Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ending January in Style 1-31-2016

It has been damn cold here the last two weeks. All of those knucklehead snakes should be deep in the ground and life cycles should be starting to right themselves. We had snow. It has become more or less an actual winter. That isn't to say that on warmer days, we stay in the house. We need to get out into nature to keep our legs and our souls from atrophy. It was supposed to hit the high 40s on January 31st, so we figured we go out and look for some birds. Close to home... staying in Suffolk County.

We flipped plenty of rocks and logs, hoping for a stray Redback or something but the ground was clearly too frozen; ice was still under many of the logs. We saw a few birds, I added two on the year and we walked along the edge of a brook, marveling at the work a local beaver population had done.

The sun had been up for the couple of hours that we were out. It was plenty warm. We said we wouldn't be surprised if one of our snake buddies was poking a head out. But no... that seriously wasn't going to happen. Still, we looked around.

I was down in the gully where I had spied a couple of Water Snakes earlier in the month. No, nothing was out. Until I heard Andrea yell "Nerodia".

Huh? Where?

She was coming out of a hole under a log that we have long suspected was a den entrance. And exit.
She was large and dusty, but we recognised her from late last year.
Her scar was familiar... check out last years November 27th post.

Andrea got closer to snap a shot with her phone and she (Big E. Smalls, the snake) backed right in.

And that is how we ended January of 2016.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Necropsy Necropdo.

Winter has finally settled in (did I actually say "finally"?) so we find ourselves with less field time, but our volunteer work continues with the sea turtles. The stranding season has been declared over, but there is still more work to do... namely, necropsies.

I wasn't sure we were cut out for such work but we took out training on January 16th and assisted on two turtles that day. We found a way to detach ourselves from the cute little swimming animals and look at their innards in a purely scientific way and we were fine. And we learned a hell of a lot. We went back for more on January 23rd, driving to the Cape in the morning, knowing full well that a big snow storm was approaching. We got there on time, assisted on one turtle, then got our own specimen to be amateur pathologists on.

The turtles come to our work area with the plastron already cut open. Andrea was the "cutter" while I was the "scribe". (I stayed cleanish and wrote down the data while Andrea got bloody with turtle guts.) It is served up like a bowl of turtle innards that she had to dissect. First, she had to cut the peritoneum (the "Saran Wrap") that holds all of the stuff in place, then we inspect and dissect the heart, spleen, liver, small and large intestines, stomach, lungs, esophagus, kidneys, bladder... all stuff that we can actually identify now. We look for cysts, anomalies and contents, cutting out and collecting problem areas for further inspection.

Our maiden voyage solo turtle was a female (we can tell that now, too!) who had ingested quite a bit of beach debris (sand, broken shell) after death. Otherwise, her organs were in good shape. Definitely a victim of the cold-stun.

Andrea really kicked ass doing this. She even removed the rear flippers (something I can't even watch) which are collected for medical training. (To teach students how to inject needles into turtles skin... nothing like using the real thing.) While I didn't take many pictures over the past two weeks (out of respect for the deceased turtles), here is one of Andrea displaying what the inside of a Kemp's ridley sea turtle's esophagus looks like.
Andrea and esaphogus
Nature's sand-filter.

We have more dates for necropsies in the upcoming weeks (who says I ain't romantic?) and we look forward to learning more and perhaps helping to shed some light on this ongoing plight of these beautiful animals.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Winter doesn't have to suck. Jan. 9 & 10, 2016

With just one solitary herp on the year (albeit a snake) we were eager to get a few more species photographed. There were some brutally cold days since the past weekend but Saturday the 9th wasn't so bad. Then again, it wasn't so good, either. After doing errands and goofing off, we found ourselves without much daylight and warmth left in the day. We headed to a close-by Suffolk County spot.

We had thoughts of Ambystoma but when even Redbacks proved to be no-shows, we wrote off that idea. There was still ice under many of the rocks and logs so after 3/4 of an hour of fruitless flipping, we decided to cut to the chase and head straight to the running streams. Two-lines are made of stronger stuff! Sure enough, I flipped some larvae, who promptly escaped my net before I could get them into an observation tank. We soon managed a larger larvae and a small adult, though.

Finally, we scored the bright, "calm" adult we were seeking for a glamour shot.
Mission accomplished.

Leaving the woods, we walked behind some buildings in the adjacent parking lot. A board next to one of them had me thinking... maybe it's warmer right there near the wall. I flipped and was rewarded with our Redback.
He slowly turned tail and slid into a hole in the foundation.

In our allotted time (about an hour), we managed our first Two-lines and Redback of 2016. Satisfaction was achieved.

We had been expecting a call for beach patrol on the next day (Sunday) but it never came. The winds would be howling and the rain torrential.  Since we weren't needed, I wanted to take advantage of the warm temps (53°) and the downpour and hit our local hot-spot to look for Ambystoma. I had found a January Blue-spotted under similar conditions the year before. Andrea wisely decided to stay home where it was warm and dry.

The rain was amazing and the path was a running river.

I flipped a lot and finally found some of the Redbacks that were so elusive the day before.

I headed down towards the snake dens to flip some logs and rocks in the area. Of course, I couldn't help but peek at the dens themselves. But the rain was hard and the 53° felt raw with the wind. All that said, I was only a little bit surprised to see this young Northern Water Snake stretching along near the entrance to his den.
Of course, I'm not keen on touching snakes in the winter but I did handle him to get a better look at those light scars on his back. My guess is healed frostbite. It looks so similar to the sea turtles' frostbite scarring. These spots felt fine and the skin appeared healthy. So did the snake, who struck at me in typical Nerodia fashion.

About 10 feet away, a second Water Snake was crawling along... a near 3-footer.
It was pouring... these guys were really Water Snakes.

As much as I hate winter, I kind of hope we get a long stretch of cold so these animals can get deep into the ground. Staying shallow isn't doing them any good, what with the frostbite and cool weather excursions. The Spring mating season is going to be a mess!

I was soaked, despite wearing my super-duper rain jacket. I headed home and changed before going to the New England Herp Society meeting.  There, we saw some friends and got to see a Box Turtle pigging out...

a Red Tegu nom down a couple dozen grapes...

and we got Sir John a new deluxe crib which really suits his circular spine.

As we await our annual Everglades trip, it feels downright weird to see snakes up here in Massachusetts. While I certainly enjoy seeing them (healthy ones, at that) in the winter, I'm starting to worry about the Spring love-fest. Will these snakes care about mating with no proper brumation? Time will tell, I guess.

Till then, I will keep an eye on them.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Ringing in 2016... Jan 1st thru 3rd.

We cut our New Year's Eve festivities a bit short because we had been called to patrol the beaches of Cape Cod on New Year's Day. We were assigned the big beach for first light, then a shorter one for afternoon high tide. Unfortunately, we hadn't seen our friends in a while and we didn't stop the festivities quite early enough. But it was all good... we just didn't get much sleep by the time the alarm went off at 4 AM.

The drive was quick (just over 2 hours) and the traffic wasn't bad so we managed to reach the beach by first light. The wind was roaring in and we figured we were going to have a heavy day. The first sign of life (and death) was this juvenile Great Black-backed Gull munching on a (loon?) carcass.
Great Black-backed Gull #1
Since it was a new year, he was my #1. I managed 14 bird species this first day, some of which I will share.

It took some time before we saw anything chelonian. A hungry Gull alerted us to our first, very dead turtle.
We marked it and called it in but I didn't feel the need to dig a protective burrow for this poor fellow. I mean, yeah... treat every one like it is alive, but...

Strangely enough, that was the only turtle we saw on the way out; over 3 1/2 miles of beach. The tide had become pretty low by the time we reached the tip.

In an effort to get out of the raging wind more quickly, we decided to go up over the top of the peninsula rather than retrace our footsteps along the edge. The closest distance between two points is a straight line... Oddly enough, way up (seemingly above high tide, though deep tides can cover this bit) we saw another turtle.
He was pretty stiff and appeared dead but we were on our way back anyway so we called him in and brought him with us. I carried him... he wasn't bad.

Unfortunately, they wanted Mr. Bony brought back, too. When we got to our marker, we noticed that the gulls had dragged him about 15 feet away.

I had been carrying a sled that we bought for transporting turtles and this was a good time to use it. I wrapped up the guy I was carrying, then went to pack up Mr. Bony. He leaked all over... a fetid mess of rotted cranberry sauce. All of the glamour that anyone thinks comes with turtle rescue was dribbling down my coat in a red, chunky spew. Boy, was I glad to have the sled.

We saw no more turtles as we trudged along, but we saw some gulls going at a Harbor Porpoise carcass.
Ring-billed Gull #4
(That Ring-bill is #4.)

We took the turtles in. Both were quite dead. Mr. Bony went out in a flash of overwhelming stink, taking us and the poor woman checking his stats into the abyss with him. We can learn from all of them and Mr. Bony did his best.

We had about 4 hours to kill before high tide so we poked around the sanctuary, adding to the bird count. Some Blue Jays (#10) posed nicely.
Blue Jay #10
As we went up the trails, it dawned on us... we'd had less than 4 hours of sleep and had just walked over 9 miles. Why were we walking trails to kill time? We decided to bird from the car and get some chow.

We got to our high tide beach a bit early. They had called us and asked if we could head North on the same stretch after this patrol. Why not? We caught an hour long nap in the car, drove off to find a bathroom (Pilgrim Heights!! haha!) and got back as the sun was setting. We hit the beach as the high tide was coming in.

I tried way too long on trying to get a decent shot of Sanderlings and my camera's battery died. Never got a good picture of them, but my blurry capture made them #14. I managed a shot from the tip of the beach, just as a wave struck the rocks.

The sun went down completely and our headlamps came out. Obviously, pictures wouldn't happen, what with the darkness and a dead battery. I got enough juice from it for one final shot of the night...

No more turtles, no more energy... we headed home after a long day. 15 miles of beach walking, 4+ hours of driving... we slept like the dead. Only 3 turtles were found that day by everyone.

The next day, Saturday the 2nd, we went to look for herps. We hoped a Redback or two would be up. We were dee-nied! But we managed a couple of neat birds... a Red-bellied Woodpecker (#15) and a White-breasted Nuthatch (#16)
Red-bellied Woodpecker #15
White-breasted Nuthatch #16

That left us Sunday, our last day of vacation, to try for first herp of 2016. We went to our nearby place of choice. I mean, we had seen a snake on New Year's Eve... who knew what might turn up? But it was cold. 41°, but windy and when the sun went down, uncomfortable at best. We flipped a bit for salamanders but many of the logs still had snow and ice flush up against them. Off limits.

We got to the Valley of Nerodia and checked dens but saw no noggins. Snakes were very unlikely. We went down to the seep where we had seen the Garter 3 days before. It was wet and sals were possible. The impossible happened, however.
First herp of the year a Garter Snake?? I poked him to see if he was dead.
He got flat and feisty in quick order. I coaxed him toward the entrance to the den, hoping he would go in. I mean, I'm sure he came out when the sun was warm but now it was gone and it was chilly. He was only 2 feet away from the hole, so I moved him along. He eventually slid in like slurping up a string of spaghetti.

Mission accomplished. First herp of 2016. We turned back, got burritos and watched a movie. I took a nap. Great way to end my Winter Vacation. We herped all but two of our 10 days, technically. Only one herp to our name this year but it stands as earliest snake in MA ever.

Oh no... not that again!!