Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Rattlesnakes in the Blue Hills!


Descending a rocky slope on the Skyline Trail in the Blue Hills.

It was a bright afternoon in May. I was hiking up a steep trail near the crest of Buck Hill in Milton, noticing about how warm the rock ledge at my feet felt, having absorbed the heat of the sun all day, and musing on how nice it would be to lie down upon it. And then I remembered that snakes like to stretch themselves out over warm rocks too . . . And that I had read something recently about rattlesnakes in the Blue Hills. . . And that maybe I should watch my step.

Given the fact that there were probably a hundred other hikers on the trail to Buck Hill that day, there wasn’t any cause for concern. Snakes don’t gravitate toward well-trafficked areas. But it got me thinking that I should educate myself more thoroughly on the matter. To put it mildly, I’m not fond of snakes. It would be better to know what to expect than to ruin a hike by imagining them lurking around every corner!

We typically associate rattlesnakes with the desert, and do not expect to encounter them close to home. However about 200 timber rattlesnakes currently reside in Massachusetts. Most often they inhabit wooded mountainous areas with steep rocky ledges and ample populations of rodents . . . although they are sometimes found in fields and wetlands too. Populations in our state are concentrated in the Berkshires, the Connecticut River Valley and the Blue Hills. Nationwide, they make their home throughout much of the eastern US, as far west as central Texas in the south, and to Wisconsin in the north. While they are abundant in the southern Appalachians, here in the northeast, populations are quite small.

The timber rattlesnake hibernates for the colder half of the year, but becomes active in Massachusetts around the middle of April. After emerging from the underground crevices in which is spends the winter, it makes its way onto rock ledges where it can bask in the sun to keep warm. (Like many snakes, the timber rattler is ectothermic, meaning it cannot regulate its own body temperature.) In the spring, activity is minimal, although some mating does occur. After mating, the snakes move away from the den -- males to dense forest, where the hunting is good; females to fields and less-dense forest, where temperatures are warmer. Baby snakes are born alive after about 4-5 months. They all return to the den in September or October, depending on the weather. The average life span for a timber rattlesnake is 10-15 years.

A brown Timber Rattlesnake. (Photo credit Anne Stengle/Mass Wildlife)
 The standard description of a timber rattlesnake includes the phrase “pit viper,” which sends chills up my spine. If you’re imagining a teeming pit of angry, venomous snakes (as I first did), please take my hand and we’ll back away from that erroneous image together. A timber rattlesnake is large – three to five feet in adulthood, 8-16 inches a birth, with a broad triangular head and rough-looking scales. It can range in color from black or brown to rust or dark yellow. The underside is light in color, sometimes with dark flecks. It has bands across its back and sides, but none on its head or face. Its tail is solid black, with a rattling structure at its end that grows with each successive shedding of skin, but is sometimes lost in that same process. The term “pit viper” refers to the pits on either side of its head – super-sensitive nerve endings that can detect radiant heat.

Timber rattlesnakes don’t eat people. Not even small ones! They prefer mice, chipmunks and other warm-blooded rodents, plus sometimes birds, bugs and amphibians. They hunt by day in the spring and fall, but become nocturnal in the summer, when their prey becomes more active at night. Here the sensory pits are especially useful – they help the snake to detect warm-blooded prey in the dark. Timber rattlesnakes see pretty well, especially when an object is moving, but they can also track prey via its scent, or by sensing vibrations in the ground.

A timber rattlesnake has two large fangs at he front of its mouth, plus a number of smaller teeth along its jaw. The fangs, which fold back onto the roof of the snake’s mouth and are covered by a sheath when the jaw is closed, are conduits for venom. Hunting consists primarily of lying motionless – watching and waiting -- with intervals of prowling. Attacking prey comes first. Injecting venom, the volume of which the snake can control, is a secondary measure.

When it comes to humans, a timber rattlesnake will strike and bite only as a last resort. When disturbed or threatened, it will rattle its tail, which should be enough to send most people packing. The timber rattlesnake prefers to be left alone, and will back away from a human if possible. It will probably fight back if touched, though. It’s helpful to know that the last reported fatality from a timber rattlesnake bite in Massachusetts was in 1791.

Due to declining populations, the timber rattlesnake is now an Endangered Species in Massachusetts. Its habitat has been diminished over the years, and a lot of lives have been lost through ill-fated road crossings. Just as much of a threat, however, is hunting. Whether it’s snake collectors, or people who come upon a snake and kill it out of fear, timber rattlesnake numbers have been greatly reduced in the past 25 years.

You may have heard recent news reports about a statewide effort to protect timber rattlesnakes. They would be captured in the wild as newborns, raised in captivity (at the Roger Williams Zoo) and then released to their birth area when they are old enough to fend for themselves. (This would amount to no more than ten snakes released per year.) Nothing controversial, until the release plan changed and there was talk about designating Mt. Zion, a 1400-acre island in the Quabbin Reservoir without human access, as their new home. “Rattlesnake Island” sounds like a horror movie, so there was a fair amount of public outcry. The issue remains undecided.

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by Kezia Bacon
April 2016 
 
Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 20 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

100 Years of Audubon Sanctuaries


A bridge crosses the Green Harbor River at the Daniel Webster Sanctuary in Marshfield. Photo by Sandy Bacon.
One hundred years ago, the Massachusetts Audubon Society established its very first wildlife preserve, the Moose Hill Bird Sanctuary in Sharon. The organization got started in 1896, when its founders, Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall, began a well-publicized effort “to restrict the killing of birds and sale of their plumage.” Hemenway and Hall setting out to convince the masses that birds need not be sacrificed simply so their feathers could serve as adornments on fashionable ladies’ hats.

Twenty years later, in 1916, Dr. George W. Field of Sharon donated his estate to Mass Audubon, in order “to attract birds and people interested in birds.” And since then, Audubon has been diligently acquiring, preserving, and maintaining wildlife habitat across Massachusetts. There are now a total of 56 Audubon sanctuaries statewide. And three of those are right here on the South Shore!

These three preserves – Daniel Webster, North River, and North Hill Marsh -- are some of my favorite local places to enjoy the natural world. Chances are, if you’ve resided on the South Shore for any length of time, you’ve observed the simple white-and-blue signs encouraging visitors to stop in. And if you’ve gone farther than those signs – up long driveways or down unassuming residential streets to parking areas and trailheads – you’ve experienced some of our areas most lovely open spaces. But if not, here’s a quick overview of what’s right in your backyard. Why not treat yourself and check one out sometime soon!

Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary
Winslow Cemetery Road, Marshfield (off Webster Street)
578 acres, 3.5 miles of trails

“Panoramic” is the word that comes to mind when I consider the Daniel Webster Sanctuary. The parking area is situated on a small rise, and even from there, you can see quite far in almost every direction. The sanctuary’s agricultural history is still evident in the landscape. Visitors can follow well-marked trails through the woods and across wide meadows. There are ponds and wetlands, with two observation blinds. Boardwalks and bridges extend the reach of the trail system across the Green Harbor River and through the red cedar swamp along its banks. Depending on the time of year, you may see turtles sunning themselves, green herons fishing, muskrat and mink hunting, or even (especially at dusk) coyote and white-tailed deer. And of course a diverse array of avian life – bobolinks, purple martins, northern harriers and Savannah sparrows. No pets, running or bike riding. See below for additional visitor guidelines.

North River Wildlife Sanctuary
2000 Main Street, Marshfield (Route 3A)
225 acres, 2.5 miles of trails

Among its many charms, the North River Wildlife Sanctuary offers visitors a spectacular view of the North River and the vast estuary at its mouth. To experience it, you’ll have to walk across Summer Street, through grasslands, and finally through woods, where a boardwalk leads to a platform that overlooks the river. If you do nothing else on your visit to North River Sanctuary, you will have seen one of the South Shore’s most beautiful landscapes. But that’s not all North River Sanctuary has to offer. There are also trails through oak forest, a Sensory Trail for the blind and people with mobility issues, and up-close views of Hannah Eames Brook. You’ll see birds at this preserve, of course, and probably dragonflies too. When conditions are just right in the winter, be sure to look for the harbor seals. No pets, running or bike riding. See below for additional visitor guidelines.

North Hill Marsh
Mayflower Street, Duxbury (in the Duxbury Town Forest)
146 acres, 5 miles of trails

No one wants to get lost in the woods, but if you’d like to “lose yourself” there for an hour of two the North Hill Marsh is an ideal destination. Audubon describes it as “as sanctuary within a refuge.” One of many contiguous open space parcels in Duxbury’s Eastern Greenbelt, this relatively small preserve feels infinitely larger, due to its surroundings. Most of the property– 90 acres -- is a pond. The rest is oak and pine woodlands, made accessible via several well-marked trails. I recommend bringing a map, though! (You can download one from Audubon’s website.) It is a home to a wide array of migratory waterfowl – herons, egrets, kingfishers, and a variety of ducks, as well as three types of turtle. Look carefully at the pond’s edge, and you may see mink, otters or muskrats. Dogs are welcome at North Hill, but only on-leash, and please keep them out of the pond. Boating is prohibited.

All of the above sanctuaries are open daily, dawn til dusk. The following guidelines, posted by Mass Audubon for your safety, as well as to avoid conficts with wildlife, apply to all three properties.
Leave everything as you find it, and do not pick or collect items.
Remain on the trails at all times to protect plants, animals, and yourself.
• Refrain from driving motorized vehicles.
• Refrain from fishing, hunting, or trapping.
• Refrain from launching, operating, or retrieving drones or other remote-controlled aerial vehicles.
• Enjoy snacks or picnics in designated areas, and carry out all trash.
• Do not smoke.

For more information, visit www.massaudubon.org or call 781-837-9400.

by Kezia Bacon
April 2016 

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 20 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com