Thursday, March 31, 2011

Snow Herping

So up here in Vermont the amphibian migration has not yet taken place. The temperatures and snow cover were about right for a week but it never rained and then got cold again. Now there is a foot of snow forecasted for tonight.

Yesterday it got up to 45 degrees and I met up with a couple friends to do some snow herping.

There is an island way out in the middle of a swamp that I checked out a few years ago because it looked like a good spot for a mass gartersnake emergence. It is a small island with a mile of swamp and flood plane in every direction and, while the swamp is great foraging habitat for gartersnakes, the island is the only place where the snakes can get below the frost line but remain above the water table. For the past three years, including yesterday, I have documented the first reptiles of the year in VT there.

We departed at noon and kayaked through a flooded field along a river for about a mile.
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Before too long the ice closed us into an increasingly narrow channel.

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I have to say, barreling through ice on a kayak is super fun

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After traveling as far as we could north in the channel we had to get as far as possible west toward the island through the swamp. The theory was that as soon as we could not continue on kayaks the ice would be thick enough to mostly support our weight.

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And we docked. Lots of post holing into wet muck to look forward to, that much was promised.

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It's always handy to take a paddle with you to test water depth wherever the ice was thin or melted. There was no concern about going over our heads but there were plenty of chances to at least flood our mud boots.

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Such as here

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The edge of the island had a bunch of these cool nematodes crawling around through the sphagnum. They are some sort of horsehair worm which parasitize insects such as grasshoppers. When the worm is mature it messes with the insect's brain and causes it to commit suicide by drowning at which point the adult worm bores its way back out of the insect and swims off. Cool!

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Once on the island I brought the gang to my "special" rock. Last year on March 5 it had 16 Hemidactylium under it. This year it only had 6.

As flipped:

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Cleaned off a bit.

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Other people brought cameras too

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One of my friends found the first snake of the year basking on some raised ground surrounded by snow.

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Our first mammal of the trip

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In-situ gartersnake that was just chillin' out on some snow. He is named "stumpy"

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Out of the 15 snakes we only caught 1 of them, all of the others were left in-situ

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Most of the snakes were more curious than scared. While taking photos some of them crawled toward us. Their breeding drive seems to be very high this time of year. It's almost as if anything that moves is a potential mate until proven otherwise.

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This one was pretty feisty though and struck my camera.

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The first snake was seen a little later up against a tree with some snow stuck to its body. The rostrum is a little scuffed up which is how the snake was recognized as the same.

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We never did find any other salamanders. In the past there have also been laterale and Storeria dekayi at that site and it is the only place I have ever seen Brownsnakes breeding. Maybe in a week or so they will be back out. Pleased though, we headed back into the snowy swamp.

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The water level had dropped by half an inch while we were out there which made backtracking through the ice a bit more challenging than anticipated.

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We then mozied our way back through the flooded field and watched a beaver swim around along the way.

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And some token birding

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I'll be heading back out as soon as this next round of snow melts. Most likely the Ambystoma will have surfaced and, with any luck, Storeria as well. We got there well in advance of the main gartersnake event but I suspect that shortly after the ground is exposed again and we have a couple sunny days there should be breeding balls. I can hardly wait!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, it sounds like you had some unexpected fun! I really hope that I can join you on your next expedition--by the looks of it I will be able to.
    Hope to hear from you soon :)

    ~Jillian

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