Understanding Snakes

Snakes are some of the world’s most feared animals. But why? Many people are afraid of snakes, even if they’re not Ophidiophobic (phobia of snakes). But what makes snakes so terrifying? Is it the way they resemble mythological sea serpents that attack ships in the ocean and eat humans alive? Is it because of the seemingly creepy way they slither? Or is it simply because sone snakes are venomous, which makes them scary to people? People may fear snakes because they don’t know which ones are venomous and which are nonvenomous, so they have to assume a snake is dangerous and could kill you. But in reality, only 25% of all snakes are venomous. Venom is often confused with poison, but they are different toxins. Venom is when an animal stings or bites. An example of a venomous stinging animal is the European Hornet. All bees, wasps and hornets are venomous. An example of a venomous biting animal is the King Cobra, the largest of all venomous snakes. Venom needs to be injected through either fangs, like a snake, or a stinger, like a wasp. Poison, is when you ingest something or touch a poisonous animal, such as a Strawberry Poison Dart Frog. Many people also think snakes are slimy, but snakes have smooth, dry skin. The most common snake in the U.S. is the Eastern Garter Snake. The chances are, you’ve seen these before.

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Other snakes you are likely to encounter in the forest are Racers, Rat Snakes and Ring-necked Snakes. Near a river or pond, you are likely to see Northern Watersnakes.

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Northern Watersnake, photo by me

Watersnakes are nonvenomous snakes, but are more dangerous than Rat and Garter Snakes. Watersnakes are agressive and will try to bite you if you try to pick them up, so it is best to leave these snakes alone. If you do handle a snake, it will take a little while to smell you and realize you’re too big to be prey. As long as you handle it gently and don’t hurt it, the snake will not bite. Venomous snakes, on the other hand, are a little different. If you handle it gently it won’t bite, but it is recommended you don’t handle these snakes. You should stay a safe distance away so you don’t get bitten and the snake doesn’t feel threatened.

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Timber Rattlesnake warning not to get too close

Snakes are misunderstood animals, but in reality snakes are very helpful. They control the White-footed Mouse population by eating them. These mice  ticks that cause diseases to humans. Next time you see a snake, you shouldn’t try to hurt it. You should leave the snakes alone, because they are fascinating animals and are helpful to the environment. You should learn about the snakes in your area. If you live in Virginia, the Virginia Herpetological Society is a good website on snakes and other herps. Snakes are beautiful animals, and I hope that more people can learn to understand and protect these amazing reptiles.

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Highland County Field Trip

On May 26, Max led the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club (BRYBC) Highland field trip. Highland County has the lowest population in Virginia, and is great for birding in summer. This field trip has been a club favorite for the past few years, and we hoped to see Bobolinks, Mourning and Golden-winged Warblers, Willow and Alder Flycathers, and more. The birders met at the Afton Inn at 6am, then drove to the Starbucks in Staunton, where they picked up my brother and I. From Staunton we drove into the country of Augusta, soon to become Highland county. We started observing birds on the 80 Potomac River Road in Monterey, a few minutes past the Confederate Breastworks Interpretive Site. We heard Indigo Buntings, Redstarts, Vireos, Black-and-White Warblers and more. Our first main stop was Paddy Knob, a birding hotspot on the mountain split into two sides: a Virginia side and a West Virginia side. We spent time on both halves, hearing Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Least Flycatchers, Black-capped Chickadees and Mourning Warblers. We spent about two hours at Paddy Knob, then we headed down the mountains to have lunch at the Monterey gas station. On the way back, I got my first Broad-winged Hawk. A BRYBC Highland tradition is to get slurpees at the gas station, so that’s what we did. We had lunch and then headed to Blue Grass Valley in search of Golden-winged Warblers. Our search was successful when someone spotted one in a tree. We set up scopes and watched this amazing bird until we could no longer see it.

20180526124427.JPGGolden-winged Warbler, photo by me

After the bird disappeared, we drove down the mountain to the Cliff Swallow spot. Later, we birded Laurel Fork Road, and at the pond saw a continuing Green-winged Teal. These waterfowl winter in Virginia, so this one was late. We also saw another bird we hoped to get: Bobolinks. These blackbirds have a distinctive cap on their head, so they are easily identifiable.

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Male Bobolink with distinctive shower cap, photo by me

We saw other birds such as Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks and a Bald Eagle.

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Bald Eagle, photo by me

Our last stop of the day was Cowpasture River Road, but it wasn’t too successful, but it was OK because we had seen Least Flycatchers, Golden-winged Warblers, Bobolinks, Yellow-billed Cuckoos and many more target species. However, we did not try to get Vesper Sparrows, so we might try for them next Highland trip…

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at Piney Grove Preserve

On May 5th, Baxter led the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club (BRYBC) 2018 Piney Grove Preserve field trip, and it  the trip of the year as promised. Piney Grove Preserve, located in Sussex, Virginia, is home to the state’s only Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. These woodpeckers have a red spot on their head, similar to Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, but the spot is nearly invisible when seeing them in the wild. These woodpeckers can be found scattered across Eastern Virginia, but are endangered due to habitat loss. This preserve focuses on preserving Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, who need human help on preserving their habitat. Piney Grove was our main location, but we also went other places to bird. I met with seven other young birders at 6am at Smoothie King in Pantops. From there we carpooled to our first stop, James River Park. This park located in Richmond City had a wetlands trail, which we walked. We heard singing bitds such as Magnolia Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher and Black-and-White Warbler. After walking around the trail, we drove to Piney Grove. Bobby Clontz, a worker at Piney Grove, gave us a tour around the nature preserve. He showed us where the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers nested. 20180505085545Red-cockaded Woodpecker nesting cavity, photo by me

We walked around the preserve for almost 4 hours. We had a total of 44 species at Piney Grove including Northern Bobwhites, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Prairie and Pine warbers and Yellow-breasted Chats.

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Red-headed Woodpecker, photo by me

We spotted a total of 8 Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in small groups. In the end, everyone got to see these woodpeckers, and a few got photos.

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Red-cockaded Woodpecker, photo by Max Nootbaar. The red spot on head can often be invisible in field.

By the end of the tour, it was lunch time so we went to Subway. We were about to pull into Subway when Tucker and Paul shouted “stop the car!”, so we pulled into Subway and hopped out of the car. It was a FOY Mississipi Kite. It circled around some trees across the road from Subway. We crossed the road and got great views of the large bird of prey. This was a wonderful sight, a new bird for me, and a long-awaited lifer for Paul.

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Mississipi Kite, photo by me

Birds are difficult to photograph in flight, so you either need a very good zoom lens or you need to get very lucky with a not-so great zoom lens. The Canon Powershot SX60 I used to take the Mississipi Kite photo with has 65x optical zoom, so it’s pretty good, but flight shots aren’t my specialty. I got my usual sub, Italian BMT at Subway. We drove to Suffolk county where Great Dismal Swamp NWR is located. Our main target species for this wildlife refuge, the Swainson’s Warbler, lives near swamps so we came here to search for it. On the road to Washington ditch in the swamp, rhe car in front of us stopped. Two young birders got out of the car and started taking pictures. I started to get out, but the bird flushed, and I missed my opportunity to see it. The bird was a Barred Owl. We got back in the car and drove to Washington ditch, our first Great Dimsal Swamp stop. When you think of swamps, you probably think of mosquitoes. And that’s exactly what Great Dismal Swamp had. At parts of the swamp, the mosquitoes were so bad, insect repellant was pretty much a necessity. However, not all the insects were pests. Neat Odonate species (Dragonflies and damselflies, odes for short) were flying around, and some landed, so we could get photos of these interesting insects.20180505135524

Harlequin Darner, my favorite dragonfly species of the day. Photo by me.

We saw Ebony Jewelwings, Stream Cruisers, a Harlequin Darner and a Turquoise Bluet. We heard Prothonotary Warblers (another target species), Great Creasted Flycatchers, Hooded Warblers and more. We eventually came across a Swainson’s Warbler that came out so we all see it very well.

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Swainson’s Warbler, photo by me

Warblers, especially Wood-warblers, are some of my favorite birds, so seeing a new species is always nice. Swainson’s Warblers is an uncommon species that breeds in spring and summer in a small part of Virginia, and Great Dismal Swamp is one of the places in the state you can see them, so this was a great bird. After we all saw the warbler, we headed back. On the way back to the cars, we heard a second Barred Owl, so I ended up getting my first owl on my life list. We had planned to go to Jericho Ditch, another location in the swamp, but since we had already gotten Swainson’s Warbers we decided to go to Dutch Gap in search of bitterns instead. The Least and American Bitterns are my favorite wading birds. Something about their long necks and strange sounded calls makes them some of the birds I want to see most. The Least Bittern can be easy to see in certain areas, but the American Bittern is an uncommon species that is declining. Dutch Gap in Chesterfield is a conservation area that we could possibly see them at, but we were unsuccessful. However, I did add my first two gull species to my life list, Herring and Laughing gulls. After we left Dutch Gap, we went to a Chipotle restaurant. After dinner, we went back to Pantops, exhausted yet excited from the great day of birding we had.

Big Days are traditional to the birding world. It’s a fun concept: you or a team of birders see how many species you can see or hear in a single day. Today was eBird’s 2018 Big Day, and my day total was 80 species.