Cricket Frogs

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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.11-03-03_02_modified-1

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 Snake

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:

Yellow rat snake
Yellow rat snake. © Gabriel Kamener Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 (CC BY-SA 2.0) Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

 

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:

Black rat snake.
Black rat snake. © Matt Reinbold Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 (CC BY-SA 2.0) Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

 

And to the west, you get this splotchy, stripey kind:

https://i0.wp.com/media.eol.org/content/2014/08/25/09/77180_orig.jpg
Texas rat snake.  © bchambers Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 (CC BY-NC 3.0) Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial

 

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.


Here’s a rat snake in action:

** Source for images (except the first one): Encyclopedia of Life

Harbingers of Spring

Some animals live their lives on a strict annual timetable. Migratory birds set off about the same time each year. Hibernating animals start stuffing themselves and building up insulation-fat at the same time. Many species have reproductive cycles that match the seasons.

Some are so predictable and noticeable that they can come to symbolize a season. When the sandhill cranes arrive at the lake near my parents’ house, it is fall. When I lived there, in northern Florida, the sight of a swallow-tailed kite drifting gracefully through the sky meant summer was arriving. I have always liked summer, even in Florida where many hate it, so a glimpse of a kite always made me smile, and not just because they are beautiful. Which they certainly are. I don’t have a good photo of one in flight, so here’s a video:

ARKive video - Swallow-tailed kite - overview

But long before I lived in Florida, I lived in a much colder place: northwestern Pennsylvania. That area gets a lot of snow, and while they’re used to it, everyone is pretty sick of it by March. The earliest signs of spring are important. Spring there is announced by two sounds: the calls of Canada geese flying north, and the deafening chorus of spring peepers from every creek and roadside ditch that isn’t frozen.

IMGP0774 Continue reading Harbingers of Spring

Wolf Spider vs. Green Anole

Lizards eat small invertebrates. That’s what lizards do. Insects, spiders, ticks, grubs– all tasty morsels for your local lizard population.

When I lived in Florida, I had geckos in the house. I didn’t put them there, but they came in, and I happily let them stay. Because of them, I never had spiders on the ceiling. Lizards eat spiders. It’s the way of the world.

But sometimes… Sometimes, a spider defies its destiny.

Victory goes to the spider this time.

I don’t do this often enough.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Treat,” here’s something I never seem to do anymore. I have a kayak; I know there are rivers and lakes around here, and yet my kayak has been used more often as a container in which to carry my belongings on top of my car than as an actual boat in the past few years. It makes a really good car-top container, but it’s a lot more fun as a boat.

So here’s a picture from several years ago, on the Econfina Creek in northwest Florida. There are actually two rivers called Econfina in northwest Florida, and they are not connected. This is the one north of Panama City. It’s a beautiful little river, overhung with greenery and fed by deep, clear springs that keep it cool. If you ever get the chance to canoe down it, do so — and stop and swim in the springs on the way.

Everybody has something they enjoy but somehow never get around to doing, right? What’s yours?

It really does freeze in Florida sometimes

Frost on turkey oak leaves.
Frost on turkey oak leaves

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “(Extra)ordinary,” here are some leaves from an extremely ordinary tree. Turkey oaks are all over Florida. They’re so common you kind of stop seeing them after a while. They are scrubby, brittle trees that fall over if you look at them wrong. But that’s fine, because a hundred little saplings will sprout from the roots.

I took this on a cold morning a few years ago, when I was helping with a bobwhite quail survey in the Florida panhandle. I arrived at dawn, took up my post on a specific point at the edge of a field. It was a very cold morning for the area, and there was still frost on the leaves and grass as the sun rose. It made even the ordinary, scrubby, weed-like turkey oaks beautiful.

I took a couple of pictures and then stood there, shivering, and listened very hard. After a while, I almost started to hallucinate possible quail calls. Then I heard some real ones that reminded me of what they really sound like. You can hear it, too.

Red Spotted Newt

Newts are familiar to most people, or at least the word “newt” is, whether as the name of one of the US’s more infamous politicians or as the thing you get turned into when you annoy a witch. But what is a newt, exactly?

It’s a type of salamander. There are many species of newts, but the only one in my area is the red spotted newt, or Eastern newt, which lives throughout most of eastern North America.

Like the mole salamander, the newt has a complicated life cycle. It, too, hatches from eggs laid in ponds, and its larval form is aquatic. So is its adult form. But it has another, in-between stage in which it lives on land. Newts in this stage are called “efts.” They are the form most commonly seen — not only because they live on land instead of in ponds, but also because efts are red. (They’re also poisonous. Their color acts as a warning.)

Red Spotted Newt (Eft)
Eft from western North Carolina

 

After a couple years of this carefree land-roaming lifestyle, the newt returns to the water to reproduce. Its red color fades to olive green, keeping only the red dots on its back. It grows a fin-like ridge on its tail, which helps it swim. The newt lives mostly in water for the rest of its life. That can be a long time — newts can live 15 years or more!

Red Spotted Newt (Adult)
Red Spotted Newt (Adult) from northwest FL

Cottonmouth

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?

Continue reading Cottonmouth

Hey, look, I’m on LGBT STEM!

I am currently on a botany field trip to the mountains, where I am likely out of cell phone range and not answering comments, but hopefully taking lots of pictures to eventually post. But through the miracle of post scheduling, I’m posting this now! A couple of days ago, LGBT STEM posted an interview with me on their site, so go check it out.

Or just look at this lovely parrot pitcher plant. You’ve probably noticed my fondness for carnivorous plants by now. Or maybe it’s not that noticeable, because doesn’t everyone like carnivorous plants?

Ephemeral Ponds

Last week I talked about mole salamanders and the ponds they live in. It’s not just mole salamanders using those ponds, though! Today, I thought the ponds themselves needed a post. Mole salamanders, and many other amphibians, tend to breed in what are known as ephemeral ponds, or vernal pools. Whatever you call them, they are just low spots that fill with water at certain times of year, but their temporary nature is what defines them, and what makes them an essential wildlife habitat.

Even though the rainiest season in most of the South is summer, the ponds usually hold water in winter, after the late fall rains. There may be more rain in summer, but it is promptly sucked up by tree roots or evaporated in the heat. In winter, the trees are dormant and the air is cooler, so water is left to saturate the ground and pool in the hollows.

How long the ponds will hold water is an important factor for wildlife. Some of the shallow pools dry in a matter of days. Others have at least a puddle at the deepest point for most of the year. In drought years, almost none of them will have any water at all. Continue reading Ephemeral Ponds