Archive for the ‘Amphibians and Reptiles’ Category

Nova Scotia garter snake

Often described as ‘cool’ and ‘cute,’ snakes were a precious discovery in the yard when my sons were young.  My grandsons were just as smitten recently when their dad was able to capture one I had spotted swimming across a large vernal pool in the woods.

garter snake

This Maritime Garter Snake Thamnophis sirtalis pallidula was in its Unstriped phase.  These garter snakes also have Black and Striped phases.

garter snake scales

It seemed fairly non-aggressive according to my son, who’s been bitten by garter snakes in the past.  It was pretty compliant and even stuck out its forked tongue for the camera.

garter snake mouth and tongue

As I expected, there were tears shed when it was released back into the wild.  Why can’t we keep it?  I want to keep it as a pet! Though they can be fairly friendly, garter snakes do give off a bad scent in captivity or when they feel threatened.   When will we ever find another?  I’ve come across  a few already in the woods this year, so there’s a good chance we’ll see another soon.

garter snake in grass

In the meantime, we’ll let this one enjoy its freedom in the summer sun. Happy trails snake. (Just don’t freak me out by getting under my feet in the woods!)

For more on garter snakes, see Garden Garter and Snake Berries

Text and photographs copyright Amy-Lynn Bell 2013

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maple buds in spring

Canadian maple buds.  Check. 

coltsfoot in bloom

Coltsfoot.  Check.

junco attacking car mirror

Mating-crazed junco obsessed with its reflection in my car’s mirror.  Check.

chickadee and mourning dove calling from treetops

Chickadee and mourning dove calling from the treetops.  Check.  Check.

crawly creatures under rocks

Creepy crawlies under the garden stones:  Millipede, earthworm, beetle, salamander.  Check.  Check.  Check.  Check.

Nova Scotia slug

Slug.  Check.

red squirrel defending its territory

Red squirrel defending its territory.  Check.

snowshoe hare in april

Snowshoe hare on the lawn.  Check.

periwinkle or myrtle

The first periwinkle of the season.  Check.

Hope rekindled.  Check.



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Why did the snake cross the road?  Didn’t it feel the vibrations from oncoming traffic? 

Hey, do I look worried?

This maritime garter snake managed to survive being run over by a truck, luckily slipping between the tires.  Why was it willing to risk life and limb to get to the other side?  Was it looking for something tasty to eat? Snake berries perhaps?

For years I’ve heard both adults and children talk of ‘snake berries.’  Could these be berries that were frequently eaten by snakes? 

As children, my sons and their friends used the term to describe the fruit of the bunchberry plant, shown above.  It seemed that only the daring among them had ever tried tasting these snake berries.  My friend Sandy thought snake berries were blue. Others who knew of snake berries weren’t able to describe the plant in any detail. 

After a bit of digging, I discovered that the term is used to describe any berry of questionable edibility.  So, if you are in the woods, and see a berry that you’re not sure you can eat, you might choose to call it a snake berry.  All snake berries are therefore considered poisonous.  By the way, bunchberries are edible.  They’re bland with a large pit, but edible nonetheless.

Since the berries shown above are unknown to me and I’m not sure if they’re safe to eat, I’ll call them snake berries until I can learn more about them.  And since all snakes are carnivores, there’s no way that they would eat this or any other berry.

So, as to why the snake crossed the road… in Cow Bay, there can only be one answer:  it was the pheasants’ day off!

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Hey, what are you doing awake?  Aren’t you supposed to be hibernating?  

It was so warm that I decided to come out and see if it was spring yet. 

Weren’t you just out last month during a warm spell?

Yes, but this mating business is so important to us salamanders that I can’t let spring pass me by.  I have to check out every possibility.

Where do you usually spend your winters?

We yellow-spotted salamanders ideally hibernate about six inches underground.  However, I’ve just been buried beneath some leaves that are heaped on a concrete floor.  Maybe that’s why I keep waking up.  I need to find some deeper digs.

Once you really  know for sure that it’s spring, where will you go?

In very early spring, we salamanders return to pools of water to mate.  Females will lay up to a couple hundred eggs.  Temporary vernal pools created by melting snow and spring rains are our favorite places because they aren’t home to the predators found in more established watering holes.  We have to get there quickly so that the eggs have a chance to go through all the phases of growth before the pools dry up.

Good luck finding deeper digs.  Hope to see you again, but no sooner than  spring 🙂

Waking up throughout the winter takes up a lot of the precious energy I need for mating in the spring.  I’m going to find myself a spot where I won’t be disturbed.  See ya!

This yellow-spotted salamander was found wandering about  on January 1st.  It was previously seen on December 6th


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Do you ever wonder about what lies lurking beneath the stairs? Outdoor open-riser stairs that lead below ground level easily spark the imagination with images of creepy creatures that lie in wait beneath the dead leaves. I’ve often found toads and frogs in such a spot, but yesterday’s discovery was the most remarkable yet.

A beautiful yellow-spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) scrambled out of the leaves to enjoy the milder December weather.  It was more marvelous than creepy, a veritable wonder to behold.  Although they are not uncommon in Nova Scotia, I’ve only seen a yellow-spotted salamander once before near the compost pile.  Red-backed salamanders are a much more frequent find in my yard.

At least half a foot in length, this salamander possesses the amazing ability to drop its tail in order to distract predators.  Even more wonderful is its ability to regenerate its tail, limbs and even parts of organs if necessary.  If it feels threatened, it can also release a whitish poison from glands around its back neck.  This one simply held still until the photo shoot was over.  Then it scrambled back into the leaf litter.

If it survives the winter, in early spring, this salamander will make its way at that time to the nearest pond to reproduce.  In the meantime, it’s welcome to make its home beneath the stairs.


For more information on red-backed salamanders, see:

Red-backed Salamanders

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Red-backed salamanders are always a joy to find lying under rocks and beneath the dead leaves in the woods.  They are most frequently seen on moist days in spring and fall.

These woodland salamanders are amphibians but do not lay their eggs or have a larval stage in water.  Adults are lungless and breathe through their skin.  Consequently, moist surroundings are crucial to their survival and they are very sensitive to slight changes in their environment.  As the weather warms or cools, salamanders bury themselves deeper in the ground or under logs.

Years ago, salamanders became associated with fire, probably because they’d seemingly come to life when logs, to which they were clinging, were flung into the fire.  Considered by some to be magical creatures, they’ve been known to exist since the Jurassic period.

These small creatures eat tiny arthropods found in leaf litter.  Their numbers can be quite numerous in eastern American woodlands.  Although they keep a very low profile, salamanders contribute to the biodiversity of their habitat and play an important role in the natural recycling process of the forest. 

Their gentle nature endears salamanders to many.  Scientists see them as bioindicators,  and employ their numbers to indicate the health of woodlands.  Threatened by clear-cutting and extremely vulnerable to fungi and disease, their absence from an ecosystem is cause for concern.  Perhaps because of their fragility and silent presence in the woods, these red-backed salamanders are my favorite amphibians.

Humans are amphibians – half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.
~ C.S. Lewis

For more information about the mythology surrounding salamanders, see Dragonorama.

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