Most of my wildlife photos came from one job. That job, in spite of allowing me a lot of time and access to wander around taking pictures, did have a goal: to find and document flatwoods salamanders on two state forests.
It had recently been discovered that the flatwoods salamander is actually two species, so recently that the current Petersen Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians still lists them as one species: Ambystoma cingulatum. A few years before I started the job, the populations west of the Apalachicola River were declared a separate species, the reticulated flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma bishopi). They were already rare as one species; this little offshoot was extremely rare. There were only about 36 known ponds where they had been found, and at many of those, none had been seen in years.
In the comments for last week’s cricket frog post, I mentioned that the cricket frog was not the smallest frog in Florida. Then, I completely neglected to say what the smallest frog was. So, here it is: the little grass frog. It’s related to the spring peeper, in the Pseudacris genus.
They are tiny. The frog pictured above is sitting on my raincoat, which doesn’t really give a good sense of scale. Here’s one on a square of ordinary velcro, and one on the palm of my hand:
Little grass frog, on velcro.
Little grass frog, on hand.
The little grass frog is another amphibian that breeds in ephemeral ponds, as well as other grassy-edged bodies of water. I’ve only ever seen two, and I spent a great deal of time in their habitat.
It’s not particularly rare; it’s just very hard to see. Put this little guy in some dead grass, and he would disappear. These, like literally hundreds of mole salamanders, ornate chorus frogs, and leopard frogs, were captured in an attempt to catch flatwoods salamanders (more about those next week). I’ve never seen one just hopping around on the ground. If you do, what luck! Take a picture. Preferably with an object for scale, because nobody will comprehend just how tiny it is without one.
Go to a pond in the southeast and walk along the muddy edge, and you’ll likely see tiny frogs leaping into the water ahead of you. You’ll rarely see the frog beforehand; the first hint of its existence will be a little splash. They launch themselves many times their body length, springing from the weeds into the water as if assisted by wings. From the opposite side of the pond, you’ll hear repeated clicks, like stones being struck together.
If you can find one sitting still long enough to get a good look, you’ll see that it’s about an inch long: a slender, long-legged creature, with bumpy skin and a triangle on the back of its head. It will be some combination of brown, black, green, and gold.
There are two species of cricket frogs: northern and southern. The northern species has slightly longer legs and a slightly more rounded snout, but they are otherwise very similar. They sometimes interbreed where their ranges overlap. (Those shown in this post are the southern species or hybrids of the two.) Between the two species, they cover most of the eastern half of the US.
The breeding season depends on the local climate; in Florida they may breed year-round, while in the northern edge of their range it’s limited to spring. Adults eat insects and spiders, while the tadpoles are vegetarians and feed on algae. The tadpoles are actually longer than the adults, if you include their tails, which are long, transparent, and often black-tipped. The black tip may be useful in confusing predators into grabbing for the tail instead of the body. This is good, because cricket frog tadpoles are eaten by just about everything else in the water — dragonfly larvae, salamanders, fish, snakes, other frogs… The lucky tadpoles which survive can take anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks to metamorphose into adults.
Rat snakes are some of the most frequently seen snakes in the US, but they still cause a lot of confusion and panic. They’re often mistaken for whatever venomous snake lives in the same area. They’re relatively large snakes, and they have an intimidating defensive posture, raising the fronts of their bodies above the ground. And they can have a slightly triangular head if you’re looking at it and thinking, is that triangular? I don’t know… maybe? Kinda. Better assume it’s venomous.
It’s not venomous. Rat snakes are harmless, unless you’re small enough for them to swallow. They can even be beneficial to humans, keeping the rodent population under control. On the other hand, they’re notorious for stealing chicken eggs, which they can swallow whole. And they can clear out an entire nest of baby birds. (If you put up birdhouses, it’s a good idea to add predator guards.)
They’re also skilled tree-climbers*. If you live in the United States, and you see a snake hanging out in a tree in your yard, or from the rafters in a barn, or perched calmly on top of your doorframe as you go to open the door, chances are pretty good that you have a rat snake.
Identifying them can get a little complicated. They come in different patterns and colors, depending on the region. In peninsular Florida, they’re yellow with dark stripes:
Elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, they’re gray or tan with darker patches, like the one pictured at the top of this post. And farther north, they’re black:
And to the west, you get this splotchy, stripey kind:
These are all the same species! At the edges of their regions, intergrade patterns are often found. The Atlantic coast has some olive-green ones, a mix of yellow and black. In the Piedmont, where I live, they’re mostly black but often have some faint markings.
Rat snakes are constrictors, like boas and pythons, but much smaller. A truly giant rat snake is about 7 feet long, and most adults are under 5 feet. Still, you could say they’re the closest thing the US has to pythons (except in the Everglades, where the Burmese python has become a pest).
They like abandoned buildings and other structures near humans, where the rats are plentiful. So if you see a big yellow, black, or brown snake hanging out in a tree or a hayloft, no need to panic. It’s probably just a rat snake going about its exterminator duties. Leave it alone, and enjoy fewer rats around your house.
Time for another international guest post! Maddy sent me this absolutely beautiful photo essay from Australia, where it looks to be a lovely spring. I’m jealous, sitting here in the cooling, darkening US! Please enjoy her spring flowers, and then go check out her blog,Maddy At Home.
Thank you Bethany, for inviting me to post on your blog.
When people think of Australia, they think of extreme heat, the outback, and perhaps gum trees. They may not be aware of the wonderful flowers, shrubs and trees that we take for granted as we go about our business every day in the city.
My name is Maddy and I live in an inner suburb of Sydney in New South Wales. As the Northern Hemisphere heads into the depth of winter, I wanted to share with you the colorful springtime that we are privileged to enjoy.
Over the last few weeks I have been having a lovely view from my kitchen window. When the afternoon sun plays on the brilliant pink bougainvillea it is a sight to behold, but the photo really doesn’t do it justice. My outlook is otherwise not the best, but in spring it really is a treat! Moving round to the small garden in the front of our units, I have another bougainvillea in deep purple that you can see in one of the photos below. I have to constantly cut it back lest it completely take over my balcony. Many people find this colorful shrub to be a nuisance because cutting it back only makes it grow quicker. The job of pruning it is not a pleasant one because it has sharp thorns all along its stems.Continue reading Springtime in a Sydney suburb
In spite of being originally from Appalachia, I have been neglecting it here, due to lack of photos. This week, Sara Bean has stepped in to help fill that gap with a species from her backyard. Sara is a fantasy, nature, and fantastical-nature artist from West Virginia. Along with her photography, she creates whimsical sculptures and paintings that are a mix of surreal and adorable. Her monsterized paintings are a creepy delight to behold. You can find her work at The Attic Studio. — Bethany
Whether grubbing around in my flowerbeds or wandering through the woods, the snake I encounter most often is the Northern Red-Bellied Snake.
Although my trusty Audubon guide states that these snakes range from 8 to 16 inches in length, most of those that I find are on the smaller end of that range. When born (via live birth), these little critters measure just 3 to 4 inches long.
As the name suggests, Northern Red-Bellies (henceforth referred to as NRBs) typically have vivid red bellies — with an occasional yellow or grey-bellied snake thrown into the mix to confuse matters. The dorsal side of their bodies can range widely in color from red-brown to dark grey, either plain or with one to five dark stripes. Their heads are typically dark, with three pale yellow-brown spots on the back of the neck. Sometimes the spots fuse to form a collar or ring, causing some amateur herpetologists confuse NRBs with the more common Ringneck snake.
NRBs prey on garden pests like slugs (gardeners rejoice!) as well as earthworms and other small invertebrates. They are benign and easily handled, seldom displaying any signs of alarm or distress when picked up. If they do feel threatened they’ll curl their upper lip in what looks suspiciously like a sneer of disdain, or assume a pose that makes them look like a very tiny adder. As they’re so tiny and cute, this display is not very convincing to snake enthusiasts. Luckily it does work on some predators, as a wide variety of wildlife from shrews to raccoons to birds of prey find NRBs quite tasty.
In spite of its focus on a single region of a single country, Overlooked Nature has a surprisingly international readership. So, to take advantage of my viewers’ wide-ranging knowledge, I’m introducing a new monthly-ish feature: International Featured Creatures! My first guest blogger is Anand from blabberwockying!, one of the most prolific, upbeat, and friendly bloggers I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with. — Bethany
Ocimum tenuiflorum, also known as Ocimum sanctum, holy basil, or Tulsi, is an aromatic plant in the family Lamiaceae which is native to the Indian subcontinent and widespread as a cultivated plant throughout the Southeast Asian tropics. It is an erect, many branched subshrub, with tall and hairy stems and simple green or purple leaves that are strongly scented.
The word Tulsi literally means “The Incomparable One.” Tulsi is one of the most used plants in Hindu Indian families. Hinduism has a great respect for this plant and it has been revered in scriptures and mythologies for at least last 5000 years. The leaves of this plant are used to worship deities.The stalks and branches of this plant are used in sacrificial fire rituals called Homams which purify the environment. They are also used to prepare beads of rosaries which are used to wear around the necks and also for chanting by devotees.
In Ayurveda, Tulsi is known as elixir of life, as it promotes longevity. It’s an adaptogen and it balances various processes in body. It’s consumed in various forms such as dried leaves, green leaves, powder, in herbal tea and in many cuisines. Thai cuisine uses it under name Thai Holy Basil. Some researchers have claimed that Tulsi has the capacity to help patients fighting with cancer.
It’s also a deity called Vrinda, Vaishnavi, Haripriya, Rama and by many other names in Indian mythology. Vrindavan is a place of pilgrimage in North India which was named so because it had a lot of Tulsi groves in ancient times. The word Vrinda is for Tulsi and Van is for Woods–so this place got its name from the groves of Tulsi it had.
The two varieties of Tulsi leaves grown in Indian subcontinent have green and purple leaves. It has an astringent taste and a distinct aroma which is sweet. This plant is kept in almost every house and serving it is considered very auspicious in Indian tradition. Every worship and ritual among Hindus is incomplete without Tulsi, especially amongst Vaishnavites.
The cottonmouth, also known as the water moccasin, may be the most feared animal in the eastern United States. People panic about cottonmouths in areas where cottonmouths don’t even live. Growing up in West Virginia, which is decidedly outside the cottonmouth’s range, I was told by several people that they had killed or been chased by “moccasins” in the creeks. This was highly unlikely.
Some of the fear is justified: cottonmouths are venomous, and they’re more common than the larger diamondback and timber rattlesnakes, with more venom than the smaller pigmy rattlesnakes and copperheads. Either way you’re ranking threat level — number of bites or seriousness of bites — the cottonmouth falls somewhere in the middle.
So, why do they have such a bad reputation? One possibility is mistaken identity. The Nerodia genus of non-venomous water snakes can be found pretty much anywhere with fresh water, and they are often misidentified as cottonmouths. They’re both fairly large, heavy-bodied, dark-colored snakes usually found near water; it’s an understandable mistake. After all, who wants to get up close and check the shape of the pupil or the color of the inside of the mouth?
The common nighthawk is a swift, graceful flyer capable of catching and eating insects on the wing. Its territorial “call” isn’t really a call; it’s a loud whirring buzz made by its wings as it dives. You’d think such a bird would nest high in a tree, as close to the sky as possible, right?
Nope. The nighthawk doesn’t build a nest at all. It just lays its eggs right on the ground, where their speckled pattern blends in with the dirt and leaves.
The mole salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) is not a glamorous-looking creature. It’s small, unassuming, and slippery. It lives in burrows and in small isolated ponds in the woods. It’s mostly dark brown or black, often mottled with a gray or blue lichen-like pattern. It has a broad, flattened head. It looks a little like some artists’ reconstructions of Tiktaalik, and it’s easy to picture it living back when animals were first starting to crawl onto land.