I smell a rat

16th July, World Snake Day

The region of southern Ontario where I was lucky enough to be able to stay for a couple of weeks in the first half of July holds an important yet threatened population of the Gray Ratsnake, Pantherophis spiloides. While participating in the memorable BIOSPHERE Youth Environmental Leadership Expedition at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) on the shores of Lake Opinicon, the enthusiastic program leader Dr. Shelley Ball interrupted our dinner one evening with a Gray Ratsnake she had just hand-caught. Perhaps one of the few things I will stop dinner for!

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Gray Ratsnake being held by Shelley

Gray Ratsnakes are one of Canada’s largest snakes. They are the largest in terms of length, with adult able to reach over six feet from head to tail, but are pipped by Bullsnakes with regard to mass.

During the expedition at QUBS, we were treated to a short presentation by Matt and Meg who are working on how to prevent the decline of this sizeable snake. One of the leading causes of fatalities in this species is road collisions. The dark colouration of the ratsnakes means that they are often mistaken for the shadows of overhead branches on roads, and are therefore not noticed by motorists. Even when they are recognised as snakes drivers have a hard time avoiding them, as due to their length they can easily stretch across the entire width of the road.

On account of this, Matt and Meg are working on avoiding these snake RTAs by reducing the incidences of snakes crossing the road. They are helping to develop snake-proof fences which aim to guide the snakes to specially-built culverts which they can use to get to the other side of the road without risking being hit. Gray Ratsnakes are semi-arboreal and spend lots of their time in trees, so are adept climbers. The fences to be implemented, therefore, need to be resistant to climbing by these agile snakes. Creating fences that not even ratsnakes can ascend also prevents a wide variety of other wildlife such as turtles from being hit and allows them to utilise the culverts as well.

Gray Ratsnakes are remarkably docile and are rarely aggressive when handheld. When threatened they do possess the abilility to release the contents of the cloaca, musking the assailant with a foul smell. However, the related Northern Water Snake behaves in this manner with far greater regularity. It, like the Gray Ratsnake, is non-venomous, so has to make itself as unappealing to predators as possible, by releasing both musk and excrement. Despite the lack of venom, the bites are still painful and the saliva of the Northern Water Snake has an anticoagulant which causes the bite to bleed more freely. However, although it might sound threatening, the water snake is another fascinating reptile.

I had the good fortune of glimpsing a Northern Water Snake on one occasion at QUBS as it swam past the boathouse. As its name suggests, it is a very strong swimmer. It will take sleeping fish at night in shallow water and during the day it will hunt other prey such as crayfish and amphibians among vegetation at the water’s edge.

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Northern Water Snake snaking through the water at the QUBS boathouse

To finish off this post for World Snake Day, I’ll mention the third species of snake we encountered on our expedition at QUBS, which was also the most numerous. The Common Garter Snake is, as its name suggests, frequent, but also fairly skittish. As a result, they are difficult reptiles to photograph. However, nearing the end of the expedition we disturbed one from a pile of dead leaves near the library. It retreated to a stone wall, from which it poked its head out to survey the scene, giving a rare opportunity to photograph this species.

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A curious Common Garter Snake.

The Common Garter Snake, like all but one snake in Ontario, is another non-venomous species. Snakes are often misrepresented as being solely dangerous creatures. However, less than a fifth of the world’s snake species are considered a threat to human health, with very few venomous snakes being found in the more populated temperature regions of the world. Instead of being feared, snakes should be more appreciated for their incredible diversity and fascinating range of habits.

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Sri Lanka 2017 Part 1: Sigiriya

A few weeks ago I was embarking on a trip I had been looking forward to for quite a while. I was heading on a fortnight-long Naturetrek tour around Sri Lanka with a focus on the nation’s fantastic mammals and vast array of endemic birds. After an afternoon and a morning of familiarising myself with the birdlife around the Airport Hotel gardens, the tour formally began and we were setting off on the long drive from Colombo to Sigiriya.

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A White-breasted Waterhen with a chick, seen at the pond in the hotel gardens.

During our stay in Sigiriya we were based at Hotel Sigiriya, near Sigiriya Rock. On two of the three days we resided here we would do an early morning bird walk in the area around the hotel, including a lotus-filled lake next to the rock itself. It was here where most of the birds were, including Grey-headed Fish-eagle, Black-headed Cuckooshrike and Jungle Prinia.

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Jungle Prinia

However, I think that the highlight of this area was this beautiful bird:

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Sri Lanka Junglefowl

The reason that the photo isn’t excellent is because there was poor light in the strip of waste-ground between the tiny local market and the dry scrub next to it – a favoured site of the Sri Lanka Junglefowl.

Sri Lanka Junglefowl is the national bird of Sri Lanka and as the name suggests, it is an endemic. This means that its global distribution is limited to Sri Lanka. It is one of four species of Junglefowl and one, the Red Junglefowl which is very similar in appearance, is likely to be the ancestor of domestic chickens.

On the second day of the tour, we visited the nearby Minneriya NP. This park is famous for its large gatherings of wildlife and especially elephants. These elephants come from all around to drink at the huge tank at the centre of the park, however they sometimes have a little trouble getting there.

We were taken around the park in Jeeps, and I was surprised at the number of vehicles within the park at one time. Although it was great to see all the elephants congregating in such large numbers (often up to 300), it was hard not to notice that the elephants were getting a little hindered by all the vehicles that would suddenly rush to where the elephants were leaving the forest to go and drink. Although they must be used to the numbers of vehicles, a couple of times their route to the tank was blocked by Jeeps. Once, an elephant got quite aggravated and rammed into a Jeep, damaging the vehicle and pushing it many metres away. I personally think that limiting the number of Jeeps entering the park per day might be a good idea, perhaps by making pre-booking compulsory, however I understand that the logistics behind this must be complicated.

Otherwise, the birding was excellent especially around the quieter sections of the tank. Huge numbers of Painted Storks, Spot-billed Pelicans and Spoonbills congregated around the edge, with a Lesser Adjutant mixed-in and loads of Black-winged Stilts a bit more spread-out. Other waders were also present with species including Kentish Plover and the bizarre-looking Great Thick-knee. Meanwhile, on the open grasslands of the park it was enjoyable to watch and listen to the display flight of Oriental Skylarks, and to see the Paddyfield Pipits attending to their nests.

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A small group of Painted Storks. There was a huge group just behind these ones!

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The Paddyfield Pipits would often allow close approach in the Jeeps

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We came across a number of Indian Peacocks and Peahens in the park, the first of the trip.

The following day, after a morning of birding around the hotel, we had lunch at a great local restaurant on the banks of a small river. Immediately after our arrival, the chefs threw some fish onto the bank of the river, although it wasn’t clear what they were for. However, we soon found out when a huge Water Monitor, which must have been at least 5 feet long, lumbered out of the water and swallowed the fish. It wasn’t long before others arrived, however the first monitor was the largest and fiercely protected its lunch. The smaller monitors got a few scraps but the largest one wouldn’t budge. It even tried to whip the chef with its very powerful tail every time it was given more fish, which was incredibly dangerous!

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Our next stop on our tour around Sri Lanka was Kandy, nearer to the hills and within the wet zone. There would be quite a change in landscape and wildlife! I’ll end this post with a slideshow of some of the highlights of our stay in Sigiriya.

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