Wild Ideas: Little things mean a lot   

After observing and photographing toads and gray treefrogs breeding for the last few weeks, last week I’ve been seeing much of the results from those and other matings.

The eastern American toad tadpoles that hatched in the trout pond down the mountain from my house, for example, seem to have a good survival rate so far and are slowly growing, feeding on algae and other plant material along the edge. Fewer, but still abundant, larger tadpoles — most likely of pickerel frogs, which laid their eggs much earlier — are now starting to sprout legs.

The male gray treefrogs that have been calling near small pools closer to my house alas seem to have yet to find a mate, judging by the lack of eggs in the pools. They’re only at the halfway point in their normal breeding season, so have lots of time left. (See my columns on anuran breeding, with photos, video and audio, on the Rappahannock News Wild Ideas page.

While the tadpoles I’ve been observing were conceived this spring, other young I saw last week were conceived much earlier. The peak mating season for whitetail deer, for example, is in late November, with most does dropping their fawns in early June. Several factors affect the actual date, with a lot of leeway on either side.

It’s also fawn time again, so remember, if you see a fawn, leave it alone. By Pam Owen

My first fawn sighting this year was June 1, as I was driving down Thornton Gap Church Road in the middle of the day. As I was getting near Old Hollow Road, a doe crossed in front of me. Knowing that where there is one deer, there are often more, I slowed to a crawl, looking to the left, from where the doe had come, but saw nothing.

Then I shifted my gaze downward, and there, coming through some grass at the road’s edge, was a very young, spotted fawn that was all but hidden by the taller grass. I was too close to the fawn to stop at that point and would merely startle it — it was already starting to turn around — so I just kept easing past it, continuing on to Old Hollow. I knew the mom would go back and retrieve her baby, and they were both best left alone to reunite.

It’s good to remember that, while fawns often seem abandoned by their mothers, that’s rarely the case. About this time every year, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries usually circulates a article with good information about fawns. The title says it all: “If You Find a Fawn, Leave it Alone.”

Among the other animal babies I’ve spotted in the last week was a groundhog. Driving along Fodderstack Road, I saw what I thought was a squirrel, judging by the grayish fur, size and its eating something on the road. Squirrels often hang out on roads, eating nuts and other goodies that fall from trees and are softened up by traffic running over them. I soon realized, when the mom showed up, that this furry gray beast was a young groundhog, who had also obviously found something tasty on the road.

On a midnight ramble along Grand View Road last week, I saw a lot of wildlife out and about, from moths in the headlights to bats and nighthawks careening after them. On the road were deer and a cottontail, along with two of this year’s batch of raccoon babies, now teenagers, following their mom into the forest at the edge.

It’s still a bit early for some reptile babies, and I haven’t seen any skinks yet around my house, another young reptile showed up in a small garden plot near my kitchen door. I was looking out the kitchen window and could see my dog, Mollie, suddenly stop grazing on grass at the outer edge of the garden, which is ringed by rocks. I was pretty sure, by her behavior and the behavior of dogs I’ve had in the past, that she had spotted a reptile, likely a snake. Curiosity mixed with wariness vied for dominance in her brain, causing her to shove her nose toward one of the rocks, then hastily draw back.

Reptiles, such as this nonvenomous eastern kingsnake, are warming up to the weather and are on the move, with a young one appearing in Pam Owen’s garden. By Achim Raschka via Wikimedia

I grabbed my camera and went out to the garden. Carefully picking up the rock that seemed to be the focus of Mollie’s attention, I found underneath a lovely juvenile eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula), less than six inches long. Kingsnakes’ eggs hatch late in the summer, so this young snake must have hatched out last year. It was half curled up and apparently warming itself in the small, sheltered sunny spot the overhanging rock had provided.

Also commonly known as the “chain kingsnake,” this species is easy to identify. Its shiny black scales are broken up with thin, jagged white vertical bands linked by similar horizontal ones, creating a chain-like pattern.

Preparing to take shots of the snake while trying to keep Mollie at bay, I discovered my camera battery was dead. By the time I went back inside and put a new battery in, the snake was gone. It probably headed into the thick forest of native rudbeckia, woodland phlox and mountain mint that makes up the garden.

Kingsnakes are neither venomous nor aggressive and, according to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, are strong constrictors and consume a wide variety of prey, including rodents, birds, lizards and “especially turtle eggs.” They will also eat other snakes and are resistant to the venom of pit-vipers and “readily eat copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes.” Kingsnakes are also known for shaking their tails in litter on the ground, mimicking rattlesnakes, to drive off potential predators.

As a guard against copperheads and just because these are beautiful snakes, I hoped this little kingsnake in my garden would stick around. Fully grown, it could be up to four feet long, so much easier to spot.

Many more young native animals should be roaming around now, so please slow down when driving and keep an eye out for them on the roads.

© 2017 Pam Owen


Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”