Northern Ringneck Snake on Rocky Hillside

A Diadophis punctatus edwardsii on Goat Island...
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On a hike along a mountain ridge we were crossing some hilly terrain as the trail followed a little valley between two large hills. It’s wooded and rocky and the valley has a little creek running through it. The day was warm, but windy.

I saw some slate rock and said to myself to turn over that piece. There might be a salamander under there. Earlier in the week I had seen a couple of lead-backed salamanders under tree bark that was on the ground, so it was fresh in my mind to look for others. Then, just before I turned over the rock I thought – Hey, watch out! There might be something under there! I turned over this brick-sized piece of slate and flipped it back pretty quickly. Instead of a salamander there layed a small black snake all coiled up!

It wasn’t coiled up to strike out, but was probably just laying there resting when some huge creature disturbed it by lifting the roof over its head. Ringnecks apparently do most of their hunting at night so that’s when they will be on the prowl. During the day they will hide among and under rocks and tree bark.

The ringneck snake in Pennsylvania is the Northern Ringneck Snake, Diadophis punctatus edwardsi. It is the only ringneck snake in the Mid-Atlantic, Appalachian and Northeastern United States. It is a sub-species that is related to the Southern Ringneck Snake, Diadophis punctatus punctatus, that can be found in the Southeastern United States. The southern ringneck has a reddish ring around its neck and its underside is redder than the yellow belly of the northern ringneck.

Ringnecks are plain, dark snakes with a light-colored collar or ring around the neck. They only get 10-15 inches long and you probably have to turn over a rock or log to find one. This one was found under a slate rock in a rocky, wooded hillside near a spring-fed stream. A couple years ago we saw a ringneck that was lying among large pieces of bark that had been stripped off logs for firewood. It made itself visible only when pieces of bark were moved and its hiding place disturbed.

If you’re adventurous enough to turn over logs looking for salamanders, use a stick or a gloved hand. At the very least watch where your fingers and feet are because you could easily uncover a nasty snake instead of a sleepy one.

To find out more aoubt our legless freinds and other reptiles, check out Peterson’s Reptile Field Guide.

Skunk Cabbage at the Spring-Fed Stream

The trees on our ridge-top are just starting to make their leaves so the hillsides still look bare. The spring-fed streams look more alive with the skunk cabbage developing their huge green leaves.

The skunk cabbage has already bloomed for the year and is one of the only noticeable green things out here. No doubt this creek was much higher after the deluge of rain the other day.

A sunfish scooted away as we approached the edge of a pool in this little stream.

Skunk cabbage growing next to a spring-fed stream that trickles through the hollow between hills of the mountain ridge.
Skunk cabbage growing next to a spring-fed stream that trickles through the hollow between hills of the mountain ridge. Photo taken 21 April 2011.
A downstream look at the babbling brook.
A downstream look at the babbling brook. Photo taken 21 April 2011.
Skunk cabbage leaves are already bigger than a dinner plate and they'll get bigger yet. Note how the leaves start out curled up like a cigar.
Skunk cabbage leaves are already bigger than a dinner plate and they'll get bigger yet. Note how the leaves start out curled up like a cigar. Photo taken 21 April 2011.

In this lowland area there were ferns beginning to roll out their fronds and other small plants growing green. Brambles and garlic mustard are some of the first plants to really get growing at this time of year.

Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is surprisingly edible. Crushing a leaf releases a skunky odor, so you wouldn’t think to eat this stuff. Eating a raw leaf will cause intense burning in the mouth because of the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. Drying the leaves or rootstock thoroughly will remove this property. Dried leaves can be reconstituted for use in soups or stews or used as a cooked green. According to Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants Guide, the rootstock can be dried and pounded to make a flour that is somewhat cocoa-like.

Brown Springtails Jump On a Puddle

The other day I was outside to do a little yard clean up. I borrowed a tarp that was covering some firewood for moving raked leaves to the compost pile. A tarp makes this job very easy. Just lay the tarp near the area to be raked, rake the leaves on top of the tarp, grab a couple of corners and drag the tarp to the compost heap and dump it. A large enough tarp will hold a lot more leaves than a garbage can or bucket.

When I was finished using the tarp I returned it to cover the stacked firewood. A few pieces of wood were laid on top to keep the tarp from blowing away. It was then that I noticed something floating on small pools of water on top of some black plastic. Contractor garbage bags and black plastic sheeting had been used to cover other stacks of wood. In a few spots the plastic sheeting had been crinkled or curled in a way that allowed rainwater to pool.

At first I didn’t like seeing the water as it could be a mosquito breeding ground. But other insects breed in water, too. Here, the something that was floating on the water were thousands of Springtails or Collembola. Springtails were once classified as insects, but they now are considered to be in their own group, Class Entognatha.

Springtails are sometimes called water fleas because of their fantastic jumping ability. They are small and light enough to run around on top of the water and not break the surface tension. Photos taken 14 April 2011.

Roundish flotillas of springtails.
Roundish flotillas of springtails.
The Springtails are less than a millimeter long!
The inch-long maple flower gives a good size comparison. The Springtails are less than a millimeter long!
Floating springtails.
Floating springtails.

Other places that you can see springtails include planted fish tanks and snow banks.

The tiny insects probably hitch a ride on vegetation and get transported from fish tank to fish tank. There’s no telling where the springtails in my fish tanks originally came from, but at least a few of them have been evading the fish for years now. I found a cup and scooped some of the springtails from the puddle and poured them into a tank to treat the fish to something different.

Seeing any insect on top of a snow bank seems odd because most of them are dormant during winter. Snow fleas, as they are called, can sometimes be seen as jumping black specks on top of newly fallen snow. During winter in New York State they would appear out of thin air and then disappear just as quickly. I have no idea what they were doing on the snow or where they went when they disappeared. These were black springtails and they were about twice as big as the brown springtails of the wood pile.

Take an aquatic entomology class and you can learn all about the insects and related arthropods that inhabit our watery world. In lieu of that, keep your eyes open when you’re outside. You’ll never know what you’ll find!

Coltsfoot Blooms and Dandelion Salad

Coltsfolt was in full bloom in the sun yesterday, yet hardly noticeable the previous few cloudy days. The first I saw it blooming this year was on 15 April.

Spring continues to bring out the posies. In the flower beds the crocus blooms are dying back and the anemones and hyacinths are taking their turns blooming. Tulips are still making leaves and starting to push up their flowers. Forsythia buds grew out last week to first blossom on 14 April.

Red-spotted newts were seen floating around in the pond, too!

Another plant showing the elevation effect on bloom time is a Star Magnolia on our ridge. It had half-opened three or four blossoms on 15 April, while another one down in the valley was in full bloom on the same day.

Now that we’re almost a third of the way into Spring, the dandelions are out. This past weekend the first dandelion flower was picked. Once the dandelions show their happy faces, it’s notable for kicking off the lawn care season. Some people can’t stand to see the bright yellow flowers “messing up” their yards. We don’t mind them and prefer to leave things in more of a natural state.

Grass is starting to get long enough to cut in some areas and the downed wood from winter and windy spring weather has to be picked up. Gardening activities can resume when the weather allows, but the early spring salads have already been enjoyed. Including dandelion!

Ham and dandelion dinners are common around these parts in the week or two just before Easter. The idea is to pick the leaves before the blossoms emerge because then they are too bitter to enjoy. A fellow who was involved with making ham-n-dandelion dinner for 300 people admitted that his group buys the dandelion commercially. I’m sure there are a lot of country people and Amish that pick their own dandelion leaves.

Dandelion salad is a leafy salad with a hot dressing. Hot bacon dressing gives a nice flavor and wilts the greens just enough to soften them a little…a real Spring time treat.

Snowdrops and Bittercress Flowers Bloom First

The warm winds that have blown our way for the last few days have been awakening. Geese flocked by overhead, bird activity in general is picking up, and chipmunks have been seen. I’m not sure if the juncos have flown away yet, but the red-winged blackbirds are back. Record high temperatures were tied in several local areas yesterday. It was in the mid-70s, well above normal. Now, it’s one day away from the calendar start of Spring and flowers have started blooming.

Although wildeherb concentrates on the wild herbs or plants that you might find blooming on a hike in the woods or other natural area, sometimes garden variety plants are included. It’s only natural to relate what we find out in nature to what’s going on in the flower beds or vegetable garden.

Our first-blooming plant was a bulb, the snowdrop. The first snowdrop was spotted blooming on March 12th and it has bloomed for a week now. These are hearty little flowers that you can sometimes see blooming in the snow. Once their blossoms are seen, the thawing of Spring can be felt.

Snowdrop blooming among the heritage flower rosettes.
Snowdrop blooming among the heritage flower rosettes. Photo taken 19Mar2011.

The snowdrop bulbs were planted in a bed where the heritage flower grows. You can see the crumpled-looking, velvety leaves of the first year rosettes that have overwintered. They will sprout long stalks with beautiful magneta flowers in May-June.

Snowdrop flower dangles.
Snowdrop flowers dangle. Photo taken 19Mar2011.

The snowdrop flower opens up its three petals on sunny days. On cloudy days the petals remain dangling. The linear leaves are broad compared to the shorter, variegated ones of the crocus bulbs that are just starting to develop blossoms underneath the snow drop flower above.

Pennsylvania bittercress was first spotted blooming yesterday, 18Mar2011. Its miniscule flowers are quite low to the ground.

PA Bittercress blooming between the flagstones along a walkway.
PA Bittercress blooming between the flagstones along a walkway. Photo taken 19Mar2011.

In our little micro-climate the first blooming garden plant is the snowdrop and the first natural plant to bloom is the Pennsylvania bittercress. With respect to first-blooming times, the plant pictured here most likely had an advantage living among the warm flagstones and sand. No bittercress plants were found blooming in the yard away from the heat of the rocks next to the house.

Photo taken 19Mar2011.


Swans and Geese Fly As Tulips Peek Out

The weeping willows are showing a bit brighter yellow in their stems and the birds are moving. Snow is melting and spring is surely on its way!

The other day I heard a mixed flock of geese flying low. It was early in the morning and too cloudy to see them, but I heard the calls of Tundra Swan and of geese, perhaps the Snow Goose. I had stepped out to take a picture of the tulips that have been silently pushing out of the ground.

Tulips emerging from the ground.
Tulip tips poking out of the ground. Photo taken 27Feb2011.

Granted, the tulips are right next to the house so they’re getting a fast start, but it still brought out a couple smiles to see something green for a change.

Oh yeah, if you want to brush up on your bird calls, visit the Patuxent Bird ID Infocenter.

Catnip Delights Feline on a Sunny Day

On a warm and sunny day I caught this little kitty enjoying a roll on the flagstone. She had been nibbling the catnip that you can see in the foreground.

Catnip entertains kitty.
Catnip keeps this feline entertained on a sunny day. Photo taken 12Nov2010.

The perennial roots will keep catnip here for a long time. New sprouts will pop up in the adjacent areas as old sticks die back. Next Spring new growth will arise near the old growth. Some of the stems can be quite woody, especially near the base.

We like having catnip planted near the house. I don’t know if it acts to deter insects, but it does keep the felines close by. We really appreciate knowing that we won’t be bothered by mice or other rodents with our cat hunters nearby.

Sweet Everlasting Blooms For Weeks

Flowers of pearly everlasting Anaphalis margar...Flowers of Pearly Everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea at Orcas Island, Washington.
Image via Wikipedia

Walking around a corn field that will be harvested in a couple weeks surely tells us it’s autumn. The corn is drying up, but still quite a lot of green leaves on the upper half of the tall stalks. The leaves crunch under our feet and the birds are really active. Starlings are starting to flock together. Earlier this week we probably saw the hummingbirds for the last time this year as they visited the butterfly bush near the house.

There aren’t very many flowers drawing our attention these days as the trees are really showing their fall colors now. The maple trees are in full color up on the ridge, but down in the city the color change hasn’t begun in earnest.

We did see a lone flowering plant with white flower heads in clusters. The flowers were a bit odd in that they looked kind of like a cotton swab. There are no petals to speak of so the flower parts are said to be indistinguishable.

The whole plant seems to have a covering of cottony growth, but that is accentuated in the globular flower heads. The long linear leaves have white wooly undersides. The leaves are alternate and entire and do not clasp the stem.

Sweet Everlasting, also called Catfoot or Rabbit Tobacco, is botanically known as Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium, a member of the Aster family, Asterideae. The group of related Gnaphaliums may be called Cudweeds. By the way the derivation of the genus name, Gnaphalium, comes from a Greek term meaning ‘tuft of wool.’

Branched groups of flower heads are at the top of a single cottony main stem that appears to be covered with white wool or cotton. Flowers are white with tinges of yellow mostly appearing when the flowers go to seed.

Branching flower heads of Sweet Everlasting.
Branching flower heads of Sweet Everlasting. Photo taken 6 September 2010.

Sweet everlasting has a long bloom period, perhaps a few weeks during July through October. It’s fragrant, too. Smelling sweet and kind of like maple syrup.  The miniscule flowers are surrounded by white scaly bracts.

White cottony flower heads of Sweet Everlasting.
White cottony flower heads of Sweet Everlasting. Photo taken 6 September 2010.

From above the alternate and linear nature of the leaves is obvious.

Looking down on the 2 ft. tall Sweet Everlasting.
Looking down on the 2 ft. tall Sweet Everlasting. Photo taken 6 September 2010.
Sweet everlasting flowers gone to seed.
Sweet everlasting flowers gone to seed. Photo taken 10 October 2010.

A month later most of the Sweet Everlasting flowers have gone to seed. The central and upper leaf clusters of flower heads still have their seeds intact. The other flower heads have opened up to release their seeds. The opened flower bracts look like dried flowers. This characteristic is shared with a related flower called Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea, which is very showy and often used in dried flower arrangements.