The Bufflehead Birder

May 11, 2009

Basking on a Log by the Creek

Water Snake4

 Most of my East Coast snake encounters have been with Garter Snakes. A few days ago I got to meet a clump of Northern Water Snakes (Nerodia sipedon), who were basking in the afternoon sun on a log along the Wissahickon Creek.

Clump on a Log

The banding and coloration of water snakes are somewhat variable, but in general, the adults are dark gray, while the younger snakes have distinct tan and dark banding.  Sometimes a water snake will have a darker upper body and lighter underside.  When wet, the snakes’ banding will be more apparent. As the snakes age, the bands will grow fainter until an older snake may take on the appearance of a dark rubber hose flopped over a log. 

Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)

 Water Snakes can grow to 4 feet or more.

The thick body and basic color of water snakes make them easily mistaken for Cottonmouths / Water Moccasins(Agkistrodon piscivorus) and for Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortix). However, the bands on the Water Snake differs from that of the Agkistrodons in that the darker bands are wider than the lighter ones, and the bands are less irregular.

Water Snakes 3

There are some other distinctions though. For instance, if you peer closely into a water snake’s eye, you will note that the pupil is round, and not at all similar to that of the venemous Cottonmouths and Copperheads. Also, while copperheads and watersnakes have loreal scales, the cottonmouth lacks one.                            I, however, just plan to rely on color pattern. 

These snakes dine on fish, frogs, salamanders, leeches, and other small animals. In turn, they are preyed upon by snapping turtles, other snakes, raccoons, otters, oppossums, and foxes. Females give live birth in August to October. No babycare is necessary for Mr. and Mrs. Sipedon, and everyone can get back to basking on that log before winter sets in. Then it’s hibernation time. A favorite place to spend the winter is in muskrat or beaver dams, even sharing the accomodations with those Copperheads.

Although water snakes are not venemous, they can deliver a nasty bite and won’t hesitate to do so if approached. If that doesn’t get your attention, they will defecate and emit an unpleasant musk.

They just like to be left alone as they bask on a sunny log or coil up in a cozy clump amidst some protective vegetation.


Can you find all four faces in this heap o’ Nerodia sipedon?

August 20, 2008

Duck, Duck, Bear

Hello again. If you’ve been turning blue from holding your breath in anticipation of the next post you can let out that stale CO2 and take a deep breath. Here’s a new post with a couple of birds but something else, too.

I was checking through some old photos I have, thinking about what I might want to post just for a change from the digiscoped images. I picked out some shots I took in 1993 when I was traveling in Kamchatka.

In My Profile page I mention that I spent a lot of time in Russia, particularly Siberia. In 1993 I spent the month of August in Kamchatka in the Russian Far East traveling with a Russian friend who lived in the capital city, Petropavlosk. She and some colleagues were trying to start up an adventure tour company and I was a “guinea pig”. Tough job, that.

My most memorable ”test trip” was our 10-day horse trek in the Koriak Mountains, which are a volcanic mountain chain that extend up the spine of the peninsula. Our guide, Pyotr was a 3rd generation Russian hunter by profession, but was hired by my friend to help with setting up horse treks. Pyotr was one of the most kindly and pure-hearted people that I’ve ever known. He is also the fastest person I’ve ever seen at getting a fire going. Seriously, I’d see him arranging some sticks and 30 seconds later a fire was going.

The three of us spent 8 hours a day in the saddle with a 2-hour lunch break. We were lucky in that we’d had bright Colorado blue skies with little rain so the mosquitos weren’t as bad as they could be. I overheard someone say that earlier that year they’d been so numerous it was like you had fur on your arms.

On one particular day we had stopped for a brief rest along a stream banked with tall grasses. There was a loud swishing on the other side of the stream as something moved through the grass and even as I saw the creature, my mind was still working out what the source of the swishing and hadn’t fully taken in the large brown bear cruising along on the other side of the stream.

My guide, Pyotr pointed and whispered, “Boori medved.”

“Uh huh.” I was still pondering the swish sound. Then…a neuron made it to its receptor and a grand connection took place in my little brain; swish sound, brown bear moving through grass, swish sound, big brown bear swishing through grass right over there across this tiny trickle of a stream.

“Ah, boori medved,” I said as if I had been the one to place it first. I put the camera to my eye and clicked off some shots, and prayed the bear wouldn’t take notice of us huddled down behind some skimpy shrubs.

It’s possible the bear had known we were there; I don’t know. There wasn’t much breeze in my recollection and we had horses, who I don’t remember reacting either. If the bear had smelled us it never turned its head even once in our direction. It just kept on its merry way, which I guess is a good thing.

Here it is–Kamchatka’s favorite critter besides salmon.


The Kamchatka Brown bear (Ursus arctos), or “boori medved”, which translates from Russian as “grizzly bear”, is larger than its North American cousins, (Ursus horribilus).  An average Kamchatka male weighs about 500 kg or 1,100lbs, but some have reached trememdous weights of 1,500 lbs.


Okay, stop looking at the bear and see if you can find any birds in this photo and ID what they are.


I have to say I was relieved to see the hind end of our friend but at the same time I would have liked to watch it some more. The bear, that is, not it’s hind end.

And, yes, the ducks are female Common Mergansers. Both Common and Red-breasted Mergansers are found on the Kamchatka Peninsula, but the Common has a sharp delineation between the rust-red on its throat and the white of its breast. There is also a Chinese Merganser in the Russian Far East, which is similar to the Red-breasted but they are found only in the Amur Region and not on Kamchatka. So that makes it easier.


Did I mention how big Kamchatka Brown bears get?

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