Vipers of Virginia’s Coastal Plain

DSC_0425 Our four hour drive began at 4:30 am Saturday May 12, 2012. Mike and I received our invitation to attend the Canebrake Survey several months earlier and were looking forward to our first wild rattlesnake observation. The Canebrake Rattlesnake is listed as VA State endangered and therefore protected. According to the Biologist leading the survey the population density of these animals is approximately 1 per 70 acres! So finding one even with twenty sets of herper eyes was quite a challenge.
(above) Canebrake in ambush position. Note the position and angle of its head resting perpendicular to the log waiting for unsuspecting rodent.

Our survey took place on land with restricted access and consited of a combination of open agricultural fields and pine tree scrub canebrakes and wetlands. During the survey there were several other species of snakes caught one of which was red bellied water snake.

There were also a few phibs and lizard such as squirrel tree frog, Pinewoods tree frog, a few toads marbled and Atlantic salamanders. Lizards found were broadhead, five lined and ground skinks. In the end a Canebrake was eyeballed by a former student of mine Ryan Collister and curent student of Organismal Biology at CNU. He was also the one who caputred the red bellied water snake. Funny thing I heard another herp team say to one another “lets get as far away as we can from these two-refering to Ryan and his herp partner Dane Conely.
The notion that these two young adults age 16 and 20 would create too much of a disturbance and therefore minimize the chnaces for the “experienced “herpers of finding a canebrake. Well as it turned out Ryan not only found the only canebrake but a nice red bellied water snake too.

Around 3:00pm the Canebrake Survey was over. A healthy number of herps were found including two Canebrakes that were recovered and released. Mike and I decided to make a run for VA beach to a place called Back Bay National Wildlife Snactuary. There we were to meet up with Ryan and Dane in the hopes of getting some late afternoon herping in. Back Bay has a nice diversity of herps the most coveted on this trip was to find water moccassins. That evening as we pulled into the parking lot we could see that Ryan and Dane had already arrived. Ryan could be seen holding up some sort of snake and appeared to be giving some tourist a lesson on the animal. Mike and I approached and could see that Ryan had caught a nice Brown Water Snake. Dane on the other hand was in the process of getting a juvenile Brown on his own which had been seeking refuge inbetween some rocks along the bay shoreline. The evening was sparse in terms of water moccasins. Ryan did manage to find a semi blind one laying coiled up in some salt marsh grass.

Just before dark Dane and Ryan, both veterans of Back Bay Herping, showed Mike and I some of their other productive sites. This time we saw but did not capture a northern water snake, watched a black racer take to the water to avoid capture but several other racers were captured under some debris areas later on. On our way back to the parking lot Dane caught a nice narrow mouth toad. These things were calling like crazy in the marsh areas between the bay and the ocean.

We said our good byes and Mike and I settled in a hotel room for the evening along VA Beach’s main drag. The next day Mike and I revisited Back Bay to try our luck at finding some larger Moccassins. The first hour wasnt producing much but we remained persistent traveling back and forth over the same area until finally I spot a baby lying coiled up in salt marsh grass. We take some pics and video then move on looking for the big ones that apparently inhabit the area. After about 15 minutes Mike gives out a shout – an adult crosses the path and makes it way into the marsh and remains long enough for Mike and I to get some video of the animals notorious defensive behavior.

Eastern Cottonmouth Defense VA Coastal Plain