Snakes in the garden, part 5: an exciting morning

hognose1
melanistic eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

Yesterday morning, as I ambled up the driveway to close the deer gate, I stumbled across a species that I have wanted to see for the past forty years, ever since I first read about it in the old Golden Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: an eastern hognose snake.

Like about 30% of the hognose snakes in the piedmont area [1], it was melanistic, with jet black scales showing none of the brown camouflage markings of the typical color form.  At first glance, it looked like an unusually short and stout black rat snake, but then I noticed the distinctive upturned snout that gives the eastern hognose its common name.

hognose2
The spadelike snout of the hognose probably helps it dig for toads in sandy soil.

The eastern hognose is one of the most interesting and unusual snakes in North America.  Why?  First, hognose snakes feed almost exclusively on amphibians, primarily toads, so they are resistant to the bufotoxins exuded by their prey.  When threatened, toads inflate with air, but hognose snakes have the tools to deal with this defense mechanism:  enlarged rear fangs and a mild venom.  Some sources suggest that the venom anesthetizes toads, causing them to deflate, while others indicate that hognose snakes “pop” inflated toads with their fangs.  Perhaps both are true.

The hognose snake’s second claim to fame is its truly spectacular behavioral repertoire.  When threatened, a hognose will first puff up, hiss loudly, and spread its neck like a little cobra.  The snake that I found showed us this behavior when I lifted it into a bucket to carry it away from the road to a safer spot in the garden.

By the time the kids and I deposited the snake next to a large pile of rotting logs and some good undergrowth, it apparently felt sufficiently threatened to perform its most famous routine.  Writhing dramatically, it rolled over and then went limp with its mouth gaping and tongue hanging out.

hognose3
“I have died and am dead.  You don’t want to eat a smelly dead snake.”

It held this pose for about a minute before spoiling the effect by popping its head up to have a look around.

hognose4
“Have they gone?”

Deciding that we had disturbed the snake enough, we went away.

Reference

  1. Palmer, W.M., and Braswell, A.L., 1995, Reptiles of North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press.

Previous posts in this series:

Snakes in the garden, part 1: flower bed snakelings

Snakes in the garden, part 2: the black snakes

Snakes in the garden, part 3: garter and green snakes

Snakes in the garden, part 4: copperheads

Advertisements

Caterpillars

Some recent sightings…

hornworm
Tobacco hornworm, the caterpillar of the Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta)

Eldest offspring’s jalapeño plant was growing well and producing plenty of peppers until this big fellow showed up.  Hornworms feed on a wide variety of solanaceous plants, so I’m keeping a close eye on my Brugmansia and tomato plants.  On occasion, while prowling the garden at night with a headlamp, I have found adult moths visiting nocturnally fragrant Lilium formosanum and Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’ flowers.

leaf roller
Greater canna leaf roller, the caterpillar of the Brazilian skipper butterfly (Calpodes ethlius)

About a week ago, I noticed that something was cutting flaps in the leaves of my canna plants and stitching them shut with silk.  Peeling the flaps open revealed the caterpillars of the Brazilian skipper.  In late summer, my cannas are often infested with lesser canna leaf rollers (caterpillars of a nondescript moth, Geshna cannalis), but this is the first time I have seen greater leaf rollers.  Brazilian skippers are tropical butterflies that sometimes stray to the NC piedmont,usually in late summer.

webworm1
Fall webworms (Hyphantria cunea) eating sweetgum leaves

webworm2

Unlike the greater canna leaf rollers, fall webworms are a familar late summer sight in my garden.  They feed on a wide variety of hardwoods.  This year, they’re on sweetgum and possumhaw.  In previous years, I have found them on sourwood, black cherry, and American persimmon.

The Maw of Doom

2B8B4E1E-5782-4648-A141-7C4FD34EA2EE
The last thing a caterpillar sees

Youngest offspring and I found a nest of newly hatched Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in one of my hanging baskets.  When we made clicking noises, they opened wide for dinner.

Carolina wrens are notorious for building nests in inappropriate places.  I have found nests under the lid of our barbecue grill and, repeatedly, in open bags of potting soil.  In comparison, a hanging basket is a surprisingly good choice, even if the chicks run the risk of being flooded whenever I water the plants.

The chick’s mouth kind of reminds me of a Pleurothallis flower.

Mole cricket

mole_cricket

While driving down our lane, I noticed a large, dark insect scuttling across the dusty gravel.  It proved to be a mole cricket.  As a child, I used to catch mole crickets in our garden in southwestern Iran, but I haven’t seen one in decades.  This was like meeting an old friend.

There are several mole cricket species in the southeastern U.S., including some introduced species that are agricultural pests.  I think this may be the native Neocurtilla hexadactyla (northern mole cricket), but I let it go instead of collecting it for definitive identification.