Field Trip!

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.

Our first in-refuge reptile: a young-of-the-year Western Massasauga (Sistrurus tergeminus tergeminus).

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.

Note the singular button on the rattle.

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.

A lovely pair of Red-Sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) hiding under the same rock.

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.

The red-sideds I'm familiar with have nowhere near this much red. They are one of the largest garter snakes found in the Midwest though, able to push 4 feet long.

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.

Northern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans)? This one had an odd and barely visible pattern, making an ID for a non-frogger like me hard.

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.

Mid-morning photos of the big red-sided pair. This individual was not happy; the flattening of the head is a standard defensive display, and also a primary reason you should not use head shape to identify dangerous snake species from harmless.
The more colorful of the pair.

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.

Commelina sp., one of the dayflowers.

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.

Better photos of the young Massasauga. The "fat horseshoe" saddle and double spot side pattern is fairly common for the species, as is the distinctive head stripe pattern.

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.

As a primarily nocturnal species, this snake has slit pupils (though they don't look slit at night). Many nonvenomous snake species do as well though, so take care not to use this as a definitive venomous trait.

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.

Tucked away, but perfectly willing to take a bit of a nose or finger that comes within reach (or camera, as Neil found out).

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).

Covered in mud from her busy trek through the muck.
Why do I keep saying her? This is why: a rounded plastron; males have a concave belly, so that they can fit on top of females while mating and not slide off. Females need space to hold eggs however.

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.

Nerodia rhombifer, by far the biggest snake in the refuge (that we found at least; bull snakes might be present, though unlikely as they like the drier nearby bluffs more).
The classic diamond pattern that gives the snake its name. Also a fantastic close-up view of the heavily keeled scales, a trait shared by many Natricine snakes (like these and garter snakes) to help streamline for swimming as well as grab slippery prey.

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.

Full-body view; these are not slender animals at all.

Still though, they are absolutely beautiful animals, and have the funniest expressions.

Isn't she adorable?
Really though, despite their attitudes it's also hard to take a derpy face like that seriously.
"Is offended! Not take 'nother step closer!"

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: