Friday, October 30, 2009

Black Snakes---just in time for Halloween

(Is it me..or is this snake smiling? Wonder what he is thinking?.....good thing I'm bigger than a frog)
Halloween.....and Snakes, they go hand in hand
Black Rat Snakes are one of the most common snakes encountered in Missouri. They can be quite large, reaching lengths up to 6 feet or more. I find more of these snakes than any other species of snake. They are plentiful around our farm, and often end up in our  basement, especially this time of year. As soon as the temperatures begin to cool down in the fall, something in the snakes genetic make-up tells them it is time to head for shelter. This can be in cellars, caves, holes in the ground, or basements. Often times these hibernaculums will have hundreds of snakes sharing the same den space. This can include venomous snakes as well as non-venomous. They seem to be tolerant of each others presence at this time, when at no other time during the year. Fortunately for us, only a few stray snakes make it into our basement each season. In March or April they come out of their hiding places (sometimes, they FALL out of their hiding places) giving me quite a start. I scoop up the uninvited guest and place them in a tank until it is warm enough to turn them loose. I have a tendency to let them go in the yard, and my husband gets completely irritated at me for it. He is convinced they will find their way back into the basement. This may be true, but there are worse things to find in your basement right?

Having no real fear of snakes I cannot understand when people are so put off by these amazing creatures. Admittedly I wouldn't want one falling in my lap unexpectedly, but I would feel that way about any creature.

That's just plain scary!

I am always excited to spot snakes in our yard, and I am completely fascinated by them. I just can't resist capturing them ( or should I say TRY to capture them). I have been bitten so many times, you would think I would learn to "look but don't touch", apparently I was dropped on my head as a child, because I still try to pick up every one I see.  Black Rat Snakes are one of my favorite snakes. They are usually mild tempered, except as babies. Seems when snakes are little, they feel the need to strike at anything that moves. Age brings self-control and they generally do not bite if handled gently and with respect. The keyword in that sentence was "generally", I would never say never!
The Black Snakes main diet consists of rats, mice, voles and other small rodents. They are capable of climbing trees as you can see in the second picture. They will feed on baby birds, bird eggs and the occasional adult bird, especially under cover of darkness when the birds are settled in for a long nights sleep. The snake will sneak up the tree and catch the bird unawares.

Snakes use their long, forked tongue to "smell" their environment. This will help them determine if food is nearby. They are capable of waiting patiently for hours without moving in the hopes of a meal passing by. A snakes tongue is forked for a reason, they can differentiate where prey is located by which side of their tongue picks up the strongest scent. If the right side of the tongue picks up more scent particles, then they strike to the right, same for the left. The tongue is drawn back into the mouth, and those scent particles are pulled across a very sensitive scent gland called the jacobson organ. This organ tells the snake if what he is smelling is food or not. Without the use of legs, arms, hands or feet, these creatures have had to evolve highly specialized ways of locating their dinner. They can silently sneak up on their prey, they use their extremely sensitive sense of smell, venomous snakes have heat sensing organs called pits located on their face that can detect the slightest amount of heat coming off even the tiniest of creatures, like mice.They have no ears, so they use their muscles to sense vibrations on the ground which alerts them of danger, or possible food nearby. Then venomous snakes take the evolution of species to a whole new level with the use of a powerful venom. Depending upon the species, the venom will act in different ways.
Black Snakes are a non-venomous snake, but they are often needlessly killed because of their resemblance to the Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin as it is often referred to as. People fearing a bite, will kill and ask questions later. Many non-venomous snakes pay dearly for looking so much like their venomous cousins.

Right now, as the weather carries the scent of autumn, you are likely to encounter snakes most anywhere as they seek shelter. Try not to be afraid, take a moment and admire one of God's truly unique creatures. Be grateful for the service they provide as rodent patrol. Please be kind, and resist the urge to get the hoe, and behead these poor misunderstood creatures. Above all.. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Bullfrogs are a sure sign of summer, their loud croaking signaling their desire to find a mate. Or maybe they just sing so loudly as sign that life is good, and it's great to be a frog. We have a koi pond in our backyard and it attracts numerous bullfrogs. One spring we were cleaning the pond out to get it ready for summer enjoyment. I noticed a movement in the bottom sediment once the pond was drained. I had to look twice to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Sure enough, this bullfrog had legs growing from his mouth. Was this some sort of mutant frog? Had some weird chemical leached into the water causing such an odd malformation? Upon closer inspection-----it appears bullfrogs are cannibals. This large frog had consumed one of his cousins, or perhaps sibling, right before my eyes. I have not looked at bullfrogs the same since.

Once the hot summer months arrived, many more bullfrogs showed up at this pond. At one point I had counted 15, in various sizes. Each evening was filled with their loud singing. These Don Juans of the amphibian world were relentless. Croaking with all their might well into the wee morning hours. Finally daybreak brought silence. Sleeping with the windows open on cooler evenings would bring with it a serenade of epic proportions. Once in awhile the smaller frogs would meet an untimely demise by some hungry Garter Snake. I'm thinking these snakes hunted down the noisy little frog and silenced him!

Is it me or is this frog smiling? He looks just a little too pleased with himself. He's probably the little blabber mouth that kept me awake.  Regardless of the noise they make, I can't help but like these little green hoppers. I enjoy sitting by the pond watching them stalk their insect prey, and apparently sometimes each other. As they lazily float around on the lily pads I can't help but be envious of their relaxed life style. How grand would it be to float around on a soft bed in a cool pond on a hot day?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Signs of Fall

The seasons seemed to come and go so fast this year, or perhaps that is a sign I am getting older. Missouri summers are usually so hot and humid that the only relief is found in air conditioning. This summer was an exception to that rule, there were only a handful of days that reached above 90 degrees. I admit to being very disappointed by this fact. I love the heat, sunshine and long days. September rolled in with much cooler temperatures than normal. October arrived with temperatures that were more like November. I love the fall crisp air and beautiful colors, but I seem to enjoy them more when they arrive after a hot summer. There didn't seem to be much transition this year.

These pictures were all taken in the past few weeks, and are so reminiscent of fall, that I had to post them to share. The first two were taken in Rockport, MO. This little town is just south of the Iowa border, and is now home to a small wind farm that is supplying the town with natural energy.

These three windmills were tucked away in a valley between two bluffs, they looked so pretty against the bright blue sky. 

The trees pictured here are aptly  named the "Kissing Trees". They are located at the Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City,NE. They have a wonderful walking trail there, and a fifty foot tree house with a view of the forest floor. Leaning over the edge is sure to give you a mild case of vertigo.

Nothing says fall like a visit to the pumpkin patch. Arbor Day Farm has one of the biggest I've ever visited. We walked for quite some time until we found just the right one. Then we had to carry that heavy monster all the way back to the main building. We took turns lugging it, very proud of our find. If you look at this picture, ours is the one right in the center, now let me tell you this thing easily weighed 25 or 30 pounds. Now that may not sound like much, but factor in its circular shape and it makes for a heavy load indeed.

On our way home from Nebraska we made a detour through Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. This is a wonderful wetland that attracts many species of birds. I've volunteered for them on numerous occasions and it continues to be one of my favorite places to visit. On this particular visit there were a few ducks, and pelicans visiting the area. Later in the season the Eagles will show up in great numbers, as will the snow geese. every year on the first weekend in December they host a special event called Eagle Days. It is not uncommon for hundreds of eagles to be present. It is truly a sight to see.

There were still a few Great Blue Herons braving the cooler temperatures and hanging close to the shore. I even seen one on a muskrat mound that had his head pulled in close to his body and his feathers were all puffed out warding off the cold (pictured below).

American Coots are one of my favorite "ducks". Their black coloring and white bill make them a stand out on any pond or lake. Many people think they are nasty, dirty little birds and don't have much use for them. I think I just tend to be a fan of the animals I see as the underdogs. I love armadillos, opossums, bats, bugs, and coots. 

The pelicans were hanging pretty far out in the water making it difficult to photograph them. They are such interesting birds.

If you are ever in North West Missouri this is a must for you to visit. You won't be disappointed. The scenery is beautiful, there are walking trails, birds, deer, and many other things to see. 

And probably the biggest sign that Fall has arrived is the return of the dreaded Multi-Colored Asian Lady Beetle! These non-native species have usurped our own lovely native species and have taken over with such vim and vigor that it is difficult to even find a native species these days. Wherever you live, I hope you enjoy this autumn season, and are able to get outside and explore.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Red Fox Squirrel

When you mention the word Squirrel it will raise mixed emotions depending upon who you ask. Bird watchers who spend small fortunes on bird seed each year, often find themselves waging war against these little thieves. Bird lovers often have to come up with some pretty ingenious squirrel deterrents. Baffles on poles, coffee cans on wire, greasing poles with oil or even Vasoline. Manufacturers have even gotten on board and created "guaranteed squirrel proof feeders". If you are battling these cute little critters, you are well aware that when it comes to squirrels there are no guarantees. For every puzzle we throw at them, it seems they sit and calculate the situation and in no time they've solved the problem of how to invade that delicious feed. Bird seed laid out in those handy little feeders, is like an all you can eat buffet, and offers too much temptation to a hungry squirrel. While I sympathize with each bird lovers plight, I just can't help but be on the other side of the fence with these little guys. What some people refer to as tree rats, I see as an adorable furry tailed creature that is sure to make you laugh.

Their energy is to be envied, they appear almost spastic as they leap, climb, and crawl from tree to tree with such speed as to sometimes disappear before your very eyes. Have you ever cornered one on the trunk of a tree? You on one side of the tree, and the squirrel on the other? Then it's around and around the tree we go, sometimes I think they view it as a game, knowing full well you aren't going to catch him, and if you did, you would get a nasty little bite for your trouble. In our area of Missouri there are two species of squirrels that we find, one is the Red Fox Squirrel, the other is a Gray Squirrel. Pictured here is the larger Fox squirrel. As you can see by the dirt smeared all over his face in the first picture he has been busy digging holes and burying nuts. He kept his eyes on me as I watched his antics. He repeated the same action over and, grab a nut, run somewhere else, dig a hole, bury the nut, cover the hole, repeat. Often I am asked "do the squirrels find all the nuts that they bury"? The answer is "no" they do not. They are able to locate seeds buried under the ground by smell, not by memory.  As they roam around during the winter months the powerful smell of buried nuts and seeds will lead them to hidden caches underground. Sometimes they find ones they've previously buried, other times they find ones that another squirrel buried, either way this caching serves them and the environment well. They are guaranteed food when times are lean and food supplies are low, and trees like oaks, hickories, and other nut bearing trees are guaranteed to get their seeds dispersed. Many of these forgotten nuts sprout and grow into young saplings, often not far from the parent tree.

Many years ago I completed training classes that allow me to rehabilitate wild animals in Missouri. To this day one of my favorite animals to rehab are these little tree squirrels. They are very easy to care for and their survival rate is high. I've had them come to me as "pinkie" squirrels, that is to say they are very tiny and hairless, maybe 3 or so days old. When I am able to save them it is a good feeling. At about 13 weeks of age they are released to our timber. For a few days I keep a supply of food out for them and provide them with shelter until they are confident enough to head out on their own. It doesn't take them long to figure out just what they were designed to do and I will see them leaping from tree to tree, and paying no more attention to me than as if they had never seen me before. Just as it should be. Many people have asked me how I can bear to release these animals after giving them months of care. The answer is simple, "they aren't mine to own". They belong in the wild, no wild animal truly enjoys a life of captivity. I would be doing a disservice to any wild animal if I tried to "tame it". If someone wanted to keep one as a pet there are some things you should consider. First of all is it legal, many states forbid the capture and containment of wild animals. Missouri is one such state that frowns on this. In certain situations permission can be granted, but you better have a good reason for keeping the animal, you better have permission from the proper authorities and you better be prepared for the care involved. If caught with a wild animal in your possession you can face fines, and time in a courtroom. Caring for these animals is no small feat. Large caging with plenty of room to climb and roam is needed. Fresh food and water is essential on a daily basis. If you let them run your house, be prepared to be a substitute tree. They will leap from any vantage point right on top your shoulders, or your head. Trust me this can take you by surprise, and those claws are sharp! As fast as they land on your head, they will in turn use your head as a spring board launching them somewhere else, once again digging their claws into you. My arms have had scratches on them to the point of being raw from their constant climbing. They are charming, spritely, hilarious and equally energetic, skittish and easily frightened. Their pulse races and they are constantly on guard. It is this timid, untrusting nature that keeps them alive in the wild.

The Red Fox Squirrel is the biggest squirrel in the North America and reach lengths up to 2 feet with the tail. They are found throughout the Eastern Portion of the United States, and have become very plentiful in urban areas. They are rusty orange all over with grayish colored tips on their hair. Sometimes this can give them a Old gray haired look. This long bushy tail serves many purposes. One is to aid them with balance as they tight-rope walk across power lines, or clothes lines. Another function of this gorgeous tail is to provide warmth, they will pull that tail up over their back to help shield the fury of winter winds(picture 3), or curl it around themselves as they sleep in their dens or nests. 
In captivity they are capable of living up to 15 years, in the wild they rarely make it beyond one year. They are an important part of the food chain and provide much needed nutrition for hawks, coyotes, fox, bobcat, owls, and various other meat eating predators. Only on vary rare occasions do they contract rabies, they would most likely not survive an attack by a rabid predator. If they did survive the initial attack it would still be very hard for a squirrel to pass this deadly virus along to other animals including humans. The squirrels teeth have a half inch gap between the front incisors and the back cheek teeth, this gap does not allow for the flow of saliva. It is this saliva that is the mode of transportation to the virus.
Whether you love them or hate them, they should be admired for their tenacity, energy and the great service they provide in helping plant trees, and for the sacrifice many make by playing their part in the food chain. If you just can't beat them at the "bird feeder game", try placing some corn, or sunflowers out for them away from the feeders to see if this will distract them, and help keep them away from your bird feeders. After all, sometimes there is truth to the saying "if you can't beat them, join them"

The Dandelion

To the Dandelion
Dear common flower, that grow'st beside the way,
Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold,
First pledge of blithesome May,
Which children pluck, and, full of pride, uphold,

High-hearted buccaneers, o'erjoyed that they
An Eldorado in the grass have found,
Which not the rich earth's ample round
May match in wealth, thou art more dear to me
Than all the prouder summer-blooms may be.

Gold such as thine ne'er drew the Spanish prow
Through the primeval hush of Indian seas,
Nor wrinkled the lean brow
Of age, to rob the lover's heart of ease;
'Tis the Spring's largess, which she scatters now
To rich and poor alike, with lavish hand,
Though most hearts never understand
To take it at God's value, but pass by
The offered wealth with unrewarded eye.

Thou art my tropics and mine Italy;
To look at thee unlocks a warmer clime;
The eyes thou givest me
Are in the heart, and heed not space or time:
Not in mid June the golden-cuirassed bee
Feels a more summer-like warm ravishment
In the white lily's breezy tent,
His fragrant Sybaris, than I, when first
From the dark green thy yellow circles burst.

Then think I of deep shadows on the grass,
Of meadows where in sun the cattle graze,
Where, as the breezes pass,
The gleaming rushes lean a thousand ways,
Of leaves that slumber in a cloudy mass,
Or whiten in the wind, of waters blue
That from the distance sparkle through
Some woodland gap, and of a sky above,
Where one white cloud like a stray lamb doth move.

My childhood's earliest thoughts are linked with thee;
The sight of thee calls back the robin's song,
Who, from the dark old tree
Beside the door, sang clearly all day long,
And I, secure in childish piety,
Listened as if I heard an angel sing
With news from heaven, which he could bring
Fresh every day to my untainted ears
When birds and flowers and I were happy peers.

How like a prodigal doth nature seem,
When thou, for all thy gold, so common art!
Thou teachest me to deem
More sacredly of every human heart,
Since each reflects in joy its scanty gleam
Of heaven, and could some wondrous secret show,
Did we but pay the love we owe,
And with a child's undoubting wisdom look
On all these living pages of God's book.

James Russell Lowell [1819-1891]

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Flowers and Frogs

Pretty tulip all red and white
Little did you know what would turn up inside
A little tree frog, hopped into sight.
Unexpected surprise, on the wind he did ride.

Tulip in the wind shaking to and fro..
Still the little tree frog held on tight....
The wind battered tulip held this little beau
Keeping his perch til night.

Suddenly to the right, a sound,
A tiny cousin, a Boreal Chorus Frog sang out loud.
Small it's true, with eyes bright and round,
He sings with feeling, his notes abound.


Night has risen, day is done
Frogs everywhere, gray and green
With songs all joined, the chorus is begun
I sit and I listen, as is my routine.

Spring and Summer oh what a joy.
But alas the season must end.
Winters wind does summers heat destroy.
Now I must sit and wait for the return of my friends.