Thursday, 3 May 2012

Ontario Reptile Atlas

James Paterson, a biologist with Ontario Nature, was the Speaker for the KFN April General Meeting.  James spoke of the variety of amphibians and reptiles found in Ontario and the importance of preserving the habitats for these species, many of whose population has declined to the point of having them listed on the endangered species' list.  A project is underway to survey where reptiles and amphibians currently reside in the province in order to aid in conservation of their habitat.  James encouraged members to participate in reporting sightings, the online link to get more information about the atlasing project is
www.ontarionature.or/atlas .

This is the ideal time of year to see turtles in our local wetlands.  Painted turtles are the most commonly seen turtles in our area, and  are often basking out on logs and lumps in ponds and swamps, occasionally joined by Blandings turtles and snapping turtles.  Musk turtles and map turtles spend most of their lives in the water, but during egg laying season must come ashore to find places to lay their eggs. Snapping turtles will soon be seen coming out along roadsides and crossing roadways  to find egglaying sites, unfortunately putting them in danger of being hit and killed by cars.  Spotted turtles and wood turtles are more terrestrial, and due to very low numbers across their range can be very difficult to find. 

A good way to watch for turtles is to find some time to sit in a sheltered spot near a wetland with a pair of binoculars, this can be an enjoyable followup in late mornings after a session of birdwatching.  Find a comfortable spot where you can sit low, a bit of blind or shelter is helpful.  Turtles have surprisingly keen eyesight and can spot predators from quite a distance, anything the size of a human moving about will cause them to dive off their basking logs. You should be able to see some painted turtles climbing out onto logs to bask if isn't too hot, and occasionally spot a Blandings or snapping turtle poking its head above water to look around.  Musk turtles move around the bottom in shallow ponds and swamps, when the water is calm they can sometimes be spotted by drifting around in a conoe or boat.  Sometimes shining a light down through the water at night will reveal them foraging.  Map turtles are more difficult to find as they forage around down in deeper waters.

Snakes are found in a variety of habitats.  While watching for turtles one can often see northern water snakes working their way around the pond, or most often curled up along the shore basking in the sun.  Gray rat snakes (formerly called black rat snakes)  travel around their range, in forested areas, old fields and occasionally crossing wetlands. Their sheer size at machurity often makes them easy to spot, although their range and numbers have shrunk considerable over the past century. Quite often one will come across garter snakes and ribbon snakes as they are foraging throughout the day, a walk in the woods and fields throughout our area during the summer months usually turns up at least one of them.  Some of the more shy species of snakes forage at night, such as the little red-bellied snake, brown snakes, and ring-necked snakes.  Most often one finds these hiding under logs, rocks, old boards and other shelters during the day.  Rock piles at the edges of old farm fields are favourite hiding place, especially if there is any wood debris laying around.  Green grass snakes are found where their name implies, in fields and open areas.  Milk snakes are found in a variety of habitats, in old fields and woodlands.

The five-lined skink, Ontario's only lizard, can be found in open rocky areas.  Most often one comes across skinks while turning over rocks or boards. We urge caution when dislodging rocks in a natural landscape, as this can disturb and disrupt  a favourite hiding  area for snakes or skinks.  Remember that you are literally ripping the roof off some unsuspecting creature's house.  Replace any rocks carefully, as close as possible to the way it was found.  If one is patient enough skinks can be seen coming out in summer mornings on rocky outcrops to forage,skittering across open areas.  Watch carefully, skinks move like greased lightning.

One way to attract snakes and skinks is to place a few old boards at the edge of an old field.  Prop the flat pieces up with a few pebbles, leaving about 1/2 inch space between the board and the ground.  Leave it alone for a few days, then come back in early mornings to check to see if a snake has used this hiding place for cover.  Morning is best, when the area has cooled down and the snakes are sluggish, gives you a chance to see them before they take off.