Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)

Hanging out at college creek (the local “beach”) after exams turned out to be a great idea. No, not because of the sand and sun, but because of the snakes! A fine day turned into a great day when I spied a snake swimming on the water’s edge. After I IDed it to not be a cottonmouth, I quickly caught it.

It was a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)! Nerodia sipedon range from Maine to Florida and go as far west as Colorado. After researching this species a bit, I discovered there are three subspecies: the northern water snake N. s. sipedon, the midland water snake N. s. pleuralis, and the Carolina water snake N. s. williamengelsi. In Virginia only N. s. sipedon is in residence, so the one I found was the northern subspecies. Fascinatingly, the Carolina subspecies exists only on the Outer Banks.

This species is found near any body of water and eat over 80 species of fish and 30 species of amphibians. Fishermen and wildlife agents often kill northern water snakes, believing they eat game fish and make a significant impact on fishing success. This is a false belief according to Mike Dorcas and Whit Gibbons, two widely published herpetologists. Humans will also kill water snakes thinking they are cottonmouths. This too is a false belief.

These snakes breed from April to June and can lay up to 100 eggs; though typical clutch size ranges from 20 to 30. Juveniles look exactly the same as adults, but are more vibrant in color. Northern water snakes have dark bands on the upper half of their body that turn into square splotches further down, and their scales are keeled.

Interestingly, N. sipedon have quite the reputation of aggression. The latin word sipedon translates to “nasty bite”. However, the individual I caught was pretty chill. Didn’t bite or struggle. In the picture below, you can see it lying still in my hands. I’ve only ever caught one, so this guy might be an oddity behavior wise.

N. s. sipedon photographed by Matthew Anthony
N. s. sipedon photographed by Matthew Anthony

Thank you for reading! I used “Snakes of the Southeast” by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas and “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Fowler’s Toad (Anaxyrus fowleri)

A hike in the woods with friends between exams was just what the doctor called for. The surrounding trees and good weather did wonders to relieve stress, and we were ecstatic to find more than a few herps on our walk. One of the herps we found was a Fowler’s toad (Anaxyrus fowleri).

A. fowleri range throughout most of the south eastern United States except for most of Florida and parts of the Carolinas; their range also includes most or parts of states that border the southeast. Fowler’s toads tend to occupy sandy areas close to bodies of water. This makes sense as the toad we found was on a sandy trail next to a lake.

They can be very difficult to identify because of their tendency to hybridize with other toads. Fowler’s toads, however, typically do not have large warts on their front legs, and the dark spots on their backs have about two to three small warts in them as opposed to the American toad’s which contain at most two large warts.

It is uncommonly easy to determine gender in A. fowleri. Sex can be distinguished by the color of their throat. Males have dark throats, while females have pale throats. The picture featured in this article is of a female Fowler’s toad.

A. fowleri call from February to July. Their call has been described as a “weird, wailing scream” and is written as waaaaaaaah. When I listened to a recording of it, I thought it sounded like a mechanical baby which was extremely entertaining.

One really cool thing this toad can do is orient itself with olfactory senses and the position of the sun. This means the Fowler’s toad can tell where it is (North, South, East, West) using the sun and with its nose determine its exact location. By far this is the coolest thing I learned about them.

Anaxyrus fowleri photographed by Megan Massa
Anaxyrus fowleri photographed by Megan Massa

Thank you for reading! I used “Frogs & Toads of the Southeast” by Mike Dorcas and Whit Gibbons and “A Guide to the Frogs and Toads of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)

The sight of one of the biggest frogs I had ever seen stopped me in my tracks. It was in a deep pool in the little stream that ran sort of parallel to this section of the trail. Quickly, I rolled up my jeans and took off my shoes and socks before running off the path. Unfortunately, my speed did not give the element of surprise I needed to catch the frog. However, as I walked along the stream bank, I saw plenty more where my big friend had come from – a plethora of huge frogs jumping into the water with little yelps. Jackpot.

One jumped into the water and I decided to just go after it. There was a great pile of dead leaves covering the bottom of the stream, but I stuck my arm into it and began to feel around. Something fleshy brushed against my palm, and I closed my fingers around it, silently praying “Please be a frog. Please just be a frog. Don’t be anything I’m going to regret touching.” Bringing my hand out of the water revealed a captured green frog (Lithobates clamitans).

L. clamitans has been described as one of Virginia’s most active frog species. They range the entire east United States, except for the Florida panhandle and a part of Illinois. There is a subspecies known as the bronze frog (Lithobates clamitans clamitans) that occurs in the southern half of the southeast…except for the Florida panhandle. Sorry Floridians!

L. clamitans is most frequently confused with other species such as the bull frog (Lithobates catesbeianus) and the pig frog (Lithobates grylio). In Virginia, where I found my green frog, the confusion of the ID is between green and bull. The below picture is from the Virginia Herpetological Society’s (VHS) website, depicting the major differences between the two species. Dorsal ridges and snout shape were all I had to go on. None of the pictures taken from my escapade in the stream showed the backs of the frogs, so an ID based on dorsal ridges was out. I puzzled over the frog with the VHS and we came to the conclusion of green frog based on the narrow snout.

Differences between L. clamitans (bottom) and L. catesbeianus (top). Appropriated from the Virginia Herpetological Society's website: http://www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/identification-keys/id-keys-frogs/Lithobates-Rana.html
Differences between L. clamitans (top) and L. catesbeianus (bottom). Appropriated from the Virginia Herpetological Society’s website

They call from May to September and breed in the summer months. Their call has been likened to a struck banjo string – more of a “glunk” than an “Alligator Pie” banjo sound. It has been observed that males defend territory in the breeding months but that this territory shrinks when more vegetation is present, effectively blocking their neighbors from sight. Currently, they are calling in the college woods around our lake at my campus.

 

L. clamitans fresh out of the stream. Photographed by Matthew Anothony
L. clamitans fresh out of the stream in the college woods. Photographed by Matthew Anthony

Thank you for reading the article! If you enjoyed it, you should check out my other blog posts.

I used “Frogs & Toads of the Southeast” by Mike Dorcas and Whit Gibbons and “A Guide to the Frogs and Toads of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. I also referenced a Dave Matthews Band song “Alligator Pie”. To hear the call of the green frog click here.

Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris)

I crouched down by the stream where a frog had jumped in. There it was! Under a leaf, thinking it was completely camouflaged. Silly frog. I placed my left hand a little in front of it in the water and poked one of its legs with my right, causing it to swim into my open palm. I quickly cupped it with both hands and got a secure hold on the legs. Lo and behold: a pickerel frog!

Pickerel frogs (Lithobates palustris) are medium sized frogs found in most of the eastern united states except for large chunks of most of the southern states (practically doesn’t occur in FL) and in large portions of KY, IL, TN, and AK. It’s a very hard range to describe.

Their call sounds like a really low, drawn out snore. Pickerel frogs start calling late January and end early May. They are calling absolutely everywhere on my college campus day and night, but it is more pronounced during the evening and into the night.

L. palustris eats invertebrates such as spiders and insects, but occasionally mollusks as well. They also react to movement. If it moves, it’s food. You might recall the T-rex in the first Jurassic Park movie who reacted to movement when investigating the tour trucks – same thing just less terrifying.

A really fascinating feature of this species is its toxins. One book I have tells me it is poisonous and gives no further details. Another tells me that some people have had pickerel frogs that will kill other frogs it is bagged with due to the toxins, while others have not had any problem. Its toxicity is not well studied. We do not know if L. palustris has toxins in only parts of its range or if it’s due to diet or if it only occurs during certain parts of its life cycle. We just don’t know. We also don’t know much about their behavior and life history. Do they establish territories? How long do they live in the wild? These frogs should be studied more – especially their toxins.

Lo and behold: a pickerel frog. Photographed by Matthew Anthony.
Lo and behold: a pickerel frog. Photographed by Matthew Anthony.

Thank you for reading! Please check out my other posts if you enjoyed this one!

I used “Frogs & Toads of the Southeast” by Mike Dorcas and Whit Gibbons and “A Guide to the Frogs and Toads of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. To hear their call, please follow this link.

March 2015 Featured Herper – Kenneth Gisi

March 2015 Featured Herper

Kenneth Gisi


Kenneth with his Speckled Kingsnake
Kenneth with his Speckled Kingsnake

This month we are taking a look at an awesome photographer and herper, Kenneth Gisi.  Kenneth, at 22 years old, has been herping as long as he can remember.  He says his love for reptiles and amphibians truly became a passion around 2009.  Kenneth began catching snakes, photographing them, and it slowly became a huge part of his life.  He, like many of us has been bitten by the herping bug…. He can’t walk past a piece of tin, board, pile of wood, barn, broken down building, or any type of artificial cover without scoping it out for Herps.

Kenneth has been into photography now for a total of 7 years.  He says it all started when he picked up his mom’s Kodak C875.  After that… the rest is history.  He truly has a passion for photography and it shows in his work.  He takes amazing photos and is a master in his field.  He loves how you can speed up, slow down, and even stop time.  He especially loves long exposure.

“… but mainly, what I love about photography is that it’s able to let you see life through another person’s eyes.”

Texas Rat Snake by Kenneth Gisi
Texas Rat Snake by Kenneth Gisi

Kenneth is one of us privileged people who has the opportunity to herp from home.  Kenneth can walk right out his back door and start herping.  He has 100 acres of open fields and woods right next to his house.  I can understand the joy of being able to walk out the door and start herping.  You don’t have to plan, travel, spend money on gas and food….. You can just decide to herp and walk outside.  Kenneth says his favorite place to herp is literally right out his back door.

“I can get lost in those woods for hours, find snakes, frogs, turtles, and all types of wildlife and when I am done; I start walking back home”

Kenneth has herped mostly in Texas and South Dakota but most of his time is spent in Kaufman County Texas.  It is home to many species of snake that keep him happy.

I asked Kenneth where he would herp if he could go anywhere in the world…

“Oh man, hmm. North Africa, they have the Saharan horned viper – Cerastes cerastes. I mean, look at that snake! so beautiful and the horns are so appealing.  It’s such an unusual thing to see on a snake when you’ve spent your life around Racers, Coachwhips and Diamond Backed Water Snakes.  I would die a happy photographer if I got to photograph that snake.”

Kenneth considers his most memorable find so far would have to be the Eastern Hognose.  Kenneth says he was walking on a hot humid morning in May on a trail to the woods when he got an email and stopped to check his phone.  As he was looking at his phone, he accidentally kicked the snake.  The funny thing about it is that the Hognose seemed to tilt its head to the side as if it was saying “What the hell man?!”  He says he will never forget that look on the snake’s face or when it would play dead.

It is funny how many of us share similar experiences with Kenneth.  Most of you can say with me, when I say, some of my most memorable finds were when I least expect it.  I have targeted a species for months and even years just to have it show up on a day I wasn’t even thinking about it.

An Amazing Copperhead Photo taken by Kenneth Gisi
An Amazing Copperhead Photo taken by Kenneth Gisi

Kenneth told me about a speckled kingsnake he found this past season (2014).  He had found his first speckled kingsnake back in April of 2009.  He had just got into photography and didn’t take many pictures.  He wasn’t very satisfied with his pictures and desperately wanted to find and photograph another one.  He says it took him 5 years of searching, but in October of 2014 he finally found another one under a piece of tin he flipped.  He had obsessively searched for 5 years and it had finally paid off.  He was so happy because he had started to think their population was declining.  It’s nice to know they are still in Scurry, Tx.

Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer by Kenneth Gisi
Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer by Kenneth Gisi

Kenneth has two goals for 2015.  He really wants to get an Eastern Cottonmouth.  He found his first on this past year and was able to get a few pictures.  This one was found at night and he hopes to get one during the day and really get some nice pictures.  I am sure that he will have some amazing pictures if he finds one this year.  He also hopes to find a prairie kingsnake.

Kenneth is both an amazing photographer and a true herper at heart.  I will be following Kenneth closely to see what he finds next.  Already this year, he has shared some pictures in Instagram of some sweet finds.  Kenneth has been a supporter of HerpersGuide since it’s creation.  He has offered photos for many of our articles here on this site.  Strong work Kenneth and happy herping to you brother!

For articles within HerpersGuide that feature Kenneth see:

Eastern Racer Snake, Coluber constrictor

17 Great Instagram Accounts for Herpers

For more on Kenneth, visit him on Instagram: @viralography or on Flickr.


HerpersGuide.com Logo
HerpersGuide.com Logo

HerpersGuide.com will be selecting one person each month in the year 2015 to feature on our site.  If you know someone you think should be featured please let us know.  Email Phillip at plaxton@HerpersGuide.com with a means of contact and the reason you think they should be featured.