Baby skinks

skink eggs

Last weekend, I finally got round to moving some of the last remaining limbs of the oak tree that fell across our lane last autumn (picture #6 here).  Under one of the branches, I discovered five small eggs, each about 1.4-1.5 cm long.  Since I had already disturbed them, I decided to collect them and see if they would hatch.  I placed them on a layer of leafmould in a small plastic terrarium (actually an empty animal cracker container from Costco).  After spraying water on the walls of the terrarium to keep humidity high without soaking the eggs, I put it in the shade on our screen porch.

All five eggs hatched yesterday, and they proved to be the eggs of a skink (Plestiodon species, formerly Eumeces).

Skink hatchling1

There are three very similar Plestiodon species in our part of North Carolina:  Plestiodon fasciatus (five-lined skink), Plestiodon inexpectatus (southeastern five-lined skink), and Plestiodon laticeps (broad-headed skink).  The hatchlings of all three species are virtually identical, distinguished mainly by scale counts.

Skink hatchling2

In the garden, I most frequently see Plestiodon skinks clinging to the foundation of our house, on the wooden deck, or at the edge of the driveway, where they patrol for insects even when the concrete is hot enough to burn bare feet .  The vivid blue tails and neat yellow stripes of the juveniles are always a welcome sight.

After admiring the little hatchlings, we released them into the garden with the hope that they will grow fat on insect pests and avoid hungry birds.

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Nest raider

nest-raider2
A somewhat disgruntled young black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus)

For the past five or six years, a pair of eastern phoebes have built their nest on a small ledge under the roof of our front porch.  Eight feet off the ground and close to humans, this would seem an excellent place to avoid predators.  Most years, they successfully raise a brood of chicks who, by the time they are ready to fly away, look far too large for the little moss-lined nest.

phoebe nestlings1
A successful brood in 2016
phoebe nestlings2
“Hey! Move over!”

This year, they were not so lucky.  Opening the blind on our glass front door one morning last week, my wife was startled to see that a young black rat snake had located the nest.  It had wedged itself into the small crevice between a support post and gutter downspout and was slowly inching towards the chicks while the parent birds fluttered frantically from perch to perch.  Rat snakes, despite their name, do not specialize in preying on rodents.  They are climbers par excellence and enthusiastically raid nests for eggs and chicks.

nest-raider1

I removed the intrepid hunter and carried it to an old wood pile at the back of our house.  I thought that there would be plenty of rodents or lizards there to distract the snake.  It seems that the snake was determined, though.  The next morning, the nest was empty.  The parent birds hung around the garden for a few hours and then disappeared.  I wonder if they will be back next year.

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.

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“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