First box turtle of 2019

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She was outside the deer fence, so she’s not one of the garden regulars. I took photos to help me recognize her if I find her again.

I wonder if the dried mud on her carapace means she recently emerged from hibernation?

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Snakes in the garden, part 5: an exciting morning

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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.

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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.

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“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

Houston: Mercer Botanical Gardens (Six on Saturday #32)

Mercer Botanical Gardens are located north of downtown Houston, very close to George Bush Intercontinental Airport.  I had visited the gardens once before, about seventeen years ago, but remembered very little, so during our recent trip to Houston, I took the opportunity to renew my acquaintance.

I had forgotten about Hurricane Harvey.  During the flooding last year, the gardens were submerged under eight feet of muddy, polluted water.  Clearly the floods did a lot of damage, and just as clearly the gardens employees and volunteers have been working very hard to repair the damage. This article from the Houston Chronicle describes the devastation, and a google image search will show you what the gardens once were.  These six pictures will give you a little taste of what the gardens are now, and a hint of what they will be again.

1.  Dead palm tree

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Some of the garden grounds were still closed off, and in the open areas damaged plants were still visible.  After the flooding, last winter included an unusually prolonged cold spell in the Houston area, which probably did not help the tender palms.  Virtually all of those that were still alive had damaged fronds, but that damage is temporary.  I’m not sure if this palm tree was left in the ground because the staff had been overwhelmed, or if they were waiting to see if it might resprout.

2.  Zephyranthes (rain lilies)

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Many of the plants that seemed to be in the best conditions were tropical bulbs and rhizomes, particularly those that tolerate wet soil (crinum, gingers, etc).  Presumably, these plants resisted being washed away by the flood, and any top damage was easily replaced.  I saw an enormous clump of Hymenocallis caribaea, unfortunately not blooming, that was in prime condition, but the best flowers were on these unlabeled Zephyranthes.  They were blooming all by themselves in a rock garden area that appeared to have been recently renovated but not yet replanted.

3-5. Tropical shrubs and trees

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Erythrina crista-galli, one of the parents of Erythrina x. bidwillii

Although many of the beds are thus far, still fairly barren, splashes of color from vigrous perennials and fast growing tropical trees and shrubs hint at how spectacular the gardens will be again in a few years.

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Huge, hot-pink flowers of Lagerstroemia speciosa
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Stachytarpheta mutabilis (coral porterweed)

6.  Anolis sagrei (brown anole)

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The gardens were swarming with little brown anoles.  A. sagrei is native to Cuba and the Bahamas, and it is an invasive species in the southeastern U.S.  where it often replaces the native Anolis carolinensis (green anole).  My parents’ garden south of Houston still has green anoles, but I didn’t see a single native lizard at Mercer.

So, that’s Six on Saturday and a very brief look at Mercer as it is now.  For more Six on Saturday, head over to the blog of The Propagator, who started this weekly exercise and collects links from other participants.