An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Snakes

Northern Water Snakes Courting & Mating

9-19-19 mating water snakes by Jeff Mazur IMG_9688 (002)Northern Water Snakes (Nerodia sipedon) are non-poisonous snakes which, as their name implies, tend to be found in the Northeast, in and around water. Females (bottom snake in photo) are heavier and longer than males (as long as five feet) and grow much faster. Since the end of May, Northern Water Snakes have been engaging in courtship rituals and mating. The male snake (top snake in photo) begins by crawling alongside a female while he rubs his body along hers. It is not unusual for more than one male to court her at the same time, with one eventually achieving copulation by twisting and coiling his tail around her body and tail as he attempts to get their cloacae aligned.

Northern Water Snakes are ovoviviparous – the female’s eggs incubate inside her body. The larger the female, the greater the number of live young she’s likely to produce in late August or September. Northern Water Snakes have between 12 and 60 young — judging from the size of the pictured female she’ll have a large litter. (Photo by Jeff Mazur)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Common Gartersnakes Brumating

1-28-19 gartersnake img_4888Somewhere between two and four feet (depending on where you live in New England) beneath our feet there is a “frost line” below which the ground water in soil doesn’t freeze. Snakes, being reptiles, are ectotherms, and their bodies assume the temperature of the air around them. In order to avoid being frozen to death in the winter, they retreat below the frost line, where they enter a state called brumation – the cold-blooded term for a state of torpor and inactivity that is not true hibernation, but in which a dramatic slowing down of bodily functions occurs. Crevices in south-facing rocky ledges and abandoned woodchuck, fox and skunk dens (and human cellars) often serve as hibernacula, or winter shelters. Common Gartersnakes are known to gather in large numbers (one Canadian den served as a hibernaculum for 8,000 gartersnakes), in order to concentrate the small amount of heat their bodies produce in the winter.

As the air temperature lowers in the fall, a snake’s body temperature falls and its metabolism decreases dramatically. Gartersnakes actively prepare for this by not eating for several weeks prior to hibernating. This allows all of the food they previously consumed to be completely broken down and absorbed into their system. To enhance this process, gartersnakes bask in the sun both before and during their early days of sheltering in hibernacula, warming themselves so as to increase the rate of their metabolism just prior to hibernating.

Should a snake happen to eat a large grasshopper, earthworm or small frog just prior to entering brumation, the snake may become extremely lethargic due to the slowing down of its metabolism, and the contents of its stomach may not be digested as quickly. The longer it takes to process food in its stomach, the greater the chances that this dead material will start to decay, which could result in serious illness to the snake.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Young Milk Snakes Soon To Hibernate

10-17-18 milk snake young _U1A0781The eggs that Milk Snakes laid last June or July hatched recently and the six-inch young snakes as well as the adults that produced them will only be evident (and then, mostly at night) for the next few weeks.  Hibernation is around the corner, and these snakes often seek out the cellars of old houses with stone foundations in which to spend the winter.  Should you come upon a Milk Snake, please spare its life. They are not poisonous, and you couldn’t ask for a more efficient mouse catcher (Mice accounted for 74 percent of a study of Milk Snakes’ stomach contents.).

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Young Common Gartersnakes Appearing

8-3-18 garter snake 081Seventy percent of the world’s snakes lay eggs (oviparous). The rest give birth to live young (viviparous). Oviparous snakes tend to live in warmer climates, where the substrate they lay their eggs in is warm enough to incubate the eggs.  (Most egg-laying snakes deposit their eggs and then depart, relying on the substrate to incubate the eggs.)  Viviparous snakes tend to live in cooler regions, where the ground is too cold to provide incubation.

There is a distinction between egg-laying snakes.  The majority of snakes that lay eggs do so outside their body, in a protected area such as a rotting log.  These snakes are known as oviparous. There are also egg-laying snakes that retain their eggs inside their bodies until they’re ready to hatch. These snakes are called ovoviviparous. Ovoviviparous snakes, such as the Common Gartersnake, appear to give birth to live young, but they actually don’t. Unlike viviparous species, there is no placental connection, or transfer of fluids, between mothers and babies, because the developing young snakes feed on the substances contained in their individual eggs. The snakes emerge from the mother when they hatch from their eggs, giving them the appearance of “live” births. The gestation period for oviparous snakes is generally longer than those of ovoviviparous snakes and vary from a few weeks to a few months in length. (Photo: very young Common Gartersnake, Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, consuming an earthworm)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.


American Crow Bills Used As Tools

1-13-16  American crow tracks 147American crows obtain most of their food on the ground as they walk along in search of seeds, insects, frogs, snakes, bird nests and small mammals. Their hunting techniques are varied and most involve the use of their bill. In search of invertebrates, crows will probe the soil with their bill, flick aside leaves, dig in the soil and even lift cow paddies. They fish for tadpoles and dig nearly an inch deep with their bill for clams. In winter, their foraging continues and as these tracks indicate, when the snow is only a few inches deep they will walk around and around in a given area, probing tufts of grass for hibernating insects, mice, voles, or any other form of life these opportunists find.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Milksnake Eggs Hatching

8-3-15 milk snake IMG_6320Some snakes lay eggs, while others give birth to live young. Milksnakes (which are nonpoisonous) belong to the former group and sometime between April and late June female milksnakes lay 3 to 20 eggs in rotting logs or moist, warm, leaf litter — locations that offer protection from predators and cold weather. Eggs laid in June are now hatching – seven- to ten-inch milksnakes are each using their egg tooth to slice through their egg and enter the world. Newly-hatched milksnakes have especially vibrant colors, including oranges, reds, purples, and yellows, which become duller as they age. Milksnakes are most active during the day but are rarely seen due to their secretive nature. (photo: adult milksnake; insert-newly hatched milksnake)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Common Gartersnakes Mating

4-30-15  common gartersnake IMG_9163Common Gartersnakes begin mating in the spring as soon as they emerge from brumation (a reptilian state of dormancy similar to hibernation in mammals, but involving different metabolic processes). The males leave the den first and wait for the females to exit. Once the females leave the den the males surround them, forming what is called a mating ball (one female and many males). The males give off pheromones that attract the female. After the female has chosen her mate and mated, she leaves. while the males stay to re-mate with other available females. The females have the ability to store the male’s sperm until it is needed and thus a female may not mate if she does not find a proper partner.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Common Gartersnakes Giving Birth

8-15-14  common gartersnake 082Common Gartersnakes mate soon after emerging from hibernation in the spring, in March or April, and four months later the females give birth to live young. The newborn snakes are 5 to 9 inches long at birth and from day one have to fend for themselves. Their diet at this early stage consists of earthworms, insects, slugs, tadpoles, small frogs and fish. If there is an abundant supply of food, the young snakes can grow as much as 1 ½ inches a month during their first year. Earthworms are their preferred diet and gartersnakes are known for their ability to find them, even underground. It turns out that earthworms produce a chemical substance in their skin that is easily detected by (and attractive to) Common Gartersnakes. (Thanks to Eli Holland, who located the worm-eating newborn Common Gartersnake in the photograph.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Ring-necked Snakes Laying Eggs

7-11-14 ring-necked snake 188Adult Ring-necked Snakes measure one to two feet from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail. Named for the yellow/orange ring around their neck, they also have brilliant orange scales on their belly. This snake is fairly common throughout all of New England except for the northernmost part of Maine, but not often seen due to its nocturnal habits and secretive nature. The three or four eggs that female Ring-necked Snakes lay in late June and July are deposited in and under rotting logs and stones. Several females have been known to use the same nest. The eggs hatch in late August or September and the young snakes feed on the same prey as adults — small toads, frogs, salamanders, earthworms, smaller snakes, insects and grubs.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


What a Snake’s Eyes Can Tell You

8-5-13  snake eyesYou can tell a lot about a snake just by looking at its eyes. Snakes that burrow underground usually have relatively small eyes compared to those that live above ground. The size of the eye and the shape of the pupil can often tell you if the snake is diurnal or nocturnal – typically diurnal snakes have comparatively small eyes with round pupils and nocturnal snakes have larger eyes with elliptical pupils. Both of these characteristics have to do with maximizing or minimizing the amount of light that enters the eyes. The larger the eye, the more light it can gather. The reason for the difference in pupil shape is that round pupils can close very tightly, to a pinpoint opening, shutting out bright sunlight very effectively. Elliptical pupils can open wider than round pupils, and consequently collect more light. (Photo is of a Common Gartersnake.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Flowering

8-20-13 downy rattlesnake plantain 095Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is an evergreen plant (each leaf lives for about four years) belonging to the Orchid family. It has broad, rounded leaves (like plantain) that bear a design somewhat reminiscent of snake skin. For the latter reason, it was used by Native Americans to treat snakebites. Botanists think it must have been used on bites from non-poisonous snakes, for medicinally it does not cure a venomous snake bite. This is the most common species of rattlesnake-plantain in New England, and can be identified easily by the broad central stripe down the middle of each leaf. At this time of year its tall flower stalk is bedecked with tiny, delicate, white orchids, each the size of a baby finger nail, which are well worth examining through a hand lens.


Snake Jaws

garter snake with treefrog by Tom Nevins IMG_0030In this photograph taken by Tom Nevins, a Common Gartersnake is swallowing prey — a Gray Treefrog — that is much larger than the snake’s mouth. It can do this because of the structure of its jaws. The quadrate bone, which attaches the upper and lower mandibles, is not rigidly attached. Rather, it pivots, allowing vertical and horizontal rotation of the jaw. In addition, the two pieces of the lower jaw (left and right) are connected in the front of the jaw by an elastic ligament, allowing each side of the lower jaw to move independently. Due to these adaptations, a snake can consume large prey by basically walking over it with its jaws.


New Children’s Book by Mary Holland

FerdinandFoxCover PhotoDo you know a 3 – 8 year old who loves animals and would enjoy getting close-up views of the antics of a red fox kit during the first summer of his life? My second children’s book, Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer, has just been published by Sylvan Dell in both hardback and paperback. I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to observe and photograph young red foxes as they interact with each other and with their parents. This book consists of a selection of these photographs, accompanied by text and an educational component at the end of the book. Look for Ferdinand Fox’s First Summer in your local bookstore. If they don’t carry it, you would be doing me a huge favor by asking them to. Thank you so much. My next children’s book is on Beavers and will be coming out in the spring of 2014. (I am still looking for a publisher for Naturally Curious Kids!)


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Common Gartersnakes Basking

This is the time of year when snakes take advantage of sunny, mild days by basking in the sun and warming their bodies.  It’s possible to come across basking Common Gartersnakes as late as November, as they are more cold tolerant than many species of snakes.  All too soon, however, they will be retreating into their hibernacula (hibernation site), where they are protected from severe cold (being ectothermic, snakes cannot control their body temperature).   To further protect them, a high level of glucose acts as antifreeze in snakes.  The ideal hibernaculum not only serves as a temperature buffer, but also conceals its occupant from potential predators, permits gas exchange, and prevents excessive desiccation.  Rock crevices, abandoned woodchuck burrows, rotting tree stumps and old foundations are favorite hibernacula for snakes and other hibernating animals.  Gartersnakes typically overwinter in groups, and some even share their hibernacula with other species of snakes, including Smooth Greensnakes, Ring-necked Snakes and Red-bellied Snakes.


Northern Watersnake

Northern Watersnakes can be found in rivers, ponds and bogs throughout New England, except for northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  They spend time foraging both day and night for fish (61% of diet), frogs and toads (21%), salamanders (12%) as well as insects and crayfish at the water’s edge.  (Snake jaws can separate at both the front and back, allowing them to eat impossibly large prey , such as the  catfish in Chris Crowley’s photograph.) They also spend a great deal of time basking on rocks and overhanging branches.  Northern Watersnakes can be formidable looking – they can grow over four feet long – but while they can be aggressive if threatened, they are not poisonous.  Watersnakes give birth to up to 70 (typically 20-40) live young between August and early October.


Snake Eyes

You can often tell whether a snake is active in the day (diurnal) or during the night (nocturnal) by looking at its eyes. Diurnal snakes, such as the pictured Common Gartersnake, typically have round pupils and moderate-sized eyes. Many nocturnal snakes have large eyes and many also have vertical, elliptical pupils. A round pupil is able to close tightly to a pinpoint opening, allowing a minimum amount of light to enter the eye on very bright days. In contrast, a vertical pupil can open wider than a round pupil to allow more light to enter the eye, a useful adaptation for night vision.


How Snakes Smell

Many snakes, including this Common Gartersnake, use smell to track their prey.  In the roof of a snake’s mouth are two openings, called the vomeronasal  organ, also known as Jacobson’s organ.  Snakes smell by sticking their forked tongue in the air, keeping it constantly moving while they collect particles (mostly pheromones) on it from the ground, air and water.  Next they pull their tongue back into their mouth and insert it into their Jacobson’s organ (one fork in each opening).  Then the particles are analyzed and the snake determines whether prey or a predator is in the vicinity.  


Common Gartersnake Pigments

12-8-10      Common Gartersnake

The Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is New England’s most common and widespread snake.  It’s not unusual to find one that has been run over on the road, but rarely have I found a carcass of one in the woods, especially this late in the year.  Gartersnakes usually are hibernating (often in groups) in rock crevices, rotting logs or holes dug by mammals by October or so.  The warmer-than-usual fall certainly allowed for extended basking in the sun and the ability to find active earthworms later in the season.   If you look closely you may see that this gartersnake has a blue tinge where it’s normally a greenish color. Yellow and blue pigments in a snake’s skin fuse to produce the green color in living snakes. After death, the yellow pigment breaks down very quickly, whereas the blue pigment is more stable and remains much longer. Gartersnakes that have been dead for a while can have bright blue dorsal and lateral stripes.  


Naturally Curious wins National Outdoor Book Award

I am delighted to be able to tell you that this morning I learned that NATURALLY CURIOUS won the Nature Guidebook category of the 2011 National Outdoor Book Awards.  I’m honored and humbled by this recognition.   http://www.noba-web.org/books11.htm


Common Gartersnakes Giving Birth

Most species of snakes lay eggs (oviparous), but some give birth to live young (viviparous), including the common gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis).  Gartersnakes are born at this time of year, and are on their own from the moment of birth.  The greatest number of gartersnakes to be born in a single litter is 98, but 14 – 40 is more typical.  The common gartersnake in the accompanying photograph is a newborn, measuring 6 inches in length.