Category Archives: reptiles and amphibians

New discoveries

We’ve kept a biological inventory of our end of Brush Mountain since we moved here in August 1971, and I can’t remember the last time we added three new species in a single day — probably not since the early 70s. Today’s haul shows the value of having additional pairs of eyes to help out; it may or may not be indicative of increasing biodiversity overall.

brown snake 2

We owe two of the finds to our neighbors, Troy and Paula Scott. While moving some old boards around the wreckage of the former McHugh house, they uncovered a brown snake, Soreria dekayi. It’s not an especially uncommon snake, but we’ve never found one on the mountain before. Given especially my older brother Steve’s sharp eyes and tendency to find anything and everything of interest when he was a kid, especially when it came to birds, insects and reptiles, I feel reasonably certain that this species hasn’t been present for too many decades.

painted turtle 1

Later in the day, driving up the road, the Scotts found this turtle in one of the tire tracks. Again, Paula’s cellphone camera helped to clinch the identification: painted turtle (Chrysemys picta). This is a very common species indeed, but not one you’d expect to find marching up the Plummer’s Hollow Boulevard, a half-mile from the nearest pond. It was only a couple hundred yards from the entrance to the hollow, so perhaps it was dispersing from a population in the Little Juniata River. The river doesn’t seem like very good painted turtle habitat, though.

painted turtle 2

One thing’s for certain: it isn’t going to find any habitat at all if it continues up the hollow. The vernal pools at the very top of the watershed, some two miles from the bottom of the hollow, persist in a wet spring just long enough to graduate a few wood frogs before they dry up.

wild coffee 1

I’m perhaps most excited by the third find of the day: wild coffee or feverwort, Triosteum perfoliatum. We’d invited an amateur botanist friend to come take a look at our three-acre deer exclosure, which is ten years old now and beginning to get really lush. We figured she might spot something we’d overlooked, and sure enough, she did. Even better luck: it was in bloom.

wild coffee 2

This was not only a new species for the mountain, but one neither Mom nor I had ever run across anywhere else. Our friend remarked that she’d associated it with a limestone substrate, and was surprised to encounter it on our acidic soil.

wild coffee 3

As the common names suggest, it has a variety of interesting cultural uses: the fruit can be dried, roasted, and ground as a coffee substitute, and the roots can deployed against fever, irregular or profuse menses, and stomach trouble caused by witchcraft, among other things. More than that, though, it’s just a very unique-looking plant, and at over four feet in height, has a real presence. I’m happy to have made its acquaintance.

Garter snake mating

I filmed first a pair of mating garter snakes, then (beginning at the 3:00 minute mark) a ball of somewhere around ten snakes, in late morning, April 2.

We’ve always had a healthy garter snake population on the farm, but since we stopped mowing most of the lawns some 15 years ago, their numbers have increased dramatically, we think because a recovering wet meadow environment is better habitat for them than the drier lawn that preceded it. Major gathering points for the emerging snakes in early April include the environs of the old springhouse and a stone decorative well at the base of the slope beneath the main house. Underground hibernacula are presumably located in both spots.

Garter snakes are famous for their mating balls, which we’ve observed at both locations. I shot this scene below the well. The female is identifiable as the largest snake at the center. The Wikipedia article on garter snakes describes what’s going on as well as any source:

Garter snakes begin mating as soon as they emerge from brumation. During mating season, the males mate with several females. In chillier parts of their range, male common garter snakes awaken from brumation first, giving themselves enough time to prepare to mate with females when they finally appear. Males come out of their dens and, as soon as the females begin coming out, surround them. Female garter snakes produce a sex-specific pheromone that attracts male snakes in droves, sometimes leading to intense male-male competition and the formation of mating balls of up to 100 males per female. After copulation, a female leaves the den/mating area to find food and a place to give birth. Female garter snakes are able to store the male’s sperm for years before fertilization. The young are incubated in the lower abdomen, at about the midpoint of the length of the mother’s body. Garter snakes are ovoviviparous, meaning they give birth to live young. Gestation is two to three months in most species. As few as 3 or as many as 50 snakes are born in a single litter. The babies are independent upon birth.