Tagged: snakes

Wildlife on vacation – an all inclusive look at Cuba

By Bailey Cooke

Bailey Cooke is a 2nd-year University of Ottawa student in biology and geology. This winter, Bailey is volunteering with the OFNC through the Community Service Learning program.

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Cuban Trogon

Tuesday, February 10, the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club held their first monthly meeting of 2015 at the Central Experimental Farm’s Neatby Building, situated at 960 Carling Avenue. After a short social, the meeting kicked off with a poem read by OFNC’s long-time member and resident poet Murray Citron. The fantasia-themed poem, inspired by the line “if a flute could be a flower, it would be a trillium” set the tone for what turned out to be a delightful evening.

Jakob Mueller presented the main talk of the night. Jakob is a member of the OFNC’s Events Committee and has previously led several club excursions, such as turtle watching at Petrie Island and a winter birding trip to Amherst Island. He will also be leading the club’s Snowshoeing in Stony Swamp excursion on Saturday, February 28 at 10 a.m.

Jakob has visited Cuba three times and has taken a keen interest in the island’s wondrous wildlife. Most people know Cuba for its warm weather, picturesque beaches, and enticing culture. Many can’t help but also notice the breathtaking countryside throughout the island. As Jakob pointed out in his presentation, naturalists see beyond the countryside: they see the many living things inhabiting it. Jakob took us on a voyage that gave us a sneak peak at the diverse wildlife the island has to offer.

Birds, reptiles, butterflies, insects, amphibians, and much more – Jakob showcased a wide variety of fauna and flora through a picture presentation while providing the audience with brief insights on the organisms he captured on film. He told us of the Greater Antillean Grackle whose melodious chirping is intriguingly coupled with rolling its eyes to the back of its head. Jakob also talked about the Black-throated Blue Warbler with whom he played peek-a-boo as he tried to get a picture.

Green Anole

Cuban Green Anole

One of the most curious stories came from Jakob’s last days in Cuba on his most recent trip. Despite having encountered numerous creatures throughout his stay, Jakob explained how he had yet to spot an indigenous lizard he had been longing to find: the Cuban green anole. What was so interesting about the story was what Jakob witnessed after coming across the lizard on his last day. He described an especially fascinating feature of this creature: when tense, the anole folds the skin on its back into a crest.

Some other sightings made by Jakob included:

Birds: Greater Antillean Grackle, Cuban Blackbird, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird,  Northern Mockingbird, Turkey Vulture, Palm Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Cuban Emerald Hummingbird, Common Ground-Dove, Brown Pelican

Butterflies: Mangrove Buckeye, Great Southern White, Zebra Heliconian

Amphibians/reptiles: Brown Anole, Cuban Tree Frog, Curly-tailed Lizard, Cuban Iguana

Jakob made it quite clear that Cuba has a vast variety of wildlife, and any naturalist would revel in the opportunity to come face to face with it. He plans to return to Cuba again in the near future. The only question that remains is what unnoticed wildlife lurks throughout the island awaiting to be discovered?

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Flora and fauna of the Marlborough Forest

By Jakob Mueller

On Saturday July 19, eight OFNC members joined me for a hike in Marlborough Forest. Marlborough Forest is the name ascribed to a large natural area owned by the City of Ottawa, in the southwestern corner of the municipal boundary. The largest forested area in the City of Ottawa boundaries, it contains a diversity of habitats, including various wetlands and alvar openings.

Square-stemmed Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens): Although square stems usually mean mint family, this plant is a figwort (Scrophulariaceae). Its relation to monkeys is distant at best.

Square-stemmed Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens): Although square stems usually mean mint family, this plant is a figwort (Scrophulariaceae). Its relation to monkeys is distant at best.

We started the day hiking south into the entrance that connects to the Cedar Grove Hiking Trail, which overlaps with a portion of the Rideau Trail. It wasn’t long before we began to see the site’s botanical diversity. A late Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) was still booming in the first clearing along the road, while Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) were putting on a show. We quickly found three species of aster, without the aid of the flowers that start to bloom much later in the summer: Arrow-leaved (Aster urophyllus), Heart-leaved (A. cordifolius), and New England (A. novae-angliae). Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) hopped off of the trail here and there. This species’ spot pattern is extremely variable.

We soon found Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), a common plant in moist open areas at Marlborough, Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), and a Square-stemmed Monkeyflower (see photo).

OFNC member and entomologist extraordinaire, Diane Lepage, showed off an Acadian Hairstreak (see photo) and her skills with a butterfly net, and a White Admiral flew by.

Acadian Hairstreak (Satyrium acadica)

Acadian Hairstreak (Satyrium acadica)

Our first destination was an alvar clearing that has been the site of some dumping in the past. Although that may sound unappealing, one result is an abundance of discarded pieces of flat plywood – the herpetological equivalent of bird houses. After flipping boards for only a short time, we found a Northern Red-bellied Snake and an Eastern Gartersnake. The garter chose intimidation as its defensive strategy, by flattening out, puffing up, and striking haphazardly at the air, and at any shoe it saw moving. The bite of this species is harmless. The Redbelly was more mild-mannered, electing to demonstrate its characteristic “grin”. The snake curls its upper lip and bears its teeth, about as mean as this snake’s defense gets. It then rubs its head against the “predator” – in this case my fingers – and tries to create a scrape with the rough edges of its teeth. The resulting prickle feels a little like a single spoke of Velcro.

The ex-dump clearing also produced some unusual plants of alvars and dry grasslands, notably False Pennyroyal (Trichostema brachiatum), Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), and Upland White Aster (Solidago ptarmicoides). A Broad-Winged Hawk was heard calling, and then soared into view.

We then proceeded to a large pond with an adjacent clearing that is cut periodically. We heard both Green Frogs and Bullfrogs calling from the pond, where a single Midland Painted Turtle was out basking. Butterflies and dragonflies abounded in the clearing. Common dragonflies included Twelve-spot Skimmers, Common Whitetails, and Widow Skimmers. The Common Whitetails were especially concentrated below a small dam, where we could also see Green Frogs, Bullfrog tadpoles, schools of minnows, and a large leech.

Crescent butterflies were particularly common in the clearing, and Diane Lepage again put her net to good use, managing to capture both a Northern Crescent and a Pearl Crescent for viewing in the same jar. These two species are notorious for being difficult to separate, and this allowed students of Lepidoptera to familiarize themselves with some of the key differences.

After returning to our vehicles for lunch, we explored a different section of the forest along a fire road. We found several more butterflies, including Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas, and Green Commas with their characteristic the greenish markings and the comma-shaped blotch. We also found Rhamnus alternifolia, Alder-leaved Buckthorn, a.k.a. “the native buckthorn.” It confused us initially as it was growing beside an invasive Glossy Buckthorn.

All-in-all, it was a fairly productive outing. We did not cover a lot of ground in terms of distance, but by taking our time we were able to see a lot of biodiversity.

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All photos taken by Jakob Mueller

 

Home sweet snake home: William (Bill) Halliday’s research on snake habitat selection

By William (Bill) Halliday, member of the OFNC

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Bill Halliday

As many of you might have seen recently on the OFNC Facebook page, web site, and Trail & Landscape, I was (and still am) looking for snake hibernating sites (called hibernacula) around the National Capital Region. I received great feedback from this call-out. I learned of six potential communal hibernating sites (places where multiple snakes hibernate), as well as one location where a snake was hibernating under someone’s pool. This was far more feedback than I had expected, and I am grateful to all of the OFNC members who provided information.

Now you may be wondering why I am interested in finding snake hibernating sites.  As part of my PhD research at the University of Ottawa, I am studying habitat selection behaviour of snakes.

One aspect of habitat selection is finding a good hibernating site. Snakes have to take many factors into account when choosing a hibernating site, but the most important factor is access to an area that is below the frost line during winter. Snakes attempt to keep their body temperature at 4°C, and hibernating above the frost line causes them to freeze and die. Other factors that can make or break a good snake home include exposure, tree cover, and moisture content of the soil. Typically, snakes like moist (but not flooded) sites with few trees and a southern exposure, because they require humidity while hibernating and basking opportunities before and after hibernating.

Rat snake saying hello. Photo: Bill Halliday

Rat snake saying hello. Photo: Bill Halliday

I have been focusing on eastern garter snakes because they are abundant, but I am collecting data on any and all snake species that I find. This summer as part of my research, I collected habitat selection data on eastern garter snakes, eastern ribbon snakes, northern redbelly snakes, midland brown snakes, eastern milk snakes, northern water snakes, and black rat snakes. Most of these were located near the Queen’s University Biological Station, but many redbelly snakes, a few garter snakes, one milk snake, and one water snake were around the National Capital Region.

Following hours of observation, I found that in the summer most snakes prefer open, sunny habitats that allow them to maintain a high body temperature. Interestingly, I found many garter snakes under tree cover on the shaded north side of a hibernating site this fall, opposite to what we expect to see based on previous studies.All of the snakes I encounter exhibit interesting behaviour, including basking and defensive coiling. Some even shake their tails in the leaves to mimic rattlesnakes, even though they are non-venomous. These practices make them fascinating animals to study. Many of these species are also of important conservation concern, which makes it crucial to understand their behaviour and habitat preferences.

My work with snakes continues around the National Capital Region for the next 2-3 summers. Stay tuned for more highlights on my snake habitat selection research.