Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chilly Reptiles

After lunch, we were startled by a bright light in the southern sky! It took a few minutes, but we finally recognized that it was the sun, which we haven't seen in several days.

On Sunday, the cub scouts from Pack 725 in Knightsville braved the cold temperatures and threat of rain when they visited the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. The pack was visiting the swamp to work on their Naturalist Activity Badge. Requirements included learning about bird flyways, poisonous plants and venomous animals, food chains, plants unique to this area, aquatic systems in general, and observing at least six wild animals. Well, not a problem here in the swamp!

While walking the 1.75-mile boardwalk through the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp, we heard Barred Owls and Red-shouldered Hawks and saw several species of woodpeckers, a Belted Kingfisher, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Northern Cardinals, Turkey Vultures, two White-tailed Deer, a Yellow-bellied Slider, and a Greenish Rat Snake! Being cold-blooded, reptiles are not often seen when the temperatures are low. Being exposed and unable to flee or fight is not a healthy position in which to be. Therefore, reptiles generally find shelter out of sight in a den, in mud, in a log, etc. and wait until the temperatures rise again in the spring. We were surprised to see the sole Yellow-bellied Slider basking on a log at Goodson Lake, but we were even more surprised to see a snake on such a cold, damp day! The Greenish Rat Snake was approximately five feet above the boardwalk in a cavity in the side of a Bald Cypress tree just beyond the large knee at #5. As you can see in the image, most of the snake is safely in the tree cavity, but enough is showing for a positive identification.

Today, the danger to reptiles exposing themselves in cool weather was demonstrated with deadly effect. A Red-shouldered Hawk perched low in a tree outside our office window caught our attention. Within minutes, the hawk had spied a meal and glided to the ground to attack. The meal moved too quickly from the talons to the bill for us to identify the species, but somewhere in the swamp a skink is slowing transforming into Red-shouldered Hawk cells. We have observed this behavior on several occasions, but as we cannot identify the individual hawks, we cannot determine if the skink hunting is an individual's preference or a behavior shared within the species.

The weather has warmed throughout the day, so there may be many more meals out and about.

Images by Mark Musselman

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