Saturday, April 7, 2012

Slightly Rattled – The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Not everyone has the good fortune of seeing an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) in the wild and most are probably content to keep it that way. There’s also a vast difference between spotting one from a vehicle and having one slither across a path in front of you.

The Big Cypress National Preserve in the Western Everglades is home to four species of venomous snakes including the Eastern Diamondback (EDB). On a recent trip down an old logging road, I spotted a four and a half footer winding its way across the road. As I  approached it in the ecotour van, it coiled, rattled and decided to move on. As it slithered past, it raised its neck and head in an S-shape and retreated into the sawgrass prairie where it was lost to my eyes in a matter of seconds.

A few days later I was walking with friends in the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed in Collier County, FL. The area is primarily pine flatwoods with Slash Pines (Pinus elliottii), Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) and Cabbage Palms (Sabal palmetto) – perfect EDB habitat. Sliding silently through the underbrush and onto the path several feet in front of us was a massive rattler that without my tape measure I would estimate was nearly six feet long.

It continued on into a Saw Palmetto thicket, coiled up and watched us as we watched it. Rattlers can strike two thirds of their body length which would be about four feet. This means eight feet was as close as I needed to get. The buzz of its rattle validated that thought. EDBs don’t always rattle. Sometimes they remain silent to protect their location and in some cases the rattle may have fallen off.

EDBs are born with a segment at the end of their tail that will develop into a rattle. As snakes grow and scales need to be replaced, the old skin will shed, sometimes several times a year. During each shed, a new segment or “button” becomes loosely attached to the previous segment. The rattle is made of keratin, a fingernail-like substance that is equally fragile and susceptible to breaking over time. The number of segments does not indicate the age of the snake – the birthday does.

The smaller EDB in the top photo has six buttons including the original pear-shaped segment. The biggie in the bottom photos has ten buttons but the final segment is not the original. Either way the alarm system works.

Despite the close encounter on the trail, I was thrilled to have crossed paths with the EDB, even if slightly rattled. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Thunder Pumpers - The American Bittern

Stick your head in an aquarium and say “glunk-ga-glunk” repeatedly. This was the best description I could offer to a friend who was trying to help me identify the other worldly noise I was hearing coming from just outside my home in Londonderry, VT back in 2002. I had never heard such a sound and if pressed to jump to conclusions I was leaning between a pump going bad or an ET. With flashlight in hand, I circled the house and checked for mechanical malfunctions. I found nothing, but in the distance I could hear the “glunk-ga-glunk” again, far from the house, through a stand of Eastern Hemlock and down towards the edge of Lowell Lake. You’ve seen this movie right? I had to know what it was. In the remaining illumination of twilight, I crept closer to the noise and as I approached the marsh I noticed something standing in the water and waving back in forth like a drunkard on a sailing ship. I flashed the light on it and it flew. Based on the heron-like shape, I believed it was an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). Upon returning to the station I looked up their call and sure enough, my spooky mystery noise had been solved.

The name bittern comes from the Latin butire meaning “to cry”. The genus name Botaurus is Latin for “cry of the bull” and they are also known as Thunder Pumpers for their habit of swaying back and forth as they generate the incredible booming sound. The call can be heard for miles but in my case a quarter mile was enough to raise my curiosity.

I didn’t see another bittern until returning to the swamps of South Florida. Even here, the solitary marsh hunter is rarely spotted. As relatives of the herons, they have a similar body shape and a stout, sharp beak that is used for spearing frogs, fish and aquatic invertebrates. When approached they have a unique behavior of “hiding” by extending their neck and beak straight up and playing the part of tall thin aquatic plants. The brown and white streaked upper body parts also help camouflage the bittern. If that isn’t enough they’ll silently sway in the breeze with the vegetation - quite a contrast for a bird that generates such a racket. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Obituary for “The Senator”

3500 years before present to January 16th, 2012

The beloved Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens), affectionately nicknamed “the Senator”, was born 3500 years ago in what is present day Longwood, Florida. The 125 foot tall, seventeen and a half foot diameter trunked, deciduous hardwood was considered the 5th oldest tree in the world, the oldest Pond Cypress in the world and the oldest tree in the eastern United States.

The Senator, like other members of its species was well known for its thin, waxy, needles and a preference for growing in poorly drained natural depressions. Cousin of the Pond Cypress, the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) is known for waxy, feathery needles and can be found in well nourished floodplains. Both have round cones, buttressed roots, thick, fire resistant bark and supportive “knees”.

The Senator is survived by seven clones that have been transplanted around the state as well as Lady Liberty, the Senator’s 2000 year old companion tree in Big Tree Park.

Photo by Jared Lennon

Breaking News: Death of an Iconic Conifer

Investigators have arrested a woman who admits to lighting a fire that accidentally torched a 3500 year old Pond Cypress in Longwood, FL. Arson was initially ruled out in the death of “the Senator”, due to the intensity of the blaze in the upper portion of the tree, leading investigators to blame a lightning strike for the fire. Despite evidence that a fire might have been set in the base of the hollowed out trunk of the ancient tree, it wasn’t until witnesses came forward with information regarding the crime that the full story unfolded. The woman in question, 24 year old Sara Barnes, admitted to lighting a fire to see the drugs she was about to take. The apparent out-of-control fire blazed up through the nearly hollowed out trunk and into the canopy. The suspect took photos but did not call 911, instead she bragged about it days later. Fire crews had to pull hoses over one mile to reach the Senator by which time it was too late. The massive tree collapsed to the ground.


Pond Cypress and Bald Cypress can be found through out the southeastern United States and although much of the old growth has been cut there are still places where centuries old cypress can be found (like the one above, photographed in Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, FL). Still, cypress-filled wetlands are destroyed by the acre each day due to development. We’ll never have another Senator “unless”….

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Ant Buffet

For a moment the corpse moves and thinking it’s still alive, I shift backward from my seat on the ground. The insect that is being consumed by an army of ants has long since expired, but the communal efforts of the tiny insects to break the hopper into pieces have caused it to list. I, with my macabre fascination with the grisly side of nature have spun the scene into an imaginary Zombietown of arthropods. In fact it’s a simple scavenge site and underneath the roiling cloak of ants is a spiny-legged, flightless Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera). Chances are the lack of useful wings led to death by wheel – and its present state.

How the mouse met its end is a mystery, as is the curious rubble pile surrounding it. Based on the reddish pelage on top and the white below I would say this is a Cotton Deermouse (Peromyscus gossypinus) that once lived in the swamps of the Picayune State Forest east of Naples, FL.

Considering the masses of formic foes piled upon the remains of the snake, you’d think it would be hard to identify the creature beneath. The telltale marking is a yellow band around the neck which makes it easy to identify as a Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus). I often find this secretive snake under logs or debris on the ground. When threatened they will expose their brightly colored dorsal side to warn would be predators away.

From a distance, the ant traffic was so heavy that it could have been mistaken for a slender snake. The sinuous band of ants ended at a well-picked apart Pig Frog (Lithobates (Rana) grylio). Similar in size and shape to the American Bullfrog (Lithobates (Rana) catesbeiana), only the Pig Frog is found in South Florida as this one was. Both species are sought after for their edible legs. This one kept them but little good that did.
Death is unkind. I certainly have sympathy for all of the creatures that meet with an untimely end, especially those that are victims of human carelessness. In the end, their deaths are not in vain. A colony of ants will feast.