Box turtles

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Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) crossing the road on Easter Sunday.

Yesterday, I was out in the garden and looked down to see one of the resident box turtles right next to my foot.  The kids and a neighbor friend were running around having a nerf gun battle, so I moved the turtle to a quiet spot where he wouldn’t be stepped on and gave him a couple of strawberries.

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Om nom nom

Each eastern box turtle has a unique pattern of markings, and by the spots on his head, I recognize this turtle as the one we have named Percy Shelley.  Here he is in 2010 and 2013:

same turtle
The mess on Percy’s chin in the right picture suggests he has been eating slugs or earthworms.

With its terrestrial habits, its domed shell, and its elephant-like feet, the eastern box turtle resembles a little tortoise, but it is actually a terrestrial member of the pond turtle family (Emydidae).  Its common name, box turtle, comes from the hinged plastron which gives it the ability to close up tight like a sealed box.

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The underside of a sealed box turtle showing the plastron hinge. Its head is to the right.

As you might guess from its scientific name–Terrapene carolina carolina–the eastern box turtle is very much a native of the NC piedmont.  In 1979, it was designated the official State Reptile of North Carolina.

It’s not clear that being the State Reptile has done box turtles much good.  They’re still relatively common, but numbers are almost certainly declining due to development and increased traffic on roads.  Box turtles live in relatively small territories, but during the summer they’ll go walkabout, especially on humid mornings after rain.  Many are killed by cars, and I have found turtles with cracked and healed shells suggesting that they had a narrow escape.

When it is safe to do so, I always stop to help turtles across the road. If you want to do the same, be sure to move the turtle in the direction it was headed, so it won’t have to try crossing the road again. And please please make sure that it is safe before getting out of the car.  People have been killed by traffic trying to help turtles across the road.

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A very pretty half-grown turtle I found crossing a road last summer.

When we first put up the deer fence, I worried a bit about trapping wild box turtles inside the fence.  It has now been more than five years since the fence went up, and our local residents seem to be doing fine.  Either they have ways of getting through (or under) the fence, or the garden gives them everything they need to survive.  Percy Shelley seems to be an adult male, and I have seen at least one slightly smaller female.  From time to time, I also run across young turtles in the garden, including tiny hatchlings.

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Three tiny hatchlings, together with their eggshells, that I uncovered in a damp mulch pile. Each hatchling still has its little egg tooth at the tip of its beak.

The baby box turtle’s carapace becomes more domed as it ages.  The little hatchlings, with their flatter shells, look a lot like their aquatic relatives:

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I’m not sure if this hatchling is a yellow bellied slider or a river cooter. I gave it a lift down to the water, as it was heading in the wrong direction.
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Hatchling box turtle with carapace not much more domed than its aquatic cousin
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A slightly older juvenile rescued from in front of the lawn mower. Its carapace is still fairly flat.

If you want to make your piedmont garden more box turtle-friendly, consider adding a nice pile of wood chips in a quiet corner and leave fallen leaves to rot undisturbed in areas where they don’t disrupt your landscaping.  Salamanders and lizards will also appreciate the effort.  The turtles might like a shallow dish of water, especially during dry weather, but avoid deep, steep-sided garden ponds that a box turtle could drown in.  Box turtles eat a lot of worms, slugs, and snails, so avoid toxic slug pellets.

If you find a turtle crossing the road, please don’t be tempted to take it home to your garden, no matter how turtle-friendly you have made it.  A turtle moved from its home territory will have much more difficulty finding food and safe places to hibernate, and it may be killed trying to find its way back to familiar land.

Snakes in the garden, part 4: copperheads

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

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I think this picture makes it clear how the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) got its name. This snake had climbed up onto our raised deck and coiled against the side of the house. I found it when I stepped outside, barefoot, early one spring morning.

I have good news, bad news, and good news.  The good news is that there is only one species of venomous snake in most of the North Carolina piedmont. The mountains have rattlesnakes and copperheads.  The coastal plain has rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, coral snakes, and copperheads.  Apart from a small population of timber rattlesnakes that may  be hanging on in northern Durham and Granville Counties [1] most of the piedmont has only copperheads.

The bad news is that copperheads are very common, and you will almost certainly run across more than one if you live in the piedmont and like to garden.

But, the good news is that copperheads are really very mellow snakes.  They just want to sit quietly in ambush, waiting for a mouse to walk past, and they really don’t want to waste venom on a giant primate who’s far too large to eat.

That’s not to say a copperhead won’t bite, but you’ll probably need to actually grab it or step on it first.  I’ve had several close encounters, but I have never been bitten–the copperheads have never even struck at me, except in one case where I was clearly being very annoying  and probably deserved to be bitten (more on that below).  Once, I yanked up a clump of crab grass and a baby copperhead fell out.  Another time, I was kneeling to weed a dense patch of stiltgrass (Microstegium) and felt something brush against the inside of my knee.  I looked down just in time to see the tail of a large copperhead disappear between my legs. After my heart rate and adrenaline levels returned to something approaching normal, I looked around and found the snake coiled placidly a few feet away  Last summer, a copperhead discovered a small hole where the foundation of our house meets the driveway slab:

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We walked within a couple of feet of it every time we left the house, but it never bothered us.  After a few days, it moved on, presumably to find a den with less traffic.

So there’s no need to panic when you see a copperhead.  If you can see it, you’re probably in no danger of being bitten and in any case, copperhead bites are almost never life threatening.  According to Palmer and Braswell [1] there has been only one well-documented case of a lethal copperhead bite in North Carolina–an unfortunate one-year old child who was bitten more than fifty years ago.

When I find a copperhead close to the house, I usually relocate it to the woods so that we’re less likely to step on it.  The most effective tools for the job are an old fish tank and a broom. I lay the tank on its side in front of the snake and then use the broom to gently encourage it to climb inside.  The clear, flat sided aquarium seems to make a better trap than a bucket with curved sides which the snake can see and avoid more easily.

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A trapped adult copperhead ready to head back to the woods after nearly giving me a heart attack while I was weeding.

If you can get past the Venomous Snake! Aaaagh! reaction, I think you’ll have to admit that copperheads are really quite handsome.  They’re beautifully camouflaged for life among the leaf litter, with coppery yellow/brown head and bands of chocolate brown and tan.  Baby copperheads have bright yellow tails that they use to lure prey, mostly small frogs or lizards:

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A young copperhead showing its yellow tail tip (far left).

A number of non-venomous snakes are frequently mistaken for copperheads, but identification isn’t difficult if you look for a couple of key features.  Non-venomous colubrids in North Carolina have eyes with round pupils, but copperheads, like all pit vipers, have vertical pupils like a cat:

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Notice the vertical pupil in the eye of this copperhead.

If you don’t want to get close enough to examine a snake’s eyes, look at the bands.  Copperheads have dark bands that are widest near the belly and narrow along the back.  Conversely, the light bands are widest along the back and narrower near the belly.  Non-venomous snakes like corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) have saddle-shaped blotches along the back.  If looked at from above, the dark markings are wider than the light–the opposite of a copperhead seen from above.

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Not a copperhead. This is Galadriel, my daughter’s pet corn snake.

Water snakes are also sometimes mistaken for copperheads, or the copperhead’s relative the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) which lives on the coastal plain.  Similar to the corn snake, the banding of a northern watersnake is the opposite of the copperhead’s pattern.  In the northern watersnake, the dark bands are widest along the back and narrow towards the belly.

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Also not a copperhead.  This northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) is attempting to swallow a bullhead catfish in the Eno River near Durham, NC. Compare its banding pattern to that of the copperheads above.

And of course, if a snake dives into the water to escape, that’s a pretty big hint that it’s a water snake, not a copperhead.

So this concludes my series on the snakes of my piedmont garden, but I live in hope of finding even more species among the perennials.  Perhaps this will be the year that we catch a mole kingsnake or an eastern hognose.  If so, I’ll post pictures here.

Oh, in case you were wondering what I did that actually made a copperhead angry enough to strike at me:  I can confirm that it is not a good idea to put a copperhead in the refrigerator, even if you plan to take it out before your spouse gets home from shopping.  You might think that it will cool the snake down and make it easier to pose for photographs, but by the time you get it back outside to a patch of picturesque moss it will have warmed up again and will be very annoyed.

Reference:

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

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

Previous posts in this series:

Snakes in the garden, part 1: flowerbed snakelings

Snakes in the garden, part 2: the black snakes

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An eastern garter snake emerging from under fallen leaves in the garden

Eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) and Rough green snakes (Opheodrys aestivus) are occasional visitors to our garden, although their preferred habitat is probably closer to the creek that runs through a conservation easement adjacent to our property.

Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)

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A garter snake that I photographed in Durham County.

The eastern garter snake has a huge range, from Massachusetts to Florida on the east coast, extending west to Minnesota and Canada north of the Great Lakes, south to Louisiana and east Texas on the Gulf of Mexico.  It is a member of the same subfamily, the Natricinae, that includes North American water snakes and European grass snakes.  Like many of their relatives, garter snakes can be grumpy when first caught, but although I have grabbed many garter snakes in my life, I have never actually been bitten.  I have been on the receiving end of their defensive musk secretions, which they enthusiastically smear all over the place as they thrash around. (Their larger relative, the northern water snake is another matter.  Those will bite.)

Smelly defenses notwithstanding, garter snakes usually settle down and become quite tame in captivity.  Generations of children, yours truly included, have kept them as pets.

Garters eat frogs, toads, salamanders, earthworms, small fish–just about anything they can subdue and cram into their mouth, actually.  Given their fondness for slimy, wet prey, I suspect that the occasional garters in the garden have strayed from the creek in search of a sunny basking spot.

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A darker garter snake, also from Durham County. Note the bulge, perhaps an unfortunate frog, and the blue color visible where the skin is stretched.

Various other subspecies of Thamnophis sirtalis are found throughout North America from coast to coast, Canada to northern Mexico.  If you garden anywhere in the United States, apart from the desert southwest, there is probably a garter snake nearby.

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A maritime garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis pallidulus), close relative of the eastern garter snake, that we spotted sunning itself among the sand dunes on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada.

Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus)

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A beautiful rough green snake

Green snakes are long and thin and perfectly camouflaged for a life of climbing through the bushes in search of  insects and spiders.  We have only seen a couple in our garden, and those were crossing the driveway or a path where their bright green scales were a beacon rather than protective coloration.  I wonder if they might be more common than they seem, just hard to spot.  Supposedly, they prefer thick vegetation near water, and certainly they are common around a lake close to my workplace that I sometimes walk around at lunch time.  There too, I usually notice them only when they cross the path in front of me.

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When the children and I catch a green snake, it will thrash around in a panic for a few moments but then quickly calms down and climbs slowly from hand to hand or up our arms.  Sometimes, they will mock strike, but they never bite.

I hope that by avoiding pesticides and densely planting the garden with a mix of shrubs and perennials to attract a wide variety of insects, I am creating good habitat for these beautiful snakes.

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A slightly out-of-focus green snake disappearing into the bushes. Even my camera’s autofocus couldn’t decide where the plants end and the snake begins.