Monday, October 25, 2010

Autumnal Movements of Cottonmouths?

The Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)is a widely distributed and fairly well-known venomous snake in Florida. They are usually found in or very near to water. The first Cottomouth I ever saw was a very large specimen swimming in a wetland at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge near Virginia Beach, Virginia. There the animal is at the extreme northern limit of its range in the United States (they do not occur north of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Since that first sighting and outside of Florida, I have been fortunate enough to see this fantastic reptile at Moore's Creek National Battlefield in southern North Carolina, underneath a bridge on Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge in southern North Carolina, in the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn at Hilton Head, South Carolina, one with a particularly nasty disposition on Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, Mississippi, and at least three of them floating around in a cypress-dominated wetland near Lafayette, Louisiana.

In Florida I have seen Cottonmouth's from Escambia County (Pensacola) south through most of the state to Dade County (Miami). Today was the first time I was ever able to see three Cottonmouth's in the state in one day. Unfortunately two were dead and I ran over the third one and killed it with my car.

About noon today while driving on the "canopy road" portion of 47th street enroute to the British pub for lunch, I had an instantaneous look at a Cottonmouth attempting to cross the road. Unfortunately for him three things were working against him from the start. First, the back of the animal was black, 2) it was crossing black asphalt, and 3) it chose to do this in the shade of a very large live oak tree. There is a concept in biology of protective coloration where an animal blends in with the color of its surroundings for protection. Think of a chameleon for instance. Well, the Cottonmouth's protective back color would have worked on the black asphalt and in the shade of the oak tree except that my car was moving through the same space as him and ....splat. I got out of the car and went to check on the snake's status. It was a 2 1/2 footer and it was quite dead. As I looked at it I had to ask what in hell I was doing. Was I going to take it to a veterinarian if it was still alive?

Later in the afternoon as I was leaving home to go on a 12-mile bicycle ride I found a dead Cottonmouth in the drive leading into the condo development where I live. It was pointed toward the wetland behind my house. Then as I pedaled out on to Honore Avenue, I found a third Cottonmouth lying dead along the road. It was pointed toward a small wetland in a conservancy area adjacent to Honore Avenue. Both the one in my yard and the one on the main street were about 2 feet long.

As I pedalled away from the third dead Cottonmouth of the day I started to wonder why it was that I saw three of them in a day, all within 1 1/2 miles of each other. Yet for all of 2010 until now I had seen only 1 Cottonmouth in this part of Sarasota - and it was in the forested wetland adjacent to Honore where I found the dead one today.

Most people are familiar with the migrations of some animals like the Arctic Tern that nests in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and winters off of Antarctica. Some people claim that they do a 20,000 mile roundtrip migration each year (and all that to get laid just once...imagine). And certainly most people are familiar with the migration of American Robins complete with the old adage about the first Robin of spring etc. These animals move tremendous distances each year.

At the same time there are other species of animals that have much shorter movements that are possibly a "migration" but more correctly a seasonal movement. Hummingbirds in tropical mountains are known for these sorts of movements as are birds like the Brown-capped Rosy Finch in the Colorado Rockies. American Elk (more correctly known as Wapiti) are well-known for altitudinal movements in the Rocky Mountains, most famously toward the National Elk Refuge in northwestern Wyoming.

I thought about those sorts of movements in other animals and wondered if that is not the same thing that was going on now with Cottonmouths and, unfortunately, what is making them more vulnerable to being killed on the road.

My first job with the US Fish and Wildlife Service was as an Ascertainment Biologist in the regional office in Minneapolis. There a group of four of us (this was before the over-used word "team" became vogue) evaluated lands that had been proposed to the Service for acquisition and addition to the National Wildlife Refuge system. Our mission was unique for the Service at that time because we were specifically barred from looking at lands that only or primarily benefited waterfowl (a HUGE paradigm shift for the agency then). Our area of responsibility included Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

One of the areas nominated to us was a lowland forest with rocky outcroppings in southern Illinois near Cairo, that later became known as Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. The reason Cypress Creek was nominated (and later acquired) was because of its importance as a wintering area for venomous snakes including Canebrake Rattlesnake, Copperhead, and Cottonmouth. We flew into St. Louis, Missouri 33 years ago today so we could go down to Cypress Creek and determine if it was suitable for Service acquisition. I remember the trip in there like it was yesterday - I had never seen any venomous snake at that point in my life and I was petrified that I would be run over by all manner of snakes. We never saw a single one during our day checking out Cypress Creek - the snakes were already "holed up" for the winter. However the experience taught me that snakes make seasonal movements from a preferred habitat to a more "stable" habitat to live out the winter in torpor. At Cypress Creek, venomous snakes migrated from miles around to spend the winter in rocky outcroppings near the center of the lands we evaluated.

If venomous snakes including Cottonmouth's make seasonal movements at more northerly latitudes like southern Illinois, why wouldn't they do the same thing in Florida? The timing of them "holing up" in southern Illinois is uncannily similar to the apparent "movement" I noticed here in coastal Florida today. A quick search of the online literature gave no hint of any sort of seasonal movements in Cottonmouths in this state but who knows. Maybe nobody was interested enough to look into it. With all the Cottonmouth's here and all the habitat remaining for them it might be another thing to do in retirement that may some day have some value to a biologist somewhere. Maybe I'll become a herpetologist now?

On another note...I am vehemently opposed to killing snakes just because they are snakes. Its foolish, our fear of snakes is based in folklore, and each time someone does it they take one more chink out of mother nature's armada. I feel badly that I killed that beautiful Cottonmouth today. I wish I hadn't. More than one time I have stopped my car and gotten out and chewed out the Cheney of people who were about to kill snakes along side a road. There is no excuse for it. After all, humans are about 1000 times larger than any snake in the United States. Give them a break - they were here first.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide

A month or so ago, Dave Bylsma, my friend-since-college who still lives in Wisconsin and is a rabid, avid, almost fanatic trout fisherman, told me about a silent auction fund raiser being held by the River Alliance of Wisconsin. The River Alliance's core principles are:

Our priorities and where we focus our efforts change from time to time, mimicking the ever-changing rivers we work to protect. But like a river’s steady current, the River Alliance adheres to some core principles that do not change with the times.

* We advocate respectively but assertively for rivers.

* We bring people to rivers so they experience their beauty and understand their threats.

* We partner with, when appropriate, and challenge, when necessary, the government agencies entrusted with protecting rivers.

* We develop the ability of ordinary citizens and grassroots groups to organize their passion for rivers

Sounds like my kind of organization so it was easy to put in a bid for some items donated to them to help promote their purposes.

I received word last week that I was the successful bidder on both items that I chose. One of them, a signed copy of Wisconsin' Best Beer Guide arrived by mail from the great white north yesterday. This 254 page gem, written by Wisconsin travel writer Kevin Revolinski (I'll bet he's Swedish, right?) is packed with all sorts of historically important information about beer in the great Badger state. It helps you understand an ale from a lager from bock, and it explains the brewing process. Most importantly it provides detailed information on each of the 74 breweries and brew pubs active in Wisconsin today.

When I was a kid it seemed like every little town in Wisconsin had at least one brewery and some times more. Like Rice Lake with its famous (locally at least) Breunigs Lager Beer or down the road in Eau Claire sat the Walter's Beer Brewery both brands now, sadly, are gone. Still the 74 breweries and brew pubs mentioned in this book mean that, on average, there is at least one brewery for each of Wisconsin's 72 counties. Some things never change.

Each of the 74 breweries has the following information. I'll use the now-bankrupt "Viking Brewing Company" from Barron County, my home county, as an example. Note: I realize the brewery is named after my Norse ancestors but at first brush it seems like they named it after that bunch of purple bastards in tights who play football with a traitorous quarterback across the river in that state whose name I refuse to utter. But I digress.

For each brewery you learn:

Year Founded
Phone Number
Annual Production (in barrels)
Number of Beers produced
Staple Beers
Rotating Beers
Most Popular Brew
Samples provided?(on tours)
Brewmaster's Favorite Beer
Best Time to Go
Where Can You Buy Their Beers?
Food at the Brewery?
Special Offers
The Beer Buzz
Stumbling Distance (what activities are nearby)

All of this information make this little gem of a book nearly priceless - and to think I got it for a $22 bid to aid rivers. The only things the author could have added to the book would have been information on the location of any regular drunk driving checkpoints near the breweries, and maybe some information on the average fine for public drunkenness in each county. Other than that, almost every important thing about Wisconsin beer is in this book.

The inside front page of the book shows a map of the great Badger state with all of the breweries plotted out against a backdrop of major State and Federal highways across Wisconsin. Thus with this book and the map you could plan an extended vacation driving around Wisconsin (it has a brewery checklist -like a bird checklist-in the back) getting a buzz on and seeing my great home state.

Existence of the map brings up the second item I purchased in this silent auction.

For $31.00, just one dollar over their face value, I purchased four tickets to a Wisconsin Timber Rattlers baseball game of my choice next summer. The tickets can be used any day except opening day, Tuesdays or Saturdays. The Rattlers are the Low A affiliate of the nearby Milwaukee Brewers just up the road from beer city in Appleton. Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide shows that there are breweries in Shawno, Green Bay, Ashwaubenon, DePere, Manitowoc, Chilton, Oshkosh, Appleton and Sheboygan (home of the world's greatest bratwurst festival), all within crawling distance of the ballpark in Appleton.

Maybe next summer I'll pack this handy little book in my day pack, hop on a flight to Beer City and then spend a few days quaffing beers and watching baseball in the relative bliss of the greatest state in the Union.

If you are a resident of Wisconsin you need to immediately purchase this handy essential book and keep it in your glove compartment at all times. You can order a copy from right here. If you are an expatriated Badger like me, get a copy and plan a trip back home to enjoy these native nectars. If you are from any of 48 other states, get the book, plan a trip, and be prepared for near nirvana in the great north woods. However if you are from Minnesota, just stay there. Please. Drink your own damned beer watch your own loser football and baseball teams and stay away from our lakes. Thank you

A Rush of Thrushes

(photo from the US Fish and Wildlife Service archives)

For some unknown reason last night was a fairly decent night for the nocturnal migration of passerine birds along the west coast of Florida. This was especially true for two species of thrushes (Swainson's thrush is shown above). From 9:30 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. last night (after I gave up in disgust while watching the Tampa Bay Rays blow another game) I recorded an average of 1.3 thrushes per minute passing overhead (I counted all call notes passing a single point for 15 minutes then waited 15 minutes and counted again).

By far the most numerous migrating thrush was Swainson's Thrush a common fall migrant (not so much in spring migration) through this part of Florida. Not far behind them in abundance was Gray-cheeked Thrush. Although getting to be late for them I also heard two Wood Thrush and if I wasn't mistaken one unusual call note was probably a Veery. This trifecta of Catharus thrushes was complimented with a nice push of migrant warblers and I was surprised that there were still two Bobolinks in the push south last night.

Despite all of the movement I heard last night there were surprisingly few migrant songbirds around this morning when I was out before dawn looking and listening. In fact among warblers this morning I saw only:

Tennessee Warbler
Northern Parula (nests here)
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Pine Warbler (nests here)
Palm Warbler (common winter resident)
Black-and-white Warbler
Hooded Warbler

The highlight of the morning, however was a Philadelphia Vireo, only the third one I have seen in two years in Sarasota County (wish I could get it for my Manatee County list also!).

But back to all those thrushes.

Swainson's Thrush nests in coniferous forests across Canada and Alaska, and also in suitable habitats along the northern tier of states bordering Canada. One subspecies of Swainson's Thrush nests down the spine of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains in the western United States.

More important biologically is the winter range that extends sinuously from southern Mexico south through the spine of the Andes to northernmost Argentina.

Thrushes (except for Bluebirds and American Robins) are generally very secretive birds and seeing one is a real treat. Most of the Swainson's Thrushes I have encountered (other than ones I have caught in a net for banding) have been recorded by its voice, whether its the song or its distinctive call note. You can hear both at this link.

Swainson's Thrush has one of the most haunting, ethereal voices of any North American songbird. The first one I ever identified by voice was in late May 1968 while walking in the forest behind our farm near Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Seven years later in June 1975, my now ex wife and I stood along a road in central Douglas County, Wisconsin listening to one singing from a coniferous forest. Like it was yesterday I remember her saying that its voice was like "tinkling bells that draw you deeper into the forest." A very apt description of its voice.

The biology of migrant Swainson's Thrushes has been a research topic for more than forty years. From this species science has learned a great deal about the physiology of migration. The birds I heard last night were likely flying somewhere between 10 and 30 miles per hour. If you assume that they move at an average of 20 miles per hour and that they migrate from sunset until sunrise, the birds passing over me last night are likely resting and dining on the north coast of Cuba near Havana this morning just 260 straight line miles away from Sarasota.

From Cuba they have a long slog ahead of them to make it to up to 3,400 more miles from Havana to northern Argentina where some of these birds will spend the winter. They will remain there until next March when the migratory urge will overtake them again and they will start the push north. And just like last night when I was listening to these southbound migrants, I will be out on my lanai in early April next spring with my ear cocked toward the sky hoping to hear a rush of thrushes making their way back north.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fifty Years Ago This Morning

Fifty years ago this morning, October 1, 1960, dawned clear and cool and crisp on my grandparents farm northwest of Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Leaves in the butternut trees across the gully from their barn were turning what Aldo Leopold once referred to as "smoky gold" and the morning air had a distinct feel of the fast approaching (and at the time seemingly endless) Wisconsin winter.

Not only was today the first day of the new month but also the first day of squirrel hunting season in Wisconsin. On October 1 1960 you needed to be 12 years old to be able to obtain and carry a small-game hunting license that allowed you to hunt things like squirrels, rabbits, and ruffed grouse in the state. I was only eight years old and in Mrs Moe's fourth grade class in Cameron Wisconsin, but my rapidly approaching ninth birthday was just 30 days away. Despite this slight difference between what was the legal age to hunt and my actual age, my grandparents gave me a single shot .410 gauge shotgun and set me off through the butternuts in search of my first animal. It was a ritual of passage in my part of the state and certainly a ritual of passage in my extended family. Hunting by myself (and not shooting off some appendage) and successfully bagging my first critter was a sure sign that I was on the path to becoming something. Not sure what it was but I was headed there.

The butternut trees, shown on this Google Earth image with a cyber thumb tack, were then (and remain today) a small patch of trees just to the west (left in this picture) of my grandparents barn.

According to the Weather Channel, sunrise that day was at 7:05 a.m. and about 7:15, just as my grandparents were settling in for the daily morning ritual of milking their cows, Craig the intrepid (and illegal!) squirrel hunter stepped into the woods. I distinctly remember walking across the gully and up the small hill to the northernmost point in the butternuts. There, mimicking the way I had watched my dad and my uncles scour the woods before looking for squirrels I set off in search of my first squirrel.

I made a wide swath across the northernmost part of the butternuts making sure to shuffle my feet in the growing bed of leaves that carpeted the forest floor. I had learned that also as a way to spook a squirrel into running for cover in trees. So far nothing worked and no squirrels appeared.

As I moved south through the butternuts I still remember hearing the sound of the milking machines working away in the barn and caught a glimpse of my grandma checking out the south door of the barn to make sure I hadn't shot myself - yet.

My ramblings across the woods produced nothing until about 7:40 when to the south I caught a glimpse of a gray squirrel as it darted along the floor of the woods headed for the relative security of a butternut tree that had three stumps. I watched excitedly as the squirrel leaped onto the side of the tree and then for some unexplained reason pointed itself down toward the ground instead of up toward relative safety higher in the tree.

Then, as squirrels do so often, instead of running away, this squirrel defiantly stood its ground and started to chatter at me almost exactly as the gray squirrel does in this Youtube video.

As it stood its ground saying all sorts of derogatory things at me in squirrel language I moved forward to what I felt was the right distance and I stopped. As if it was yesterday I remember quickly bringing my shotgun to my arm, getting the butt caught in the extra clothing provided by my adult uncle's tan hunting jacket (I had to be fashion correct on this important day) and then took sight down the barrel of the gun at the squirrel.

What happened next is a bit of a blur. I remember having the bead of the gun sight on the squirrel's head as I pulled back the hammer on the gun's safety. I sat there and watched. Then out of the blue, just as the squirrel made one last defiant pump of its tail, I fired my only shot. The tiny shotgun made a muffled poof sound and instantly the squirrel tumbled from the side of the tree and lay on its back "tits up on the prairie" as I would later say about ducks when I lived in North Dakota.

I remember racing up to the squirrel and taking it in my hands and looking at it from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail. This was my one of the first (unknown to me at the time) indications of a forthcoming life as a biologist who had to check out everything. I also remember that, despite this not being the first squirrel I had ever held before, this one of "mine" seemed so much smaller when I held it than when I would see them darting around in the woods being squirrels.

The sun had just climbed up over the top of the trees on my uncle's nearby farm and the rays of sunlight were shining across the pasture on my grand parents land (where my parents ashes are now spread) and everything was lit up in the butternuts. My grandma had heard the shot and was looking out the barn door again, this time probably worried that I had shot myself. Instead I stood there holding up the squirrel for her to see and for some unexplained reason I yelled and asked what time it was. The clock said 7:45 a.m. Central Time.

The squirrel was the first of what would be hundreds of them I harvested in my youth. From squirrels I graduated to ruffed grouse and a couple of years later (and still too young to legally buy a license) I started hunting white-tailed deer on my uncle's farm. My success rate with them wasn't like squirrels but it makes for another story.

As I grew through my childhood and my adolescence there were two things that became constants in my life. One was baseball and the other was the annual fall ritual of hunting. It was because of hunting that I developed the fierce desire to protect the earth that led to my choosing wildlife biology as a career and spending almost all my life for more than 32 years (including time as a temporary employee of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) trying to protect habitats from the ravages of human population growth. Its something that non-hunters and anti-hunters seem unable to comprehend. "How can you love wildlife and kill it" you're often asked. I'm not sure how. It just is what it is. And it all started with that gray squirrel 50 years ago this morning.

I continued hunting until 1982. Those last years were on the prairie of North Dakota where all of October and into November from 1979 through 1982 were devoted to hunting ducks, geese, sharp-tailed grouse, gray partridge, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and anything else that was legal. The last day I ever hunted anything was in early November 1982 when a group of us went after ducks and geese on the prairie wetlands west of Jamestown. We took along my big sloppy Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Chester. At the end of the day we stopped at a small wetland near Cleveland and Rich Madsen took a picture of Chester sitting in the wetland vegetation scanning the sky for ducks. It was his last hunt and mine. A few months later a divorce rocked my world. As part of it I had no place to keep Chester and had to take him home to Wisconsin and my parents farm. After Chester was gone my desire to hunt left me and I've never picked up a gun since then.

Still 50 years ago this morning was a different story. I left my grandparents house that morning a neophyte and half an hour later I was a hunter. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me and I relieve that moment every year on this day.