Sunday, November 16, 2014

Vote for the 2014 Walnut Label

Juvenile western yellow-bellied racer pulled from the main springbox on October 22. Will this be the last snake observed on the Dipper Ranch in 2014?  Contestant #1   
Bits of rain but the hillsides are still dry and warm. It doesn't feel like fall except for the early dark evenings. Still, some seasonal patterns carry on despite the ongoing drought. The red-breasted sapsuckers squeak as they peck away in the persimmon tree during the day, and the leaves rustle when the gray foxes leap into the tree to eat persimmons at night. The English walnuts are falling behind the barn. There hasn't been enough rain to knock off their outer green husks, nevertheless, I find brown walnut shells a quarter mile down the road with just one ragged hole in them - ravens. If we don't get more rain soon, us humans will get black fingertips when we peel off the green husks to get to the tasty walnut meat.

Harvest season - eyeshine from a gray fox in the persimmon tree.  
That means it's time for the annual readers poll to determine this year's walnut label. Our tradition is that the label will feature a photograph of a snake seen on the Dipper Ranch that year. Readers of the Dipper Ranch blog and guests at the walnut harvest party get to vote on which snake that is.

Don't argue with me about why there should or should not be a snake on the walnut label. We've been through that and the tradition holds. If a year comes in which I don't see any snakes on the Dipper Ranch, then maybe we will switch to flowers or birds on the label. A snakeless Dipper Ranch? That is never going to happen so I will continue to share cool photos and interesting facts about snakes until you are as amazed by them as I am.

On April 21, I captured a rattlesnake near the kitchen door. Contestant #2 has one rattle segment in addition to the button which indicates it has shed twice and is probably in its first year.  Rattlesnakes shed one to four times per year depending on age and how much of the year they are active (Klauber 1982).   

 And at 5 pm that same evening, I captured this larger rattlesnake in the corner of the barn.  Contestant #3 has four rattle segments and is complaining here about the remote place where we relocated it.    
The T-shaped terminal end of the rattle is called the button and is not included in the segment count.   
My snake bucket is an ordinary five-gallon bucket with a special locking lid which has a plexiglass window through which you can view the inside. When I capture a snake (rattlers around the farm buildings are usually the only ones I bother capturing), it waits inside the bucket in a cool, shady location until I have time to move it. Once at the relocation spot, I loosen the lid, step back, tip over the bucket and allow the snake to crawl out into its new home.

This year, we had a young child visit the Dipper Ranch the day after I captured two rattlesnakes. Her mom, a wildlife biologist, helped me talk to the little girl about being careful where she put her feet and hands while playing in the freshly mowed yard. We showed her the rattlesnakes through the window on the locked snake bucket and explained why people need to be careful around them. I repeatedly shook the bucket so she could hear their warning sound, but they refused to rattle. Later that day when we released the two snakes, they gave a magnificent show of rattling and that young lady got a safe first experience seeing and hearing rattlesnakes.

Thirteen-segments on this rattle departing the snake bucket. Locking lid is removed in this photo.   

Two other visitors were surprised by a rattlesnake at the Dipper Ranch. A USGS herpetologist was using the Dipper barn to refrigerate samples from a research project on a nearby preserve. I got a call from him at work one day saying "You have a huge rattlesnake in your barn." As soon as I got home that evening, I searched the barn for the biggie with no luck, so we moved the research refrigerator outside the barn for the rest of the summer. A few days later, a co-worker was inspecting the Dipper house and she likewise called me at work to say there was a big rattlesnake at the foot of the back porch. I suggested she use a different door to get into the house. Everyone was seeing the big one while I was toiling away in an office. Mornings, evenings and weekends, I increased my patrols around the yard and in a few days found a 3-foot long rattlesnake tucked into a sun-heated corner of the barn. That is not a very big snake for some locations, but that's a decent size here on the coast. Not wanting to surprise anymore guests, we relocated that snake far away from the Dipper barn.

In terms of snake sightings on the Dipper Ranch, 2014 has been a low year - only nine snakes as compared to a range of 13 to 32 snakes in previous years since 2008. Is it because we are in the third year of a drought, or is it because a big project kept me from wandering outside as much? The breakdown for the year was 5 rattlesnakes, 2 gopher snakes, 1 coast gartersnake and the western yellow-bellied racer.

Did anyone else in dry California notice a difference in snake sightings? There is a discussion about this on Field Herp Forum: drought reduces amount of vegetation, and therefore insects and small mammals, so snakes may stay inactive underground to conserve energy; and as with many plants and animals, snakes may not reproduce during droughty conditions. These patterns were observed in Texas ratsnakes during a two-year drought. Within one year after the drought ended, the body condition (length-mass ratio) and survival of radio-tracked ratsnakes recovered (Sperry and Weatherhead, 2008).

Western yellow-bellied racers are one of the few species of snakes where the juvenile snake has a different color and pattern than the adult snake. In the photo at the beginning of this post, you can see brown blotches on the forward part of the juvenile racer's back, but the rear end is transitioning to the adult's solid olive-brown color. This juvenile also has the characteristic butter yellow belly of the adult, although Random Truth reports that very young racers do not. This snake is still probably in its first  or second year indicating that some reproduction is still occurring during drought years. Contestant #4.   
This year I also had some interesting snake sightings at other local preserves. I'm sharing those here, however, these snakes are not candidates for the 2014 Dipper Ranch walnut label.

Several times in 2014, I got to help the USGS herpetologists survey Mindego Ranch for snakes. One afternoon on the way to first check Mindego Creek, we passed by a drift fence array and noticed a very large gopher snake was waiting inside of one of the funnel traps. We didn't disturb it because we needed to wait until the herpetologist arrived to collect data before the snake was released.

Damp sponges keep the snakes moist and provide a hiding spot for the smaller snakes until the funnel trap is checked by the researcher in a few hours, the snake is recorded and released.   
When we came back 2 hours later with the herpetologist, there were fresh muddy bobcat tracks on top of the trap, but the gopher snake was still safely inside.

Bobcat tracks showed up on the top lid of this funnel trap in about a two-hour period of late afternoon. Good thing that cat couldn't figure out how to lift the hinged door.   
After measuring it, we made sure to release the gopher snake into dense brush in case the curious cat was still around.

A whopper gopher snake lives another day.   
This summer, I was training for a 40-mile walk. In April, I was just hitting the 6-mile point for post-work hikes when I noticed a rock glowing near Mt. Melville on Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve. Curled up in the last sunbeam for the day was a rattlesnake either too small or too cold to bother the western fence lizard that was likewise sharing the warm spot, and both were surrounded by shiny branches of poison oak.

Poison oak, western fence lizard and rattlesnake enjoying a last beam of sunlight on a cool April day.     
One of my favorite places to train this summer was Long Ridge Open Space Preserve. It was a great place to get in an extra few miles and watch the sunset, but best of all, the dusty single-track section of Long Ridge Road often had tracks, including snake swipes.  Of the dozens of times I hiked Long Ridge this summer, I never saw an actual snake but I often found one or more snake trails freshly covering the many bike trails and boot prints.

My kind of trail - small, dusty and smudged by snake visitors.   
UPDATE: Here's how you vote for the 2014 Dipper Ranch walnut label: vote at the poll below.

The snake with the most votes goes on the label. I will randomly pick one of the commenters to send a bag of 2014 Dipper walnuts and will probably throw in some dried Dipper persimmons too. Let the harvest season and voting begin.  Update to the Update:  this new poll thingie is fun but if you don't leave a comment either here on the post or at the poll, then I can't enter you into the random selection for the bag of walnuts.

Western yellow-bellied racer, Coluber constrictor mormon
Northern Pacific rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus oreganus
Pacific gopher snake, Pituophis catenifer
Coast gartersnake, Thamnophis elegans terrestris
Red-breasted sapsucker, Sphyrapicus ruber
Common gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus

Klauber, Laurence M, 1982, Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind, Abridged Edition, University of California Press.

Sperry, Jinelle H. and Patrick J. Weatherhead, 2008, Prey-mediated Effects of Drought on Condition and Survival of a Terrestrial Snake, Ecology 89(10), pp. 2770-2776.


  1. Hi Cindy. Having never previously voted for a rattlesnake, I must admit to warming to contestant #2. That sine wave speaks to me on some level.

    And thanks for a new phrase, 'snake swipe'!

    The continued drought in your neck of the woods featured in a BBC news article over here today:

    As the rain pelts unceasingly on the window next to me, I ponder the possibility of sending some of this life-sustaining moisture to all the inhabitants of Dipper Ranch.

    Enjoy your walnut harvest!

    1. I&T: thanks for that link. We were looking at a property the other day and asked ourselves, "Will there even be water here in 20 years?" Suddenly, those kind of things are up there with "Will the nuclear power plant explode?" Some recent reviews of longterm droughts in this area have been sobering. Naiad suggested I make the vote a poll, so I revised the post to include a poll. Try it out. Otherwise, I will get your vote in there.

  2. I vote for Contestant #1 1/2, the fox in the persimmon tree!

    1. Sigh, Scott, do you ever follow the rules?

  3. #4. I love your bit about not counting the T-shaped button. 40-mile walk? Good golly! I hope those are flat miles?

    1. I joined my 4 sisters and a niece on an Avon walk for breast cancer in Charlotte, NC in October. There were rolling hills and the parks and neighborhoods along the walk were beautiful. I really love to walk outside and the 350+ miles of training was another excuse to get outside especially to different places this summer. We romped around in the Appalachian Mountains for a few days afterwards and I had fun looking for east coast salamanders. Walking outside is such a good thing to do, yah?


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