WDEL Blog: Eclectic Hobbies with Allan Loudell

Yes, non-venomous Snakes can rattle! And other observations from the outdoors

Walking around the serpentine barrens of Nottingham county park in Chester County, Pennsylvania (not far from the Herr's potato chips plant) this past Sunday, the distinct sound of a rattle seized my attention.

Two things simultaneously crossed my mind: Better get out of the way of whatever was rattling, but no, venomous snakes - let alone rattlesnakes - aren't known to occur there. I carefully scanned an area of low-lying weeds and dead leaves and discovered the source: The vibrating tail of a Black Ratsnake. The snake recoiled in a defensive posture, showing its characteristic white chin and throat. I snapped a few photos, started to leave, and the snake dropped its defensive position. This was my third such Ratsnake this spring; one has to be careful not to confuse it with the Northern Black Racer, which is more uniformly colored.

And the rattling appears to be an intentional defensive mechanism for some non-venomous snakes. The Ratsnake pulls it off better than most.

Also saw a male Common Five-lined Skink (with an orange-red head during the mating season) on the wall of a convenience store south of Northeast, Maryland.

Finding such amphibians and reptiles complements my nature photography walks in search of butterflies and moths. I've also observed substantial numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds this spring in a variety of habitats.

Speaking of venomous creatures, during the annual field trip of the Newark (New Jersey) Entomological Society in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Saturday, May 2nd, we had a close encounter with a Black Widow spider after dark. I must confess I never realized Black Widows occurred this far north. One of our lepidopterists discovered the poisonous spider while observing moths in the area of a brightly illuminated sheet. That hourglass-shaped red mark on the underside of the abdomen looked all the more striking (and threatening) with the bluish illumination.
(This was at a site south of Warren Grove, New Jersey.)

By the way, most colorful moth encountered there (at least for me): The Figured Tiger moth, Grammia figurata.

Butterflies: The great northward Red Admiral migration appears to have subsided. One still encounters dozens of these brushfoot butterflies - with their fiery red-orange slashes - in habitats with substantial stretches of the caterpillar food plant: Nettles, false nettles, etc. Parts of White Clay Creek State Park in Delaware and particularly White Clay Creek Preserve in Pennsylvania have these. Also finding the related Vanessa species, the American Lady, in many habitats.

The very attractive Spicebush Swallowtails are flying in good numbers in many of our state parks; I've been seeing more Spicebush Swallowtails so far than Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, which happen to be our Delaware state butterfly. Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County, Maryland, remains the epicenter for dramatic Zebra Swallowtails. The "tails" get progressively longer with each brood, of which there are three.

Smaller brown butterflies with eyespots - Little Wood Satyrs - have now emerged in many area parks with wooded areas. If you see a brownish butterfly bobbing or bouncing along the ground, this is your butterfly. When at rest, these butterflies hold their wings up vertically; occasionally, Little Wood-Satyrs will spread their wings. Either way, look for the eyespots.

If you see a rather small orange butterfly whizzing by your head in many habitats - even your yard - it's probably a male Zabulon Skipper.

Speaking of skippers, I observed several spring skipper specialties in the serpentine barrens of Nottingham: Cobweb and Dusted. Bluestem grasses are the caterpillar foodplant for both. The sandy, rocky habitat of Nottingham is not replicated in northern Delaware state or county parks. I did observe one other skipper Sunday at Nottingham - the Common Sootywing - which I have observed in past years in at least one northern Delaware location, the University of Delaware garden. But I have yet to see this small blackish-brown skipper at White Clay Creek or Lums Pond state parks.

Posted at 2:03pm on May 22, 2012 by Allan Loudell

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