Monday, December 29, 2008

Rattlers Where You Live

CAUTION: rattlesnakes are venomous and their bites can be dangerous to people. There is much lore and misinformation about rattlesnakes and their bites; please review this link Living with Rattlesnakes for more information about safety around rattlesnakes. The bottom line: don't pick up any snake that might be a rattlesnake, and when you are outdoors in rattlesnake country (most of California), be careful where you place your hands and feet.

<--- note="" span="" the="" two=""> holes on each side of the rattle- snake's head: the inner nostril and the outer heat- sensing pit.
Behind and in the garage and barn, under the picnic table, at the foot of my kitchen steps, next to a creek, on a cow carcass and sunning with art. These are all places I have seen rattlesnakes on the Dipper Ranch.

Sometimes I worry that there is a den of rattlesnakes under the barn. And yet all 11 (eleven!) times I have seen a rattlesnake in the past 14 months, only one has been an adult size, and only two have gotten into strike pose and rattled and only after a commotion as several people panicked. No person, pet or livestock have been bitten. One large rattler was killed and I support that decision under the circumstances.

Rattlesnakes are the only snake native to California that have venom potentially harmful to humans. The small-sized California nightsnake is mildly venomous with just enough venom to subdue a frog or lizard but not enough to hurt a human. The only species of rattlesnake in northern California is the northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus). Southern California has 8 rattlesnake species and the southwestern deserts of the US have 15 rattlesnake species.

The basic appearance of rattlesnakes is a heavy body with brown blotches. The head is triangular shaped due to venom pits in its 'cheeks', the neck is comparatively narrow below the jaw and the tail is blunt with rattles. In my observations, a single row of white scales surrounds each brown blotch on our local northern Pacific rattlesnakes.

The end of the tail of rattlesnakes is blunt with a series of yellowish, hard segments which are the rattles. Young rattlesnakes may have only one small segment which might not be obvious, but the tip of the tail will still be distinctly blunt, yellow and out of a different material than the rest of the snake's body. I often do not see the tail end of a rattlesnake, especially when they are resting in a coiled position, so do not assume a snake is not a rattler just because the rattles are not obvious. You need to have a good view of the tail end to make this call.

RATTLESNAKE LOOK-A-LIKES: Other snakes with brown blotches in central coastal California that might be confused with rattlesnakes are gopher snakes, nightsnakes and juvenile racer snakes. None of these have rattles on the tail. Instead, they have sharply pointed tails. You may not always be able to see the tail on a snake, so move cautiously away from brown-blotched snakes if you can't see the tail. On the other hand, these other snakes should not immediately be killed just because they look like rattlers.
Here are a few photos for comparison, but check the better photos at the California Herps website to become familiar with the distinct differences between these snakes.

Gopher snakes are large. They have a pointed end to their tail, but if they nervously twitch their tail in a pile of dry leaves, it may sound like rattling. When gopher snakes are threatened, they sometimes flatten their head on the ground and the outline takes on a general diamond shape, however, the neck does not greatly narrow below the jaw as with rattlesnakes.

California nightsnakes are small, have bright, coppery-gold eyes with a vertical slit, and a larger pair of brown blotches on the side of their head that merge together on their upper neck. The rest of the body has separate brown blotches. Pointed tail.

Juvenile yellow-bellied racer snakes have blotchy coloration unlike the adult racers, but they are slender with large, round, dark eyes.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Curiosity of Racers

In early June, I woke up to another foggy morning. "When is summer coming and how will I grow tomatoes? What's the use of another cold day?", I wondered. Then I realized a cold morning is the perfect time to move snakes, especially yellow-bellied racer snakes (Coluber constrictor mormon) which can be very fast as their name indicates. For several days, I had been trying to catch two racers in my springbox, but they would zip under the concrete ledge before I could snag them.

So I got up that cold foggy morning in my pajamas, put on a pair of boots, grabbed my pack and my brand new Midwest Gentle Giant snake tongs and headed to the springbox. Upon prying open and propping the springbox lid, sure enough, there was a pile of olive-green snakes curled up in the corner. As soon as the tongs descended into the vault, the largest snake charged under the outlet pipe. I gently clamped the tongs on a scaly coil sticking out from underneath the pipe and pulled upwards. There was resistance as if the snake was somehow gripping the underside of the pipe but he came loose with steady pressure and I plopped him into the waiting pillowcase. The other two snakes were still sleepy and cold and I was able to scoop up both at the same time with the tongs.

I walked that full pillowcase about 1/4 of a mile to a grassy pasture, perfect racer habitat. As I pulled them out of the pillowcase, they started to wake up and one even struck at my gloved hand. They had dark olive backs contrasting with creamy yellow bellies and big round eyes. I pinched the three snakes between the fingers of my left hand and retrieved my camera from my pack with my right hand. As I was focusing the camera, all three turned to face their capturer with looks of wide-eyed curiosity. Yes, I was an odd sight taking photos of a handful of snakes at 6 AM in my pajamas.

After getting an eyeful of each other, I released the racers in the grassland, expecting them to race off. Instead, they curled up in a pile and hid their heads beneath each other. Since I had heard a red-tailed hawk calling from a nearby hillside, I covered the racers with the nearest cow patty. Later that day, I rechecked the cow patty and the curious racers were gone.

Racers are described as having brown, green or grey backs and yellow or off-white bellies. The Dipper racers are an attractive deep olive color with a hint of blue. Racers often hold their heads erect, even hunting that way. The juvenile racers look quite different than the adults and this can lead to misidentification because almost all other reptile species have adults and immature forms that look very similar except for size. Juvenile racers have brown blotches on their backs, however, they still have the big round eyes, hold their heads erect and are as fast as their mommas.
--- A big-eyed juvenile racer---

Racers are harmless to humans, so don't mix them up with the brown-blotched rattlesnakes. Instead, give these fast snakes a moment to contemplate your human face before they streak back to their snake world.

See also:
Gayle Pickwell, (late professor of Zoology, San Jose State College), Amphibians & Reptiles of the Pacific States, Dover Publications, 1972.

Alan St. John, Reptiles of the Northwest, Lone Pine Publishing, 2002.

California Herps

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Yearful of Snakes

I have encountered 40 snakes since moving to the Dipper Ranch. That's actually over a 15-month period rather than a year, but snakes don't have fingers, so they aren't counting. Of the 13 species of snakes known to occur in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I have observed nine species on the Dipper Ranch so far: northern rubber boa, western yellow-bellied racer, sharp-tailed snake, Pacific ringed-neck snake, California nightsnake, California kingsnake, Pacific gopher snake, northern Pacific rattlesnake, and coast gartersnake.

<--- Two yellow-bellied racers who think they are camouflaged in yellow dried-out thistles

Snakes were primarily seen May through October, with most sightings in May and June. The most frequently encountered snakes were rattlesnakes (11) and racers (8). Some of the snakes may have been observed more than once. I moved seven of the rattlers that occurred near the house and barn and marked three of those. I only gave one snake a name, and I hope I see her lovely self again next spring. The rattlers, not so much. My methods for capturing and moving snakes, which I will describe in a subsequent posting, seem to be working but . . . do not try this at home.

I frequently found snakes in my springboxes, underground vaults that collect water from pipes pounded into the ground at springs in the surrounding hillsides. The main two springboxes have heavy corrugated metal lids and vertical concrete sides that drop approximately 5 feet. We are not sure how the snakes get in the springboxes; the cracks around the lids seem too small and are several feet off the ground. The springboxes drain fast enough that their gravel-covered bottoms are rarely flooded. Although the dark and damp conditions might be just fine with most snakes, food is limited in there and they will eventually die unless they get out. So I regularly check the springboxes to remove any small critters because I care about the animals on the ranch, even the snakes. Besides, I shower in this stuff and I don't want to smell like snakes.

The main springbox with lid propped open --->

Checking the springbox is part of country living. When I originally moved onto the property, a co-worker told me that jumping down into the 5-foot deep vault to rescue snakes was part of my job. I refused. Not only am I claustrophobic (thus the career choice as an ecologist), but snakes give me the creeps (thus the career focus on plants). Jumping into a pit to rescue snakes really gives me the creeps because even with arms and legs, I don't think I could pull myself out of that deep vault, much less do it with a snake or two in trembling hand.

In the next few postings, I will share some stories and photos about these snakes. ssssseee ya'

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Worker Peasants Dancing in the Snow

My housemate was up late Tuesday night doing his usual middle-of-the-night computer thing with headphones on, all the blinds closed and completely oblivious to the real world when he heard a loud thump on his closed bedroom door. Before he could panic about rifle-bearing neighbors or ghosts associated with the hang noose we found in the attic, a mouse scrambled into his bedroom under the door. He tried to catch it by the tail as it stumbled about the clothes-strewn floor. The mouse seemed stunned as would any small critter confronted by such an enormous pile of dirty laundry.

When the tail strategy didn't work, he covered his hand with a dirty sock and snagged the mouse with a full body swipe. Cat King Cole was territorially waiting in the hallway and followed the sock-wrapped pair to the kitchen door. My housemate threw the mouse out the door and noticed a big puff of white go up as it landed in the driveway. That's when he realized it was snowing. We don't usually have snow, we occasionally have deer mice visit the house at night, and my new shelter cat just happens to be a fantastic mouser. It took this unique combination of random events to wrench a young person away from his computer to enjoy snow falling in the countryside in the moonlight. I, gainfully employed nature girl, slept through the whole thing.

A few workday hours later, I got up at 5 AM, discovered the snowy circumstances and did a little snow dance in the yard. That's when I noticed a cluster of canine tracks at one spot on the driveway. Using my nature-girl powers of deduction, I determined that the colony of gophers who live in the bank above the driveway had a sledding party which ended when a reckless gopher flew high into the moonlit night, landed with a white puff in the driveway snow and was pounced upon by a waiting predator.

Later that day, my housemate told me his sock-mouse story. I had the night predator angle correct, but it took an unbiased computer kid to fill in, indeed, create the true real-life details. That was a lucky coyote. It's not just anywhere you can snack on a cat-tenderized dirty-sock flavored deer mouse.

Here is a photo of mice I live-captured in my kitchen December 2007. Last winter when I did not have a cat, I struggled with mice coming into the house whenever it got cold. At first I thought I had two different species of mice because their size and color were different. One morning I found two mice in separate live traps in the kitchen and I put them in this clear container for scientific observation before marking their tails and releasing them on the back 50. When I saw the big mouse grooming the little mouse, my mom-instinct kicked in and I finally figured it out. They were not two species, just adult mice successfully breeding immature mice in my house. Adult deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) have brown fur on top and a bright white belly. Juveniles deer mice are smaller with grey-blue fur.

The snow lasted this week until Friday morning. Thanks to my neighbor Ruth for the above shot of Dipper Ranch in the snow from her kitchen across Peters Creek canyon. Other neighbors are promising more photos which I will try to post later (go here for fantastic snow and sky photo by neighbor Georgia). We see snow so infrequently, those who are home in the winter daylight hours are obliged to take photos of the surrounding hillsides. The worker peasants of us are reduced to snow dancing in the wee dark hours of the morning when we are prone to wild speculations about night-time animal merriment.
Here are some photos from January 2007, the only time it snowed last year, when I called into work "It's snowing, I'm not sure I can get out my driveway, bye." My Minnesota relatives are snickering. This little white lie gave me a chance to take photos and follow animal tracks in the snow.

Here's the Newt Pond surrounded by snow last year. There were coast range newts mating in it then and their eggs successfully hatched a few weeks later. Newt mating and snow was not a combination I formerly imagined. Yesterday, when I checked the Newt Pond, this week's snow had melted but there were 2 groggy newts resting in its shallow depths. They were doing something funny with their eyes. I will report on their reproductive progress over the next few months.