common species on-site.  As the name suggests, it is fond of wooded habitats, and so I frequently find them associated with woodlands that have associated ephemeral wetlands.  Most of the year is spent hopping around the leaf-litter and ground debris looking for invertebrates to snack on and they blend in well with the leaf litter in these habitats.  Basically, one has to almost accidentally step on them before they'll move.....and THEN you'll be lucky enough to actually see one!

The American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) is another frequently encountered amphibian at this site.  This is a ubiquitous species 'round here, and is tolerant of landscapes that have been disturbed by humans.  They are frequently found in suburban and agricultural settings, so long as there is some available cover and moisture.  This species was the one that I most encountered in my back yard as a kid, and is probably largely responsible for my love of amphibians as an adult.

The Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer).  A beautiful little member of the family Hylidae (the treefrogs).  Very common in woodlands with associated wetlands.  This species often shares habitat with the wood frog and I have encountered many sites where these species are sympatric.

The Blue Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma laterale).  This is one of three salamanders on-site that I've seen.  It is also a species not found in North Carolina, so was a new one for Dave.  The juveniles tend to have much brighter blue spots, and are very pretty.  The adults tend to loose the bright blue spots, and often look more black.  They are smaller and less chunky than the other "mole salamanders" (or members of the Genus Ambystoma) in this area, such as the Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) and the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).

After messing with some amphibians, we decided to take a stroll out on the boardwalk that leads into the actual bog on-site.  Being covered in sphagnum, which one easily punches through while slogging around in a bog, these habitats are very difficult to navigate and walk through.  Luckily, the folks at the field station associated with this bog created an outstanding boardwalk raised above the sphagnum that allows for easy passage.

The boardwalk really allows naturalists to step back and enjoy this interesting habitat, rather than having to worry about sinking into it......
The board walk also grants those seeking passage through the bog the opportunity to spot some of the cool plants that show up in bog habitats.

These include the beautiful Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum).  Amazingly, there are a handful of "flower-nuts" out there that illegally collect these from the wild to culture in pots!  It really doesn't make sense to me.  I can see buying a captive-bred orchid variant to keep as a house plant....but I just don't get wild-collecting of stuff like this!  Such a shame to remove them from their natural environment.

......the carnivorous Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea).....
...and its wonderful flowering head..... of my favorites.....the Tamarack (Larix laricina), a deciduous conifer!

Amphibians and reptiles are very sparse in the bog proper.  Birds are plentiful and mammals are common.  On our walk out into the boardwalk, we happened upon a location where the bog opens up into a sedge marsh that leads to a nearby lake.  Here we saw evidence of Otters (Lontra canadensis).  I've seen Otter scat along this stretch of the boardwalk in the I was not surprised to find their scat here again.

Our first "herping adventure" during Dave's trip was a success!

I'll soon post about the other two big trips we made during his week-long visit.....