This is a post that is probably way, way overdue; the trip occurred almost 4 months ago after all! But now is as good a time as any to address a fantastic trip that provided me a visit to a place I've never been before, and the chance to see some species I've never seen in person or in the wild until now.
Back in early September, me and another graduate student friend name Neil took a camping trip down to Cheyenne Bottoms Refuge and Preserve, located almost right in the center of Kansas. According to Wikipedia (great resource, I know), the entire wetlands system covers over 64 square miles, a little less than half of which is officially contained within the preserve; it is the largest wetland habitat in the interior United States, and a critical stop for many migrating bird species (including highly threatened or endangered species such as the Whooping Crane). Not being a serious bird person myself I can't say if we spotted any rarities while there, but there were PLENTY of birds (couple thousand pelicans present the whole time, several dozen Great Blue Herons, and countless ducks, geese, and wading birds). Lying in a natural basin, before coming under management by a number of conservation and recreational offices the wetlands fluctuated from mudflats to true wetlands to a shallow lake; now, it is nearly constantly maintained in a state of permanent shallow lakes and changing wetlands. This permanent water attracts not only the birds, but many, many other species. Including the animals of focus below and the myriad bird species, we spotted mink, rabbits, deer, foxes, coyotes, numerous fish of various kinds, and evidence of many other creatures too.
Neil had a purpose for going to the Bottoms, in order to spot some specific species as well as help out a researcher doing studies on toad-eating snake species. Me, I just went along for the ride to see what there was to be seen and try to help catch the herps (reptiles and anmphibians for the non-herpers out there). We stayed for two nights, two and a half days, spending nearly that entire time cruising the dike roads day and night and prowling the foot-traffic only paths in the refuge to find animals that were not so easily located on the dike roads.
There are four main entrances into the refuge, all coalescing upon raised dikes that circle the biggest of the permanent lakes in the center and all of them entirely dirt tracks. We arrived in the late afternoon and entered through the north pathway, heading southward at the same slow pace we'd keep on most of our driving. The first snakes we came across were a couple of garter snakes, which moved off too quickly for us to examine (admittedly, partly my fault as I was not yet accustomed to bolting out of a still-moving vehicle to try and catch animals speeding off the road). As we approached the first fork on the dikes and turned westward though, not 20 feet down we found the primary species both of us wanted to see in the wetland, and a first in the wild for both of us as well: the Western Massasauga.
As these two pictures show, he wasn't very big, just a young-of-the-year newborn measuring maybe just over a foot long. Massasaugas are an oddity; unlike many other rattlesnake species they are fairly localized to moist or wet regions such as the Bottoms rather than prairie or desert dwellers like most of us are familiar with. The Western Massasauga also contends for the largest species/subspecies of the genus known as the Pygmy Rattlesnakes (Sistrurus), with adults averaging between 18-30 inches in length and with a record of just over 3 feet long. There is still some debate as to the taxonomic status of the species, with some classing it as a subspecies of Massasauga in general (S. catenatus tergeminus) but many more recent researchers classing it separate from the highly threatened Eastern and instead allying it with the Desert (S. tergeminus tergeminus, and S. tergemius edwardsii for the Desert). Due to their wetland habitat too, they are often amphibian specialists, though adults rarely turn their noses up to rodents like most other rattlers like.
With the harsh late day sun, lots of good photos weren't really possible, so we collected this baby in a container with hopes to get better photographs the next day. A short drive further on found another baby, though sadly this one was not alive; numerous birders, hunters, and other visitors drive along the dike roads regularly, and few are on the lookout for snakes, so a staggering number we would find DOR (Dead On Road) over the weekend. I can't say we didn't contribute to roadkills either though; at night, it is impossible to avoid the billion frogs traveling through the area, and the frogs did not always wisely jump AWAY from the car...
After setting up camp, Neil and I returned to the dikes, stopping first by one of the canal inlets that transfer water under the roads between the waterways. Here we spotted a mink jumping into the bushes, and Neil briefly got a glimpse of a Graham's Crayfish snake (Regina grahamii), which I unfortunately did not see before it disappeared into the water. Driving a short ways further, we stopped by another bridge that had rocks piled near the water to flip a few stones. Here, we found our next catches.
The most common snake in the wetlands is, unsurprisingly, the garter snake, and we found two of supposedly three species that have been reported there (though the third is questionable). This first is the Red Sided Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis), a subspecies of the widespread common garter and the most northern-ranging snake in North America (found to the Arctic Circle in the Yukon). These two specimens were near maximum size representatives of the taxon, and sporting phenomenal colors the likes of which I've never seen around home. In some places (perhaps even here in the Bottoms), the red can nearly blank out all of the black between the yellow stripes.
Once again with the late day, we collected these two for better photos to be taken the next morning. One was quite amenable to handling, the other had every interest in biting with almost any chance given.
Evening fell, and as many snakes are crepuscular or nocturnal we took to driving the roads for a while after the sun went down. In particular, we wanted to find an adult Massasauga rather than just the baby Unfortunately, that first night was not highly prolific, as temperatures were low due to a recently passed cold front; frogs were everywhere, including what I believe to be a northern cricket frog (Acris crepitans) in the photo below, but beyond that we found almost nothing beyond one very large diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer) on the way back to camp, which we also bagged in order to photograph the next day.
Come morning, we were greeted by an incredibly thick fog that hung over the campsite and the refuge, but that didn't stop us from starting our herping as soon as temperatures were snake-tolerable (for garter snakes, that means the air's still chilly to me, but they're out and about). Our first objective, photograph the big pair of red-sideds and release them back into their rock pile.
Photography was rather helped by the fog; no blaring direct sun and so a much softer light permitting better capture of the amazing color of these two animals. While in this area, plant nerd that I am as well, I also stopped briefly to photograph this dayflower, Commelina sp. Many beautiful wildflowers and other plants live in the refuge, though of course in early September we were a bit late to catch most of them.
Once the garters were released, we continued on down the dikes, spotting frogs but no snakes, until we reached the approximate spot we'd found the baby Massasauga. After getting some photographs of him in the lovely soft lighting, he was released too; a note on the habitat the rattlers are living in down there: at the widest, the dikes the roads run on are maybe 50 feet across, from lake edge to wetland edge. Often, they're much thinner. The snakes are thick in the grass and few sedges in this area (though if you went walking there you'd still probably not find many, secretive as they are), and survive either traveling along these food-rich corridors between the drier areas around the wetland edges, or freely travel within the marshes themselves. The rattlesnakes have no problem with the latter either.
The photo above is a great example showing the cranial stripes that run around and through the eyes. Common in many snake species, these help disguise the eye so that the head is more easily hidden both from predators that will target that most vulnerable location, and prey that might register a predatory gaze.
Yes, we took many photos of the little guy, as we had no idea if we'd find others on the trip. A hotspot for S. tergeminus tergeminus the Bottoms may be, but they're still not a common snake compared to some of the other species.
Our drive continued down a new path, curving around the main lake and heading southward toward the southern entrance, before turning back around. No snakes to be found on that pass, and that stretch of road would unfortunately prove overall fruitless, but I have little doubt another visit to the area could prove otherwise. There were prime habitats on that and the road to the northwest that gave nothing this round, but could have just been luck of the draw. Turning back onto the northern entry road, we finally found another herp. But, not a snake.
It was a pretty hefty slider sitting in the middle of the road, and Neil reckons it to be a red-eared slider, a native of the area (though the nonnative painted turtle is tentatively recorded from the area too). I'm not very good at ID'ing turtles, especially when there are at least 4 or 5 different sliders, cooters, and a few other species in the refuge too, but it was nice to get a decent few photos of her before moving her off the road so other passers-by wouldn't mistake her for a rock and hit her (and at least one car did pass, its passengers stopping briefly to see the turtle and the snakes we had with us too).
Following this find, we flipped around and headed back down the dikes, until we reached the western entrance road and the spot where we found the big female diamondback water snake the night before. While Neil wanted to find a few water snakes for research, this female was a fair bit larger than he wanted.
The diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer) is named of course for that angular pattern seen in the photos, especially above. It is one of the largest species in the genus too, this big girl easily pushing over 4 feet (and she would not be the largest we found) and maximum records of over 5 feet known. As heavy-bodied as they are, they weigh a couple pounds too, and most have a highly defensive attitude when caught, making them a fair handful to work with. Despite her size, this female even if tailed could turn around and nearly catch us in the hand, strong as they are. Water snakes aren't venomous, but they do possess an anticoagulant in their saliva, meaning if you're tagged (and a 3 foot male did later on) the bite will sting a bit, and despite only being a bunch of tiny pinpricks will bleed for several minutes before stopping.
Still though, they are absolutely beautiful animals, and have the funniest expressions.
There are a handful of wooden docks that stick out into the wetlands a short ways, and we decided to release her off a nearby one. When she did not immediately bolt off to our surprise, we took a moment to grab a couple of photographs there too.
Rather than travel back across the dikes right away, we decided to take a jaunt along the county roads immediately beside the refuge. Near the western entrance there is an old farmhouse and a few very old dilapidated structures, and here we found the first snake of the day, another red-sided garter. I also was distracted by plants:
Cotninuing along the road, we began to find more snakes. The vast majority were Plains Garter Snakes (Thamnophis radix), many of which were attempting to our surprise to eat the roadkill frogs, even ones that were clearly days old! I did not take photos of most of these (as there were a couple more beautiful representatives we'd find later), especially as we were busy road-cruising at a fair pace when finding them and moving along rapidly after each find.
A quick lunch, and then back to the dikes; we cruised for a while, and then stopped near an offshoot of the northern entry road where there is a walkable dike and open space that waterfowl hunters are permitted to use. While I am not highly accustomed to jumping out of cars after animals when road-cruising, on-foot herping is definitely my style, and we started flipping rocks to see what we could find. It wasn't long before those rocks started turning up numerous diamondback water snakes, including two of the largest females seen on the trip.
Several garter snakes were also found, as well as a few other odd things (note: if you are not okay with arthropods, especially wolf spiders the size of a small mouse, then rock-flipping in the Bottoms is not for you):
Most of the rest of the afternoon and evening was spent traveling the dike roads. Along the western access, another turtle showed herself:
Where the western access road turns north along the main lake (and the dikes are widest, which we thought to be the best chance for finding things), there is a fairly large space where the wetlands, a couple of canals, and the main lake all interconnect under the road. We stopped here often, looking along the edges of the bridges for things, and one stop permitted a couple photos of the near-ubiquitous Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias).
The Visitor's Center for the refuge is located just southeast of the southern entrance; sadly, we decided to try and swing by just a touch too late, pulling into the parking lot just as it close. In a sense it was fortuitous though, as on the way back in, Neil spotted this beautiful rarity:
Perhaps a touch hard to see in these low-light photos, but this is an erythristic Plains Garter Snake. That means that it is sporting an extremely high amount of red coloration compared to the normal specimen (most Plains garters show almost no actual red at all in their pattern, more typically shades of cream, yellow, orange, checkered against greens and blacks). The spots between the black on the sides were a rusty reddish, and the head sported blotches of red within the dirty olive pattern. A truly lucky find, and as it would turn out, not alone...
As the second night fell, things started becoming ridiculously active. We traveled up onto the bluffs past the campsite just for kicks, though didn't find much there and headed straight back into the refuge, where the roads were alive. Frogs everywhere, and massive female water snakes were crisscrossing the road it seemed every few hundred feet. As we made one pass and came across a pair on the road, I chased one into the weeds, just barely tailing it in the dark. Moments later though Neil went chasing after something that had been scared up onto the road by my stomping around; we'd have never found it had it not been for the water snakes, and it was one of the other species we were both desperately hoping to see:
A Speckled Kingsnake!
Lampropeltis getula holbrooki is fairly widespread across the Midwestern states, with a small handful of reports from within the refuge (most right along those dike roads too, and even one right by the campsite we were staying in). Often snake and other small reptile specialists, this subspecies of the widespread common kingsnake starts off life often with the banded or chain-link pattern many subspecies express, but then as they age lose the pattern and instead develop yellow spots on each individual scale, giving them a beautiful busy pattern and their common name.
As active as the night was becoming (and it really was just beginning), we wanted to move on and so put the king into a container to photograph the next day. Sadly, the photo above would be the only record we'd have of it, but more on that later.
As the night deepened, water snakes and garter snakes continued to show up everywhere, but no other more uncommon species for a while. Then, traveling back along the road to the southwest again, the headlights picked up a sizable serpent that was thick-bodied, but definitely not another water snake. Large as it was, when we jumped out, we thought perhaps we'd found a prairie rattlesnake, but that couldn't be right as the nearest record of that species was above and past the bluffs that surround the Bottoms depression. And we were right, upon closer inspection, it wasn't: instead, we'd found a very good-sized adult male Western Massasauga!
Nighttime was making photographs difficult, especially with a venomous snake, so we decided to keep it until the next morning. Unfortunately, the last safe container for a venomous snake we'd just put the speckled king into not a half hour before (if even 15 minutes before, active as the night was). So, I took the snake out and dumped out the sleeping bag stuff sack I'd been holding a few supplies in, and put the king into that instead, folding over and tying the mouth securely closed. As the stitching was folded in on itself and tightly threaded, I thought it'd be a safe container until morning, and we put the rattlesnake into the newly vacated plastic one.
Then, a few more passes along the roads including around the county roads outside the refuge, but nothing really new showed up (beyond one very large water snake we stopped for to scoot off the road near the canal interchange; she took her sweet time too, scooting the opposite direction from the closest brush), so we called it a night.
Next morning, the first new herp I found almost right outside my tent:
In my home state, the Plains Leopard Frog (Lithobates, formerly Rana, blairi) is considered a threatened species. In Kansas, they were the primary species we couldn't help but hit as we were driving down the roads as they were everywhere. A small creek ran near our campsite as well as a (at that time) dry ditch, and across the road a wet agricultural field, so plenty of habitat, and the region is incredibly humid so a short travel overland is nothing for these guys.
Moments later I also found the culprit of the incredibly loud evening lullaby we fell asleep to: a cicada, turned around and stuck in the grass:
After photographing and releasing them, I returned to the car to check on the kingsnake I so wanted to see in good light...and was heartbroken.
Neil had had a suspicion, despite my doubts, that the king would be able to worm his way through the stuff sack seams. As he'd pushed against the bag all the night before while we were driving, I thought the bag okay and we did not do anything further, or smarter, like put the bag into a backpack or another bag. Thus, upon opening the car door and picking up the bag, I found it dishearteningly empty, and a tiny hole busted through the seams. The kingsnake had gotten out, and during the night had managed to find a way out of the car entirely as well, long gone by the time I went to look for him. Thus, I got to hold him the night before, got the one photo, but that was all. This also means a strong need to return to find another, and next time bring along some properly sturdy containers if needed.
It was the start of our last day, so we packed up the campsite, and one last time hit the roads inside the refuge again. Almost immediately, we found something good: a second erythristic Plains Garter Snake, this one even more brilliantly colored than the first (though sadly a much more cantankerous individual). With good light, we made our way to a decent stop and decided to take pictures of this new individual, the original erythristic, and the adult Massasauga.
These first few photos are the new snake, solid crimson between the black bars and the head almost entirely red with only a few olive speckles.
And then, the other individual who decided to grump up a little as seen below too.
Erythrism is typically a recessive gene, meaning it's a very low probability chance of two snakes of different sexes carrying the same hidden trait meeting and both of them passing on that trait to their offspring, which must then reach adulthood as seen here. These two, as they are both visually showing that recessive trait, and were found more or less at opposite ends of the 64 square mile wetland, suggest that in this region the mutation might actually be extremely prevalent. Could it confer some sort of survival advantage then? Or because this is a thriving wetland with a massive but somewhat localized snake population, were we just lucky to find a pair (because they appeared male and female too) in a population big enough to let such a rare trait persist? Who knows...
Once those were photographed, we got out the rattler:
As you can see, compared to the baby who just sported a button, this individual has a good sized and fully functional rattle. He didn't use it much though, as despite rattlsenakes' reputations most are not particularly defensive animals unless given a good reason, and this one figured out quite early on that we were not really a danger, just a nuisance to him.
Despite both being rattlesnakes, as mentioned way at the start of this blog entry the Massasaugas are not part of the main genus Crotalus, but instead the pygmy rattlesnake genus Sistrurus. One of the best methods to tell the two groups apart, at least where size doesn't help (as the Massasaugas get bigger than some "true" rattlesnake species do) and if you don't know the ranges of the species, is by looking at the top of the head (seen especially well in these last two photos). Pygmies possess large plated scales, much like as seen in elapids, or colubrids like the garter snakes, water snakes, and kingsnake pictured in this blog, while Crotalus species have smaller scales much like as cover the rest of their body.
Mind you, only use this trait if you can maintain zero risk of being bitten. If you don't know your species, or the species in the area, just keep a respectful distance from the creature rattling in the grass.
Unfortunately, as all trips must, this is where ours came to an end, and after these last few photographs of the wetland denizens we headed back home on an 8+ hour drive to Colorado (though some odd animals were still sighted along the way back, including armadillos and several bird of prey species). Several "lifer" species for me and a couple wild ones for Neil too, data and specimens (including a few of those unfortunate roadkilled ones for museum mounting) collected for research, and a fantastic experience in a place I'd never been before, but wouldn't mind visiting again. After all, still a few species we hadn't found (at least, some not alive; a small lined snake was one of the last roadkill discoveries we made), and others still in need of better documentation.