Posts Tagged ‘Reptiles – Amphibians’

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Adirondack Reptiles: Garter Snakes

When weeding in the garden, collecting firewood around a lean-to, or stepping over rocks along a river, it is not uncommon to encounter a garter snake as summer weather become the norm in the Adirondacks.

In northern New York there are two species of garter snakes, the eastern or common garter snake, and the ribbon snake. Both are approximately a foot and a half to two feet in length and have the same prominent yellow strip running down the entire length of their back from the base of their head. Both snakes also have an additional yellowish strip extending along their sides, the edges of which may not be as sharply defined as the one on their back. Both species can also vary in color, and some individuals also possess a more checkered or mosaic pattern to their coloration. Additionally, the brightness of their colors may depend on whether an individual will soon be shedding its outer covering of scales or has recently acquired a new layer of this transparent coating.

Like other snakes, the garter snake must shed its protective outer layer of scales in order for its body to expand in size. Just prior to shedding, the scales become translucent, which makes their color duller. In the days immediately after the new layer of scales has formed, the snake appears to be brighter in color.

While there are subtle differences between these two species in physical structure and in certain markings, the similarities between them are far more numerous. This creates a challenge in making a positive identification, especially as one quickly slithers into a crack between two rocks, into a dense pile of brush or under pieces of debris on the forest floor.
Both the eastern garter snake and the ribbon snake prefer to reside near a body of water. However, the eastern garter snake is more likely to be encountered away from such wetland settings, as it is better able to survive in dry places than the ribbon snake.

It is the ability of the garter snake to function in a cold climate that allows this reptile to flourish within the Adirondacks. While the garter snake prefers its surroundings to range between 80 and 90 degrees during the day when it is active, it can continue to be active for a considerable period even when the ground and air remain in the low 50’s. Should the air drop into the low 40’s, or upper 30’s, the garter snake attempts to locate a spot where the temperature of the ground is significantly higher. Places in which the sun is or was beating down on the ground to create a thermal oasis, or where a mound of rotting organic material is generating some warmth of its own are likely to attract a garter snake until the weather warms again.

Like other reptiles, the garter snake has difficulty digesting the food that is in its system when its body cools below a certain level. In order for it to derive the nourishment from the items that it has consumed, its body must be at a temperature of about fifty degrees. While this may not seem to be too cool, it is lower than what most snakes are able to tolerate during the summer season.

Along with its cold-hardiness, the ability of the garter snake to grab a multitude of small creatures that happen to stray in front of it, and pull them down into its throat also contributes to this snake’s ecological success in the Adirondacks. The garter snake is known to strike at and then swallow animals ranging in size from earthworms and small salamanders to medium size toads, young mice and voles, and the eggs of birds that make their nests on the ground.

While many people are repulsed by the sight of a snake, especially if it happens to be close to their feet, these reptiles play an important role in our environment. Garter snakes are one of the few predators of toads in our region, and they help to limit the population of numerous other small creatures. Garter snakes, in turn, are preyed upon by various animals, such as hawks, raccoons and fox. Garter snakes pose no threat to humans and should always be left alone, unless you are one of those very few individuals that wishes to pick one up an examine it to see if you can determine if it is an eastern garter, or ribbon snake.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.

Photo: Common garter snake, courtesy Wikipedia.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Adirondack Wildlife: Basking Painted Turtles

In any shallow, muddy-bottom body of water in spring, when the sun is shinning or a southerly breeze has elevated the temperature into the 50’s or 60’s, the painted turtle may be seen lounging peacefully, often in the company of others of its species.

As with all reptiles, turtles are cold-blooded. This means they are unable to generate any internal heat of their own. In order to elevate their body temperature to a level that is more favorable for carrying out numerous physiological processes, these slow moving creatures must first pull their body from the still frigid waters that engulf them, and then attempt to absorb as much solar radiation, or thermal energy from the air as possible. In this way the painted turtle can effectively restart its system after lying totally dormant over the long winter season here in the Adirondacks.

Like several other cold-blooded organisms, the painted turtle passes the winter embedded in the layer of dark, muddy silt and organic debris that forms the bottom of most quiet Adirondack waterways. Even though this shelled vertebrate has lungs rather than gills, it can remain submerged for prolonged periods without breathing when the water is close to freezing. As is the case with other reptiles, the painted turtle becomes increasingly more lethargic as the environment surrounding it cools in autumn, thereby decreasing its need for oxygen. As the temperature drops to within a degree or two of freezing, the painted turtle lapses into a state of complete dormancy which further reduces it need for this essential elemental gas.
The very limited amount of oxygen needed to sustain life comes from this turtle’s ability to absorb this dissolved gas from water that is repeatedly drawn into a special sac near its tail and into its throat.

As the sun’s rays become more intense in mid to late April, and begin to penetrate the bottom muck, the painted turtle’s internal temperature starts to rise. The dark color of this turtle’s back shell allows it to effectively absorb the sun’s infra-red rays, even when it is below the surface. Exposure to solar radiation can boost a turtle’s core temperature by several degrees above that of the water which surrounds it. This helps provide it with the energy needed to resurrect itself from the bottom muck and become somewhat active again.
When conditions above the surface become favorable, the painted turtle swims to an object that it can climb onto in order to lift itself completely from the frigid water. Logs that are floating on the surface, a small island of peat, or a deteriorating muskrat house are all common places that the painted turtle visits to bask in the sun. Since these spots are separated from the shore, the turtle is less likely to come under attack from a shoreline predator.

Since this creature’s metabolic state is still drastically depressed by the cool surroundings, the life processes within this normally sluggish critter are not yet fully functional. Even acquiring nourishment becomes a challenge, as the turtle’s digestive system is unable to effectively process any of the various items consumed by this omnivore when it is immersed in the water. By basking in the sun, the painted turtle is able to elevate its core temperature to a level that allows for a more effective break down of the food ingested when it forages along the bottom.

Along with promoting digestion, the temporary warming of the turtle’s body helps facilitate the process of egg formation within mature females. In the Adirondacks, it is usually toward the end of May when the females leave their watery home and venture onto dry land to lay their eggs. As with all reptiles, the painted turtle must leave the safety of the water and seek out an appropriate spot on land in which to deposit her eggs.

Painted turtles regularly emerge from the water during the spring whenever the air temperature is warmer than the water, or when the sun is beating down on a particular spot in their home. For this creature, it is more than just a pleasant way to relax, but a method allowing for the digestion of their food, and the development of their eggs.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Adirondack Amphibians: The Wood Frog in Spring

The awakening of the many forms of life that passed the winter in a deeply dormant state begins with the melting of the snow, the retreating of the ice sheet covering our waterways, and the thawing of the soil. Because of fundamental physiological differences among the species and the various preferences that each creature has for a wintering site, some animals are quicker to respond to the onset of favorable spring conditions than others.

In the forested regions of the North Country, the wood frog is among the first to return to an active state and announce with a distinct chorus of voices that spring has come to the Adirondacks.

Unlike other frogs in the Adirondacks, the wood frog does not spend the winter embedded in the muck that covers numerous bodies of water. Rather, this amphibian burrows deep into the leaf litter that covers the forest floor to protect itself from the frigid conditions of this long season. Also, unlike many other cold-blooded vertebrates, the wood frog fails to get below the frost line.

This small, forest dwelling frog with the black mask across its face is among the very few forms of vertebrate life that can experience freezing without perishing. The body of this frog has adapted by producing several substances that allow for a lowering of the freezing point of the water molecules within its body.

Additionally, even if the actions of these compounds fail to prevent ice crystals from forming, the wood frog will not die. With the formation of ice in its body, the wood frog’s heart stops beating, its blood no longer circulates throughout its systems, and oxygen fails to be delivered to its cells. In this type of cryogenic state, the wood frog can remain alive throughout the winter and awaken once its body warms to a temperature that is above freezing.

As soon as the upper layer of soil thaws, releasing the wood frog from its icy tomb, it spends a few days acclimating to an active state before heading to the small, vernal pool of water that serves as its breeding ground. Upon arriving at such a seasonal body of water, the males begin to announce their presence by emitting a clacking noise that is described by some as several ducks that are not quite “on-key”.

Within a span of a few days, such small bodies of water may contain dozens of wood frogs. While these amphibians can be heard anytime of the day, late afternoon is when more voices are added to the chorus, and by evening on those occasions when the temperature is well above the freezing point, every male is contributing to the unique noise that can carry for nearly a hundred yards. Additionally, the intensity of this sound increases during times of warmer weather. Sunny days which can elevate the temperature of these small, seasonal pools can also make the wood frog more active and vocal.

While some amphibians, like the spring peeper, persist in announcing its presence for well over a month, the wood frog seldom remains in its breeding surroundings longer than a week to ten days. Shortly after the last females have had their egg masses fertilized, these temporary occupants abandon the pools and begin their travel to their summer ranges. Wood frogs are reported to migrate up to a half mile to reach a favorable spot on the forest floor in which to spend the summer.

Spring is a season of sound in the Adirondacks. While birds have the most musically complex songs, and the most melodious calls, the voices of several amphibians add to the diversity of this springtime, vocal ritual. It is impossible to state which amphibian produces the most appealing mating call; however, it is certain that the love serenade of the wood frog is the first to grace the air and signal that the spring peepers will soon be calling here in the Adirondacks.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on Adirondack nature and is a regular contributor on natural history here at the Adirondack Almanack.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wetlands: Vernal Pools And Their Inhabitants

What follows is a guest essay from Stacy McNulty Associate Director and Research Associate at SUNY ESF’s Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb. Following last week’s story on the destruction of wetlands by ATVs at the 2011 SNIRT rally, the Almanack asked Stacy to provide some background on vernal pools, small intermittent wetlands that are important sources of Adirondack biodiversity.

On a proverbially dark and stormy night in mid-April I climb the hill, flashlight sweeping the ground for obstacles. The first warm, spring rain has been falling and snow piles lie here and there. Faintly I hear a quacking sound up ahead, signaling my target – but what I seek is not a duck, but a frog. Scores of wood frogs swim and call from the pool, their eyes shining in the beam of my light. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Free Family-Friendly Amphibian Workshop

Learn how to keep an eye out for newts, frogs, toads and other amphibians at a free workshop at the Lake George Association on Thursday, April 14, from 6:30 – 7:30 pm. David Patrick, director of the Center for Biodiversity at Paul Smith’s College will be the presenter. Workshop attendees, ages 10 and older, will learn how to assist in amphibian conservation efforts.

Amphibians in the Adirondacks face a wide range of challenges. Habitat destruction, invasive species, diseases, climate change, and deaths caused by vehicles have led to declines in many of the 32 species of amphibians — 14 frogs and toads and 18 salamanders — found in New York State.

The Adirondack All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) designed this hour-long, family-friendly workshop to show people how to monitor amphibians and their habitats. The data collected by observers will help researchers with amphibian conservation efforts.

“One of the best ways to help conserve these animals is to learn more about where they are currently found, and the types of habitats they are using,” said David Patrick. “This workshop will show where you can learn more about these animals, how to identify them, where to find them, and the information that can be collected to aid in their conservation.”

For more information, contact David Patrick, (518) 327-6174, dpatrick@paulsmiths.edu, or visit www.paulsmiths.edu/ATBI, or contact Emily DeBolt, LGA director of education, (518) 668-3558, edebolt@lakegeorgeassociation.org, or visit www.lakegeorgeassociation.org.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Adirondack Amphibian Inventory Volunteers Sought

Amphibians in the Adirondacks face a wide range of challenges — but a new project aimed at citizens and scientists alike could help ease some of those threats, says David Patrick, a Paul Smith’s College professor who is director of the Adirondack All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI).

The ATBI is organizing a series of hour-long, family-friendly workshops to show people how to monitor amphibians and their habitats. Researchers will use the data collected by observers in order to help with amphibian conservation efforts.

Habitat destruction, invasive species and diseases, climate change, and deaths caused by vehicles have led to declines in many of the 32 species of amphibians — 14 frogs and toads and 18 salamanders — found in New York State.

“One of the best ways to help in conserving these animals is to learn more about where they are currently found, and the types of habitats they are using,” Patrick said. “These workshops will show where you can learn more about these animals, how to identify them, where to find them, and the information that can be collected to aid in their conservation.”

The ATBI is a coalition of several academic institutions, state agencies, not-for-profit organizations and other groups.

Workshops are free and open to the public. They are scheduled for 6:30-7:30 p.m. on the following dates:

* Thursday, March 31. SUNY-Potsdam, Stowell Hall, Room 211.

* Wednesday, April 13. Adirondack Interpretive Center, Newcomb.

Prof. Glenn Johnson of SUNY-Potsdam, co-author of “The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State,” will host the events at Paul Smith’s and SUNY-Potsdam; Stacy McNulty, an ecologist with SUNY-ESF, will host the event in Newcomb with Patrick, who is also director of Paul Smith’s Center for Adirondack Biodiversity.

For more information, contact David Patrick at (518) 327-6174 or dpatrick@paulsmiths.edu, or visit www.paulsmiths.edu/ATBI.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Corrina Parnapy: The Importance of Snow

During this winter, it seems to have been snowing almost every week. Snow is piling up making driving hard and causing roofs to collapse. While the snow may be causing problems for people, it is just what the environment needs. Winters with thick snow packs mean a productive, drought free summer.

Snow falls to the ground, insulating the soil and roots of plants. When the snow melts it sinks into the ground between cracks and crevices of the bedrock replenishing the groundwater supply. The snow-melt will seep into the pore spaces between the soil particles or flow over the ground, filtering out into the streams, springs and lakes, thereby recharging the surface water. Snow is the major form of precipitation in the Adirondacks. Mild winters threaten soil productivity, plant growth and freshwater resources. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Adirondack Waters: Knowing Your Local Watershed

Over the years, it has been interesting to watch the progression of environmental education and outdoor awareness. In the 1970s, pollution was the big push, and many a program was developed and promoted (remember Woodsy Owl?) to turn the tide against land, air and water pollution.

The 1980s were a bit of a down time, but by the 1990s, we had turned our attention to more global issues. Saving the rainforest, saving whales, saving cheetahs became all the rage. Kids could tell you all about jaguars, elephants and orcas, but had no idea what was in their own back yards. Sadly, this continues today.

A couple years ago I started to develop a program designed to increase students’ awareness of their local surroundings. After all, we live in the Adirondacks, one of the last “wild” areas left in the Northeast. People from around the world come here to enjoy our mountains, lakes and forests. And yet, the children who live here often know very little about these mountains. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ampersand Mountain Salamander Research Expedition

The Wild Center’s Assistant Curator Leah Filo and Staff Biologist Frank Panero will lead an off-site research project to look for salamanders on Ampersand Mountain on Saturday, September 11th at 9 am. Participants will be hiking off trail surveying for salamanders and species richness. This is a great opportunity to learn about the ecology of salamanders in the Adirondacks, participate in an active research project, as well as get a chance to meet some of these elusive creatures up close.

Two-thirds of all salamanders live in North Eastern North America. The Wild Center’s research project is part of a larger, ongoing salamander study that has existed since 1999. Participants should be prepared to hike off-trail over rough terrain. This program is free and open to the public however registration is requested. Group size is limited to 12 people.

The program will start at 9 am at the Ampersand Mountain trailhead located halfway between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake on Rte. 3. Register at www.wildcenter.org or call Sally Gross at 518-359-7800 x116. This program is suitable for participants ages 12 and up.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Reptiles: Adirondack Turtles

I love turtles. I know, it seems I start a lot of articles with expressions of extreme admiration for whatever the featured species is that day. What can I say – I find nature to be endlessly fascinating. That said, I think turtles are special, and the more I learn about them, the more amazing they become.

On the surface, we all know that turtles are animals with shells. They plod along on land, or swim gracefully in the water. Some live in the oceans, some in the deserts – what wonderful extremes they have come to inhabit. They have been around for over 200 million years – since the late Triassic. Some species can live well over a hundred years. Digging deeper, though, we find even more fascinating information.

Four species of turtles live within the Blue Line: snapping turtles, wood turtles, painted turtles (eastern and midland species), and Blanding’s turtles. Let me share with you a little bit about each of these species before detouring into some generalized nifty turtle traits.

Snapping turtles, those truly dinosaurish turtles, are probably the turtle we see most often. Every spring the females leave their watery homes in search of the perfect sandy spot in which to dig holes and lay eggs. Most of these eggs will be eaten by predators, but the survivors hatch by late summer. Sometimes the newly hatched turtles leave the nest immediately, while others opt to remain in the relative safety of the nest over winter, which explains why baby snappers are found on the move in both the spring and the fall. When they aren’t out searching for nest sites, these turtles are most often lying low in the muddy substrate of shallow, slow-moving waters, which is why their shells are “mossy” – these turtles are not baskers. Despite the apparent commonness of the species, recent population studies show that snapping turtles are in decline across New York State, mostly a result of fatal encounters with motorized vehicles.

Wood turtles are close to my heart. I see them every spring as they, too, search for perfect nest sites along the sandy shoulders of our roads. Their populations are considered sporadic, possibly because they are terrestrial and often on the move. One of our larger turtles, the wood turtle stands out among its brethren on two accounts: it has brilliant orange markings along its neck, forelegs and tail, and it is considered to be quite intelligent. Sadly, these turtles are frequently exploited in the pet trade, which compounds their losses to fast-moving traffic.

I know we have painted turtles in the Park, but I seldom see them. Most likely this is because they like particular types of wetlands, of which I am also quite fond, but I don’t get into them nearly enough to encounter painted turtles on a regular basis. Common and widespread, the painted turtle is the one we all know by sight: dark with red and yellow lines “painted’ along its neck, legs, tail and shell.

Our fourth turtle is the Blanding’s. This may not be a species most people have heard of, which isn’t too surprising. In New York it is a threatened species; I’ve only seen two in my life, both of which were in captivity. The first had been hit by a car and the facility where I was working was taking care of it until it could be returned to the wild. The second, which I saw this summer, was a “pet” belonging to a herptetologist. Blanding’s turtles are on the largish end of the land turtle scale, smaller than the snappers, but comparable to wood turtles. What stands out about these turtles is their highly domed shells and their yellow chins. If necessary, the Blanding’s turtle (named for William Blanding, by the way, a physician and naturalist from Massachusetts, who collected the original specimen in 1830) can close the front end of its shell, ala box turtle, for protection. (Box turtles can actually close both the front and back ends of their shells.)

And now, some of the fascinating things we should all know about turtles.

First, it takes an awfully long time for a turtle to become reproductive (ten or more years). It is currently believed that this is because after birth young turtles put most of their energy into developing their shells. The turtle’s shell is its means of protection, and until the advent of the motorized vehicle, it served the animals well. Once completely developed, the turtle’s shell is a formidable defense. There aren’t too many natural predators that can kill a turtle. A good shell, therefore, is imperative to survival; offspring can come later.

Next, there’s the method by which a turtle breathes. Like reproduction, a turtle’s breathing is tied in to its shell. Anyone who has seen a turtle shell sans turtle has noted that the animal’s ribs are fused to the inner carapace (the carapace is the upper portion of the shell; the plastron covers the belly). You and I manage breathing because our rib cages can expand with our lungs. Not so the turtles. Instead, they have a special musculature that, as so eloquently put in The Reptiles and Amphibians of New York State, “ sloshes the internal organs back and forth to draw air in and out of the lungs.” Curious about this, I did a little more digging. One set of respiratory muscles pulls all the internal organs outwards towards the edges of the shell. This allows the lungs, which are located near the top of the shell, to fill with air. The second set of muscles pushes everything back inwards, pressing against the lungs to expel the air. How wonderfully adaptive!

Temperature affects sex. That is, temperature determines the sex of the animal . When I first learned this, I thought it was just amazing. It seems that the warmer eggs develop into females, while the cooler eggs, which tend to be toward the bottom of the nest, develop into males. Depending on climate, some years nests can hatch out mostly female turtles, while other years the balance tips in favor of males. Will climate change affect this? If most nests yield females, how will our turtles find enough males to reproduce? Interesting question.

It breaks my heart that so many species of turtles are in decline. We (as a species) eat them, capture them for the pet trade, toss them aside as by-kill in the fishing industry, and run them over with our cars. Their homes are lost to development and pollution. I sometimes wonder if this ancient line of animals, who have survived so much, will ever survive humans. So, perhaps it isn’t too surprising that I experience great joy every time I see a turtle.

Wild turtles shouldn’t be pets, and pet turtles, which may not be native species, should not be released into the wild when the novelty wears off. If you see a turtle trying to cross the road, slow down – don’t run it over. If traffic is slow, pull over and assist the turtle in its journey. Never pick a turtle up by its tail (I don’t care what popular belief is – this can/will injure the turtle). Be cautious around the business end of a snapper – its name is well deserved.

I encourage everyone to enjoy turtles, and with a little common sense, it is easy to do.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lake George Conservancy to Hold Field Day Event

The Lake George Land Conservancy is holding an Annual Meeting and Field Day event, this Saturday July 24, 2010. The public is invited to participate in a themed hike or presentation around the lake in the morning, then join the group for a picnic lunch in Hague, listen to brief remarks on LGLC’s recent conservation efforts, and family games and activities. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Adirondack Serpent: The Northern Watersnake

Monday I was walking along the shores of the Hudson River in search of a particular orchid. The sun was out, the wind was blowing, and lots of flowers were in bloom. A few frogs hopped away from the clumsy thud of my boots, and damselflies darted here and there. There was a sudden rustle in the vegetation and something slithered across my path. I watched as the tail disappeared into the greenery, only to reappear on the other side as the snake slid into the waters of the Hudson: a northern watersnake, Nerodia sipedon.

This is a serpent that, as its name suggests, is equally at home in the water and on land. A rather robust animal, it is described in the literature as being “relatively large and heavy bodied.” In other words, this is no slender slitherer like our common garter snakes, nor is it cute in its tininess, like the red-bellied, brown or green snakes.

Northern watersnakes, to the untrained eye, might make one think immediately of water moccasins, or cottonmouths, both common names for the same venomous snake found in more southerly states. But we live in the Adirondacks where the only aquatic snake we have can be startling, can give a memorable bite, but is completely non-venomous.

Most of the snakes found in the Adirondacks are small to moderate in size, but the northern watersnake can grow upwards of four and a half feet long. Color can vary, but in general these reptiles are brown, or tan, with brown or reddish-brown bands or blotches. The animal I saw had a coloration very much like a milksnake, lighter in shade than I am used to seeing on these animals, although that could have partly been thanks to the water in which it was submerged when I took its photo. The older the animal, the darker its coloration. This is attributed to the tannins of the water in which they reside, which darken their scales over time. Perhaps my snake was fairly young, despite its size.

According to the authors of The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State, many New York specimens have red stripes on their faces. Sadly, I wasn’t close enough to this one’s face to see any such markings.

Found in almost any body of freshwater, northern watersnakes tend to prefer habitats that have some good vegetative cover nearby, like cattails or wet meadows. This explains why it made a run for the water as I blundered along the shoreline looking for my orchid (which I never did find). The Ice Meadows are quite verdant now that high summer is in full swing; between the heat and the rain of recent weeks, the vegetation has become quite lush – perfect for hiding cunning hunters.

Because they are excellent swimmers, it is not surprising to learn that these snakes commonly catch and eat fish and frogs. I remember watching one choke down a rather large sunfish along the banks of the Passaic River down in the Great Swamp in New Jersey. It was an impressive feat, considering the size of the fish, but down it went, leaving a fish-like bulge in the snake’s throat as it slid back into the water to avoid our curious stares.

The rest of this reptile’s diet is filled with birds, small mammals, young turtles, and even insects. In other words, if the snake can catch it and get its mouth around it, anything is fair game; this includes carrion, which occasionally makes it into the diet.

When I was a youngster and just learning about animal classification (back in ’72 it was), we were told that the only animals that gave birth to live young were mammals – it was part of what set us apart from the rest of the critters. Then I learned that there are mammals that lay eggs! And later on, I learned that some snakes have live birth. The world was not as simple as I had been led to believe.

As it turns out, there are quite a few snakes that give birth to live young, and the northern watersnake is among them. While gestating, the female will often bask in the sun, warming up her internal offspring to make them develop faster. When the time comes, she gives birth to 15 to 30 babies. Better her than me!

I hadn’t given it much thought, since northern watersnakes have been a regular part of my outdoor experiences, but it seems that while once commonly found throughout New York State, this hefty reptile has disappeared from part of the St. Lawrence River Valley and from much of the Adirondacks. Southern slopes in the southeastern part of the park (Lakes Champlain and George) seem to be where they hang out these days. Warrensburg fits into this geographical range, so it’s not too surprising that I found this specimen.

Like many a child, I’m not averse to picking up the occasional snake that crosses my path, but I do limit my snake handling to small and more docile species. I’d never attempt to grab a northern watersnake. For one thing, it will put up quite a fight. While striking and biting, it will also release copious amounts of various bodily substances, like feces and musky secretions. All of this stuff smells as bad as it sounds. And even though it is a non-venomous snake, the bite can be nasty. Not only will it hurt when the animal sinks in its teeth, but the wound will bleed like a son-of-a-gun because the animal’s saliva is laced with anticoagulants – all the better to subdue its prey with, eh? In other words, this is a snake better left alone and admired from afar.

So, if you see a northern watersnake on your journeys through or around some of the Park’s wetlands, rest assured that it won’t harm you if left alone. Watch it for a while. Who knows, maybe, like the one I spotted, it will turn its head and watch you back. Interesting animals, snakes are, and well-worth the time to get to know.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Earth Day: A Revolution 40 Years In The Making

On Earth Day 1970, people around the country, mostly college students, demonstrated on behalf of environmental causes. Forty years later, the environmental movement has come into the mainstream and secured state and federal agency leadership positions. More importantly, the movement has significantly improved the quality of our rivers, lakes and forests and in doing so has provided for the proliferation of local wildlife. While there are certainly challenges that remain – invasive species, inappropriate development, toxic exposures, nitrate and storm water management, climate change, the plight of amphibians, migratory birds, and bats – the environmental successes of the last 40 years should not be underestimated.

By and large, the first Earth Day was much like those that have followed: politicians, celebrities, concerts, environmental fairs, and the like. But Earth Day 1970 was a radical proposition in a time before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded, and before there were state sanctioned bodies like the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to protect the environment. At Boston’s Logan Airport, where a few hundred demonstrators had gathered in what a CBS reporter called a “thoroughly peaceful and non-disruptive demonstration”, police charged the crowd and arrested 13.

In the 40 years since that first Earth Day the Adirondack region has seen a revolution in the way we interact with our environment. Sure, we can point to the founding of DEC (1970), the establishment of the EPA (1971), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Clean Water Act (1972), State Environmental Quality Review Act (1980), the Superfund Law (1980), and the Environmental Protection Fund (1993) but there has been a leadership revolution as well. Today, Pete Grannis, who was part of the first Earth Day demonstrations, is now the head of the DEC. Judith Enck, the state’s leading environmental activist in the 1980s, is now the Administrator of EPA’s Region 2.

Changes in the natural environment have been extraordinary. The Hudson River, once an open sewer where no one dared to boat, never-mind swim or fish, now bustles with recreation activities in summer. According to the DEC, the number of seriously polluted waters in the state has fallen by 85% and Sulfur Dioxide pollution is down by 90%, with a corresponding improvement in Acid Rain.

Successes we don’t typically consider include the closure of outdated and poorly located landfills (more than 100 in Adirondacks alone), the elimination of the tire dumps (including more than 27 million tires statewide), the cleaning up of Superfund and brownfield sites (1,800 statewide) and the thousands of water bodies large and small around the state that have been cleaned-up in the last 40 years through waste-water management.

We may not consider those victories as much as we should, but local wildlife certainly has. In 1970 there was just one occupied Bald Eagle nest in New York State, in 2010 there are 173. Eagles and other raptors we rarely saw in the 1970s and 1980s, birds like the peregrine falcon, are now fairly frequent sights; ravens and osprey have returned to the Adirondacks. Wild turkeys have exploded from about 25,000 in 2010 to 275,000 today, and so turkey hunting has returned to the Adirondacks. Native trout have been returned to more than 50 ponds according to the DEC, and the average number of fish species has increased by a third offering increased angling opportunities. Beaver, fisher, and otter have flourished in cleaner, more diverse waters and so trapping seasons have returned for those species. In 1970 there were no Moose in the Adirondacks, today there are 400 to 500 in the region.

Clean water, clean air, and open spaces were the demands at the first Earth Day in 1970. Those demands were met by legions of combative corporations, industry alliances, business groups, chambers of commerce and their attorneys. A look at a local paper on any given day shows that those battles continue, but 40 years has shown that the environmental movement has been an enormous success. Despite the attacks and “enviro-nazi” insults, the former hippies, political greens, organization environmentalists, and wildlife conservationists who have made up the environmental movement have much to be proud of.

Illustration: Earth Day 1970 Poster


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Adirondack Winter: Musings on Snow

By the time you read this post, you may be getting sick of snow. We shouldn’t really complain too much, though, for up until this week, we have had very little snowfall in 2010. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I had to shovel my driveway before this week. February has been downright dry and snowless, so the windfall of white stuff this week has brought should be a welcome sight, even if we don’t appreciate it until summer, when hot dry days take their toll on available surface and ground water. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Adirondack Amphibians: The American Toad

Every fall when I lead groups of students through the woods on a biodiversity investigation, we always have to be careful not to step on toads. It’s a challenge, for once we are off the trails, the forest floor is one big closet, full of hiding places that small animals, like toads, can use, and which we, with our clumsy feet and our eyes towering four to six feet above the ground, never see. More than once we have stumbled upon wee tiny toads and great giant monster toads. Size not withstanding, they are all one species: the American toad (Bufo americanus).

Throughout history, toads have gotten a bad rap. For some reason, reptiles and amphibians in general have been relegated to the realm of “evil” animals. European sensibilities, especially during the Middle Ages, are largely responsible for this. Fortunately, some cultures, primarily Asian, took a more enlightened view of frogs and toads. Still, what we need to remember is that concepts like “good” and “evil” are strictly human. Animals are neither good nor evil, for that implies intent. No, animals are just animals, going about their daily lives doing what they must in order to survive.

That said, the toad has some pretty nifty ways of taking care of itself. Contrary to popular belief, one cannot get warts from a toad. Sure, they are covered with warts, but these aren’t the same as the warts people get. Human warts are caused by a virus. The “warts” on a toad are actually poison and mucus glands, the former containing a milky substance that is chock full of chemicals that can irritate the mucus membranes of other animals. This is a great defensive mechanism. The two biggest poison glands are on the back of the toad right behind its head, the exact location where a predator (say a coyote) might chomp down in an attempt to grab a potential food item. The predator’s teeth puncture these glands and the animal gets a mouthful of poison. The poison will likely make the animal sick, and could potentially kill it. Hopefully the toad lives to see another day.

Here’s another defensive mechanism of the toad: bloat. Let’s say you are a toad and you are hunkered down in your daytime den – a nice cool, damp hole in the ground. A nosy predator comes along and grabs hold of your head and tries to pull you out of your home. What do you do? You gulp down a lot of air and swell up – hopefully increasing your girth enough that the predator cannot pull you out. Or maybe a snake caught you unaware from behind. There you are, your backside partway down the snake’s gullet, so you puff up, hopefully making yourself too big to swallow. This is a great strategy…unless the snake is a hognose, which has teeth in the back of its mouth that are just perfect for puncturing inflated toads, in which case there’s not much you can do.

Toads are pretty ubiquitous – you can find them just about anywhere: in the woods, in your back yard, along a stream. They aren’t too fussy about habitat as long as there is a semi-permanent body of water in which they can lay eggs, and some dense patches of vegetation for shelter and hunting. This is one reason why toads readily adapt to living in our gardens. All they need is a shady toad abode (could be an overturned pot) and they will happily patrol your garden for pesky pests like slugs.

When spring arrives, the air soon fills with toad song. The sound is often mistaken for an insect by those who are not nature savvy. It’s a trilling sort of sound, which can last sometimes 30 seconds or more. I read that you can imitate this sound if you whistle and hum at the same time. I tried it last night and I think it is safe to say I won’t be calling in any toads any time soon. Anyway, when you hear the toads trilling, it is time to stake out your neighborhood pond and see if you can see any action. Males, recognized by their smaller size and dark throats, will group together, trilling their hearts out, waiting for a receptive female to come along. When she does, the males all jockey for position, the hopefuls trying to latch on to her back and become fathers.

The female lays her eggs in double strings of sticky gel. These strands are often loosely wound around submerged aquatic vegetation. They won’t be there long, for most will hatch within a week. This is an uncertain time for toads, for life in a pond is rife with danger. The pond could dry up. Raccoons and herons are constantly looking for meals. Cannibalism lurks around every corner. What is a tadpole to do?

Fortunately, toadlets have a couple fallback positions. First, they, like their parents, have chemicals in their skin that make them less appetizing to predators. And second, they can recognize their siblings. This is pretty amazing when you consider just how many siblings they might have. A single female toad produces on average 4,000 to 12,000 eggs. Even if only a quarter of the eggs hatch, that is several hundred siblings. Knowing your siblings can save your neck, because if you hang out with your family, your back is guarded and you only have to watch out for cannibals coming at you from one side.

With all the dangers a toad faces, it’s not surprising to learn that most live only a year or two. Some robust toads might make it to ten years, and one toad lived a long life of 36 years in captivity. Even with poison glands providing protection, it’s a rough world out there. And since toads provide a great service to us by consuming pestiferous insects and slugs, I figure it’s the very least we can do to watch our steps when stomping through the woods.


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