Rough Green Snake

I have a lot of favorite snakes, but rough greens are certainly among them.  They’re pretty common in most of their range, but they can be difficult to spot because they blend into their habitat so well.  They are arboreal snakes that spend much of their time in small trees and shrubs that are often (but not always) adjacent to a body of water.  The dorsal color of this snake is a beautiful emerald green, and the belly is cream-colored.  One of the cool things about these snakes is that, though they are very slender, they can grow to be quite long: the record length is almost 4 feet, with the average length being between 22 and 32 inches.  Spotting a rough green in a shrub, following the length of its body to the tip of the tail and realizing that you have a snake that’s almost three feet long on your hands is quite an experience, and I was lucky enough to find such a specimen on an evening at the end of July.  Rough green snakes are diurnal, or active during the day, and they sleep in shrubs or trees at night, so this particular snake was probably on its way back to its roost.

rough_green

Rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus)

About the name.  Why are they “rough”?  All snakes have one of two different kinds of scales: keeled or smooth.  Rough green snakes have keeled scales, meaning that there is a ridge running lengthwise down the middle of each scale.  Another species, Opheodrys vernalis, or the smooth green snake, has smooth (no ridges) scales.  These two species generally live in different parts of the country.  The rough green snake is found throughout the southeastern United States and ranges as far north as the southern parts of New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and most of Missouri.  It ranges westward to eastern Kansas, eastern and central Oklahoma, and eastern and central Texas.  It can even be found in the very eastern portion of the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas, and it is also found in northeastern Mexico.

The smooth green snake, on the other hand, has a scattered distribution across the northeastern U.S., southeastern and south central Canada, Midwestern U.S., and Rocky Mountain states.  At one time, there was an isolated population of vernalis in southeastern Texas, but this population may now be extinct.

Rough green snakes are good to have around.  They control the insect population.  They’re aesthetically pleasing.  There is really nothing bad that can be said about them.  We can, however, say bad things about pesticides.  Since rough green snakes are predators of insects, they are susceptible

Native snake in non-native Nandina

Native snake in non-native Nandina

to secondary poisoning from eating insects that have been contaminated with harmful chemicals.  Do the rough green snake a favor: avoid using pesticides, plant some shrubs and vines and small native trees such as possumhaw or yaupon hollies in your yard, and let the rough greens take care of the insects.  You’ll thank me for it.

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Breaking the Curse

There’s a particular snake common to the eastern half of Texas that I had never been able to find.  Maybe I hadn’t been looking in the right places often enough; I’d been to a few spots that were supposed to be ideal for finding this species, but I hadn’t had any luck.  So, I had a friend and fellow herper who was determined to help me end this slump.  He knew some roads in a neighboring county that reliably turned out this species, and I was ready to put this embarrassment behind me.  On an evening in late July, we headed out to find our quarry.

We drove along, past several Gulf Coast toads and leopard frogs, and finally, we saw a snake with most of its body stretched out on the right side of the road.  In an instant we knew that it was the snake we were looking for.  It was a broad-banded copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus).  Yes, I had never seen a copperhead in the wild.  Ever.  Copperheads are beautiful snakes, and the subspecies found from eastern Kansas and Oklahoma south into the post oak woodland and hill country of North Central and copperheadCentral Texas – the broad-banded variety – are especially striking with their wide, reddish bands.  This was an adult within the average length range of 22 to 30 inches.  I took a few pictures before it slipped off into the tall grass on the side of the road.

Copperheads are essentially woodland snakes and prefer areas with ample leaf litter, which provides perfect cover for this reddish-brown snake.  They are often found near sources of water and along rocky ledges.  They are primarily a snake of the eastern United States, but interestingly, one subspecies, the Trans-Pecos copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix pictigaster), has adapted to the arid climate of the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas (and along the Rio Grande in neighboring Mexico).  Copperheads meet the western boundary of their range in Texas, and they are absent from the panhandle and most of South Texas, where they do not extend much further south beyond a line from San Antonio to Victoria.  Like rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, to which they are closely related, copperheads are pit vipers and have a heat-sensing pit on each side of the head between the nostril and eye.  This allows them to track down warm-blooded prey, such as rodents and birds, but they do not limit themselves to a diet of endotherms.  They will also consume lizards, snakes, frogs, and insects, with cicadas being a particular favorite.  Of all the venomous snakes in North America, the copperhead has the least potent venom.  Although a bite from this snake is nothing to take lightly, long-term damage from a bite is rare.

copperhead_8_16


A few weeks later, just this past Friday, I was driving down a dirt road at night and saw a snake hurrying to get off the road as my vehicle approached.  I stopped the car; it was another copperhead!  This time, it was a little one, not much greater than a foot in length.  Fortunately, it stopped and hid behind some sparse vegetation on the side of the road, allowing me to get some pictures.  The copperhead curse has been broken.

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Late Spring and Early Summer Finds

Sorry guys.  I know it’s been a while.  It’s not that I haven’t been finding any herps, I just haven’t been posting.  So, today I’m writing about what I’ve found in the Austin area (Travis and surrounding counties) in the past couple months.

I made a trip out to Big Bend National Park in May (I’ll write about this later), and on the day after I arrived back in Austin, while at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, I saw this Texas patch-nosed snake poking its way around the gardens.  It may have been

Texas patch-nosed snake (Salvadora grahamiae lineata)

Texas patch-nosed snake (Salvadora grahamiae lineata)

looking for one of the plentiful whiptails that were scurrying about, or it may have just been looking for a cool place to take shelter from the sun and the visitors.  It looked well-fed and was moving rather slowly for a patch-nosed snake, so I’d guess it was the latter.

Most of my other finds since then have been out on the roads in the evening.  As I was driving one evening in early June, I saw a snake moving quickly across the road.  When I got out of the car, I realized that it was my first ever prairie king snake (Lampropeltis calligaster).  Unfortunately, I was in such a hurry to get to the snake before it got off the road, that I left my camera in the car and didn’t get a picture, but it was an exciting find.  Prairie king snakes are somewhat elusive, being active primarily at night.  They are found throughout much of the southeastern U.S. as well as Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and south into the eastern part of Texas.  In this area, their range ends roughly at the Balcones Escarpment, but they are found in the blackland prairie to the east of Austin.  They prefer open grassland, pastures, and farmland, where they hunt for small mammals, lizards, and other snakes.  The individual that I found was small, probably under two feet long.  It was probably not quite mature; an average length for this species, according to Werler and Dixon, is between 28 and 42 inches.  It had a light background color with reddish brown blotches.  I hope to find another one some time soon so I can get a picture.

Blotched water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster transversa)

Blotched water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster transversa)

I’ve also been driving on a road on another side of town that’s resulted in a few finds.  It runs alongside a creek, so there have been a few blotched water snakes.  And, I’ve always been amazed to hear people talk of finding blind snakes on roads, but I discovered for myself that it is possible.  But the most exciting find here was a Texas coral snake that a friend and I saw out on the crawl in July.  As we approached, it turned itself around in a sudden, jerky motion and began moving

Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener)

Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener)

back to the side of the road, with occasional sudden spasms that may have been meant more to alarm us than to move itself forward.  It rested for a while above the fallen leaves on the side of the road, and then slowly disappeared beneath them.

Although I don’t have pictures, I’ve also had several Texas rat snake encounters this year.  Unfortunately, the first few that I saw this year were victims of road traffic.  But one night near Bastrop, some fellow herpers and I found two live young individuals while driving on a dirt road.  A couple days later, I found a large adult at the greenbelt, just as night was setting in.  It’s always good to see these guys, even though they’re common.

I do have a few other finds to share, but I’m saving them for another time.  I will post again soon, I promise!

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Of Texas Spiny Lizards and Eastern Yellow-Bellied Racers

Last Monday, April 22nd, was an excellent day for getting out and looking for reptiles.  The sun was out and the high was in the low eighties.  I decided to take a long walk at a local greenbelt at about 10 am.  The first thing I saw were a few short-lined skinks, a subspecies

Short-lined Skink (Plestiodon tetragrammus brevilineatus)

Short-lined Skink (Plestiodon tetragrammus brevilineatus)

of the four-lined skink.  These lizards are larger than the very common little brown skinks which can frequently be seen scurrying through leaf litter along trails, but these two species share in common a light brown color and glossy appearance.  The photograph is of a specimen that I had actually found the day before at a different location.  The other lizard that I saw in multiples was the Texas spiny lizard.  These lizards are abundant in the Austin area and can be found in parks,

Texas spiny lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus)

Texas spiny lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus)

greenbelts, and suburban neighborhoods.  The photograph here is of a particularly colorful male that I’d seen a couple days before.

I continued my walk, stopping to watch an unidentified rodent scurry through the vegetation and to look up into the sky after hearing the call of either a red-tailed or red-shouldered hawk as it soared over the canyon.  My attention finally started to wander from my surroundings after an hour and a half, but I was suddenly startled back into vigilance when I noticed an olive green, scaly tail visible through the vegetation just to the right of the trail.  The next thing I knew, the tail was gone and I heard a violent rustling through the grass.  There was little doubt in my mind that what I had seen was an eastern yellow-bellied racer.  I had only definitively caught a glimpse of this snake once before in my life, and this sighting only led me to lament the fact that it would take some good fortune to ever see anything more than a glimpse of this speedy serpent.

I pondered this as I stopped for lunch to eat some tacos, and then headed back the way I had come towards my car.  I crossed the dry creek bed and walked just a short distance,

Eastern yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris), female

Eastern yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris), female

when I heard a suspicious sound to my right.  I looked over at a brush pile beneath some trees between the trail and the creek bed, and couldn’t believe what I saw.  Just an hour or so after missing my opportunity for a good view of a racer, I was seeing not one, but two large adult racers moving on the brush pile.  They quickly positioned themselves so that they were both looking right at me.  The larger one (probably about four feet in length) was

in the middle of the brush pile and once in position, remained still for several minutes. The other individual took a bit longer to find his spot, but he ended up with most of his body out of view, with just his head visible peaking above the brush.  The racer is a widespread, adaptable American snake.  They are found throughout the United States, with the exception of the very coldest areas of the North and the driest areas of the Southwest, as well as southwestern Canada, eastern Mexico, and

Eastern yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris), female

Eastern yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris), female

parts of Central America.  There are several variations, or subspecies, of racer, with different color patterns, but the type found throughout the Central U.S., including much of Texas, is the eastern yellow-bellied variety.  These snakes are a grayish green (turning to a light brown towards the tail) above with a bright yellow belly.  Racers have smooth scales and large eyes.  They hunt by sight and cruise through grasslands and open areas with their head held high above the vegetation, searching for anything moving and small enough to eat, including small mammals, insects (an unusual prey item for a large snake), lizards, and other snakes (including other racers).  Racers are generalists, both in terms of habitat and prey, which is probably why they are so widespread.

My guess is that I was witnessing a male courting a female.  Racers usually breed in April or May, and there’s little else that would cause these snakes not to instantly vanish from sight upon the approach of a human.  But as it was, they had business to attend to and

Eastern yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris), male, with female above

Eastern yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris), male, with female above

chose to wait out this weird guy with a camera.  The photographs here are of the presumed female.  The male was to her right, and while she seemed primarily focused on me, the male was focused on the female.  At one point, she moved and climbed up a branch and positioned herself again facing in my direction.  The male followed after her and came to rest on a branch below her.  After a minute or two, however, he impatiently circled back to the front of the brush pile, facing her.  I decided to leave them in peace and continued on, amazed that I had finally been able to capture this species on camera.

The last exciting event of the day occurred as I passed by a wooded hillside and heard a disturbance off the trail.  I followed the sound until something orange caught my

Eastern black-necked garter snake (Thamnophis cyrtopsis ocellatus)

Eastern black-necked garter snake (Thamnophis cyrtopsis ocellatus)

eye.  A small eastern black-necked garter snake (my first of the year!) was lying right next to a Texas spiny lizard and both were facing a burrow entrance.  The spiny lizard quickly hopped in, but the garter snake waited a few moments before it flung itself rather violently into the burrow. The spiny lizard immediately jumped back out, but when it saw that I was still there, ran back in.  Roommates.

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Early Spring Finds

Red-striped ribbon snake

Red-striped ribbon snake (Thamnophis proximus rubrilineatus)

The spring of 2013 has thus far been a mix of cool, overcast and rainy days, and warm, clear summer-like days.  I’ve been out and about a few times looking around, and have come across several herps, but for the most part, nothing particularly unusual.  One development I’ve been pleased with is the number of red-striped ribbon snakes I’ve seen while at a few different creeks in the area.  Last year I had commented on how few of these snakes I had seen, particularly in the spring, but this year they’ve been a very common sighting.

Texas earless lizard

Texas earless lizard (Cophosaurus texanus texanus)

About a month ago while visiting a particular spot southwest of Austin, a Texas earless lizard stayed still long enough for me to get a photograph of it.  These are fairly small,  quick lizards that have an interesting habit of displaying the white and black-banded underside of their tail and waving it back and forth before they dart away from danger.  This particularly individual was unusual in that it stood its ground.

I’ve seen several Texas spiny lizards, green anoles, and Texas spotted whiptails – all commonly found lizards throughout the Austin area – and I’ve also found a few flat-headed snakes by flipping rocks.  However, the snake I was most excited to see so far this spring was a plains blind snake.

Plains blind snake

Plains blind snake (Leptotyphlops dulcis dulcis)

Plains blind snake

Plains blind snake (Leptotyphlops dulcis dulcis)

On Monday, I was at a park along Bull Creek with Kenneth, who found this snake underneath a large rock.  A colony of ants also occupied this spot underneath the rock, and the blind snake was no doubt devouring as many of them as it could.  Plains blind snakes are interesting creatures.  They are the most primitive and among the smallest snakes in our area, and they are the only native member of the family Leptotyphlopidea.  It could easily be mistaken for an earthworm if one was to only glance  at it, but upon closer examination, one would notice the scales, two small vestigial eyes, and the tongue it occasionally flicks from its mouth.  Blind snakes spend most of their lives underground but do come to the surface, particularly when the soil is somewhat moist.  They are most frequently seen in the evening after spring and summer rains.  During drier conditions, they burrow deeper into the soil.  If you find a blind snake in your yard, you should consider it a welcome resident because it preys on unwanted pests such as termites.

DOR King snake

DOR King snake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki/splendida)

That evening, after having found little else during the day other than a red-striped ribbon snake and a few very common lizard species, we went out on some roads.  Unfortunately, not a single live snake was to be seen, but we did stop for a dead one.  We got out of the car, approached it, and to my surprise, it was a common king snake.  In Central Texas, common king snakes are considered to be intergrades of two subspecies – speckled and desert – so one could call this an intergraded king snake.  Whatever you’d like to call it, I haven’t heard of many sightings of this snake in our area, so I was pleasantly surprised to find evidence of its presence, but disappointed that I was looking at a beautiful specimen that was no longer living.  I hope to see a live, healthy individual some day, and at least now I know where I have a chance of finding one.

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Eastern Hog-nosed Snake and some other finds

So, it’s beHP01en a long time since I’ve last posted.  Spring isn’t technically here quite yet, but it might as well be spring here in Austin.  Trees are budding, the mountain laurels are in full bloom, and the herps are out and about again.  I’ve spent the last week watching a green anole sunning itself on a tree limb outside my window while I work, and it’s made me anxious to get outdoors.  This afternoon, I went out to a nearby HP02creek to look around, and after I walked just a little over a quarter of a mile and crossed the creek bed to get to a less traveled path, something caught my eye.  It was a small eastern hog-nosed snake lying motionless across the trail.    I slowly reached for my camera and started taking pictures, and it began to exhibit this species’ usual defensive behavior.  It flattened its neck and hissed, but I didn’t threaten it so much for it to launch into its death feigning display.  After initially coiling up on one side of the trail, it crossed back over in the direction from which it had come and attempted to camouflage itself in the leaves and vegetation.  I took a few more pictures and left it to go on its way.027

I didn’t see any other snakes today, but I did see a green anole on the trunk of a small tree, and heard numerous little brown skinks rustling through the leaves as I walked by.  I arrived at a portion of the creek that still had water and saw some red-eared sliders quickly submerge themselves under the water, but one individual whose red patch was barely visible wasn’t bothered and stayed long enough for me to get a picture.  slider

It was nice to get things going again.  The weather is great here, and I’m looking forward to some more herping excursions, and hopefully more posts, in the near future.

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Hitting the Roads

I haven’t done much road cruising for herps, but that started to change when I visited the Trans-Pecos last month.  We had a very successful trip and found several snakes on the roads there, and this inspired me to find good herping roads around Austin.  I contacted Kenneth (texasherping.wordpress.com), someone who has a lot of knowledge about herping on local roads, and we went out on the evening of Wednesday, October 17th.  Once we got away from the urban development and city lights, it wasn’t too long before we found our first snake.  It was a western diamond-backed rattlesnake, lying partially off the road.  This was a quick-tempered snake.  We got out of the car and started to approach it, and it instantly coiled up in a defensive posture and began rattling.  Western diamondbacks are famous for their willingness to stand their ground and defend themselves, but I had seen some of these snakes in Big Bend National Park last month, and none had been as high-strung as this individual.  We got some pictures and left it coiled up, just off the road; it was still rattling when when we closed the car doors.

Western diamond-backed rattlesnake

The western diamond-backed rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) is the only rattlesnake that is likely to be found around Austin.  It is also probably the most abundant and widespread venomous snake in Texas.  It is absent from from the eastern quarter of the state and the northernmost section of the panhandle, but is common everywhere else.  However, this was the first atrox that I had found in the area.  Although it thrives in a variety of habitats, from the blackland prairie in the east to the oak-juniper savannahs of the hill country, it tends to avoid the heavily wooded, riparian areas that I’m accustomed to herping.  So this was an exciting find.  The western diamondback is such a classic Texas snake, and I’m glad I finally have the chance to discuss it here. 

We continued our drive, and a little while later, Kenneth yelled “coral!”.  I had completely missed the Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener) lying in the road, so I turned around, stopped the car, and we got out to find that it had already been hit by a car.  I hadn’t seen a Texas coral snake in over two years, and it was sad to see this one, which was still alive but

Texas Coral Snake

with severe injuries that it was unlikely to recover from.  It was a beautiful, two-foot long specimen.  The Texas coral snake is unique among our local snakes in that it is the only venomous snake that is not a pit viper and belongs instead to the family Elapidae.  It lacks the heat-sensing pits possessed by rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads, and instead of eating warm-blooded prey, coral snakes specialize in hunting other snakes.  Although they have more toxic venom than any other snake in our area, they are shy, retiring serpents that are unlikely to bite unless handled.  They prefer wooded habitats with plenty of leaf litter or other ground cover in which to take shelter, and are found in the more humid southeastern half of the state, including the forests of East Texas, the hill country, along the coast, and throughout South Texas.  They are also found in extreme southeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Arkansas, western Louisiana, and northeastern Mexico.  We moved this one off the road and continued on, hoping to find a healthy one.

Although we didn’t find another coral snake, soon after, Kenneth spotted another snake in the road.  As we approached it, we realized it was a bull snake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), and a tiny one at that.  Bull snakes are typically between 4 and 5 feet long and can grow larger; this snake was probably not much longer than a foot.

Bull Snake

According to Werler and Dixon, bull snakes usually hatch from their eggs in August or September, and are between 11 and 19 inches long.  So this snake was probably just a month or two old.  It was an exciting find, because I have never seen a bull snake before, although I have seen their gopher snake cousins further west.  The bull snake is actually a subspecies of gopher snake, and it has a wide range throughout the prairies and grasslands of southern Canada, the Midwest and Central plains states, and into northern Mexico.  In Texas, it is found from the blackland prairie just east of I35, westward throughout the panhandle and Edwards Plateau, and throughout the prairies and brush country of South Texas.  In the Trans-Pecos, it is replaced by a different subspecies, the Sonoran gopher snake.  Bull snakes are very common in the panhandle and in South Texas, but in Central Texas, where the Texas rat snake is the predominant large non-venomous constrictor, they don’t seem to be as numerous.  I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to find one of these snakes around here.  Like the western diamond-backed rattlesnake and Texas rat snake, bull snakes primarily feed on rodents and other small mammals, but, like rat snakes, will also eat birds and their eggs.  A young individual like this, however, will survive mainly on lizards, frogs, and baby mice.  Bull snakes are known for their intimidating defensive display; they will coil up like a rattlesnake and make a loud hissing noise by pushing air out their windpipe past a flap of cartilage.  Although this snake was small, it was doing its best to defend itself and hissed at us repeatedly.  Kenneth took the snake the with him to take more pictures during the day.  We saw one more small, dead atrox on the road before calling it a night.

This was a great experience because it was the first time I’ve had success on the roads around Austin.  Not only that, but searching with a different method in a different habitat proved to be a great way to find species that I hadn’t been able to find here before.  I went out a couple more times since then, and saw two more atrox, one of which seemed to have been injured by a car, and two other snakes that, unfortunately, were in too much of a hurry to get off the road and vanished before I could get to them.  We’re quickly approaching the time of year where snakes will be less active, but I’m happy to have something to look forward to for next spring.  There are other snakes that I still haven’t found that I know are out there in the prairies, waiting to be discovered next year.

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