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A couple of Okanagan snakes

IMG_1002While Catherine and I were exploring the area around Vaseux Lake, We managed to see a couple of snakes I had not yet encountered in BC.


The first species was the yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor mormon), a subspecies of the common racer. Like other racers I have seen, these were super fast snakes!


This was as good as I could manage for an environmental portrait, as the snake could not be convinced to pose.


Large eyes, fast snake!


Like many other Okanagan fauna, the racer is considered vulnerable in BC. Because of rampant development in this area of BC, the status of these beautiful snakes is uncertain.


The second species we found was a beautiful (and BIG) bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer). This awesome constrictor was (long ago) considered a subspecies of the pine snake, and is a species I have always wanted to encounter. We had seen one dead on the road before, so seeing this amazing snake alive was certainly a highlight.


When I pointed out the snake to this guy, he dived right in to catch the snake. I wish I had caught his name, but he was a real Okanagan outdoor lover who had a great fondness for the local herpetofaina. He was also immune to poison ivy, which is why he was able to navigate the ivy filled swamp to fetch the snake.


I managed to get this picture of the snake on a branch, but not much else. This was by far the largest snake of any kind I had ever encountered in Canada. Handling it was not intimidating, although it did musk us a bit. Interestingly, the musk of this snake was not super-offensive like that of a garter snake.


After we let it go, the snake had the last laugh…While the fellow who caught him was immune to poison ivy, I certainly was not, and got a bad case from having handled the ivy oil-laden serpent!




I have been a bit remiss in continuing to tell the story of the trip Catherine and I took to the Okanagan Valley this spring. I apologize, and in recompense, offer one of the most exciting observations we made.

One of the species we had most hoped to see was the Pacific Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus. I was anticipating that being early in the spring, the snakes would still be close to their winter denning sites, perhaps engaged in mating. As it turned out, we were too late. The snakes had already left their den sites for more productive hunting grounds further down the valleys.

The Pacific Rattlesnake is BC’s only rattlesnake, and like many northerly populations of rattlesnakes, is a threatened species. The reasons for the rarity of these snakes is that they have been persecuted by humans, and their habitats are being threatened by development. Persecution of these snakes was particularly damaging as they rely on safe hibernation sites, free of freezing conditions, and must migrate to these sites en masse in the fall. This means that entire populations of the snakes may end up in just a few suitable caverns, where humans can find and destroy them. This is in fact what has happened, not just in BC, but all over North America wherever these denning sites occur. In BC, there was a bounty on the snakes, and some people made it their mission to destroy every snake they could, dynamiting and gassing the dens.


Snakes and roads don’t mix: my unfortunate first encounter with a Pacific Rattlesnake. The snake was decapitated by a truck I was driving, Aug 22, 2008.

In addition, the seasonal migration also poses extreme risk as the snakes must often cross roads to get to where they are going. Needless to say, cars do not mix well with snakes, and death on the roads is undoubtedly a major threat to the species.  I know this all too well, as my first encounter with this species was a fatal one. Years ago, I was driving a truck doing fieldwork in the Similkameen, and hit a snake on the way to a campsite. I felt terrible about this, but by the time I saw the snake, it was too late.
Later that evening, I walked out on the road I had driven up, and saw 7 more freshly killed rattlesnakes! This was likely due to an active log hauling operation using the roadway, but really even a modest amount of vehicle traffic would kill snakes. The 8 I saw killed that day is a ridiculous amount of excess mortality for a long-lived and not very fecund animal, and it means that the population of these snakes is in decline.


On the lookout for snakes, spiders and whatever else we could see.

Every time Catherine and I were in likely areas, we would look at potential den sites with eyes keen for the snakes, but to no avail. We had a bit of inside info on historic den site locations, and so we felt well-prepared. Alas, the snakes did not show up. It was not until late in our trip that we checked out a site near Vaseux Lake. Here again we did not find any rattlers, but we did find a snake-catcher’s equipment in one of the likely den sites: tall boots and a large bucket. This was likely from someone in animal control or perhaps a pest control business that had used these to transport rattlesnakes to the den from someone’s house or other building in the fall (sometimes the snakes will end up in these locations on the way to their dens). This was most encouraging!

We occupied ourselves taking pictures of spiders and insects in the grasslands near the bluffs, always with an eye out for snakes. In the same area where we found  the racer, I finally spotted one!


This was quite a small snake, and when I saw it, it was fleeing our approach (I had thought they might just stay still, like Bothrops). Unlike most snakes which I am familiar with, this is a pitviper, adapted for camouflage and ambush predation, rather than quick flight. We wanted to get some photos, so I picked the snake up on my monopod and placed it in an open area. The little snake was obviously not too pleased with this, but only gave a halfhearted, barely audible rattle. In addition, at no time did the snake strike the stick. It was fairly easy to keep the snake in place just by moving the monopod in front of its head, and it soon just settled in a defensive coil. This made it very easy to photograph, although if I had a polarizing filter for the brilliant sunshine, the shots would have been better!
The ease I had handling these snakes is in stark contrast to just about every other snake I have met. They are relatively slow and cumbersome animals (though the strike is likely very quick).  I have no doubt any reasonably capable adult could move any “threatening” snake from their premises easily with a large bucket and a stick. Nonetheless, these snakes are still regularly (and legally) killed to “protect life and property”, which means that enforcement of their protected status is a nebulous concept.


The snake was absolutely beautiful, with chocolate-brown patches on a cream background.


This eye-level shot shows off the heat-sensitive pits (large holes on the front) which the snakes use to sense their warm-blooded prey. The vertically-slit pupils are a hallmark of predominantly-nocturnal snakes.


Landscape with reptile: a wide and close shot to show the surroundings.


This shot (like many of the previous shots) used a bit of fill flash in order to make the snake stand out.


This is how the snake looks in the grass. Very obvious if moving, but if coiled under a plant, it would be hard to spot.


After a short session (we did not want to stress the animal too much), I nudged it under a large rock, which would be a safe place for the animal to hide.

With these photos, it is obvious that the animal was manipulated into position for photography, and some might take issue with this from an ethical standpoint. I see where this comes from, and I agree somewhat. The snake obviously does not like being handled, and in point of fact, the majority of snakebite accidents probably happen as a result of handling. That being said, from the standpoint of this snake, what has occurred is that the snake was threatened, it could not escape, it stood its ground, and the dangerous animal (me) went away. In the life of one of these snakes, with hawks, cattle, dogs and cars to contend with, this is really small potatoes.

Anyway, it wasn’t long before we found a second, slightly larger rattler. This one was also fleeing, and in fact did not need capturing, as it took shelter under my backpack, getting caught around the straps in the process. Getting it into position for photography was just a matter of moving the pack to an open area and coaxing the snake out.

snake in a pack! Photo by Catherine Scott.

snake in a pack! Photo by Catherine Scott.


removing the reptile.

removing the reptile. Photo by Catherine Scott.


The sun was definitely more harsh in this shot, and a polarizing filter would have come in handy! You can tell that this larger rattler has molted more times than the other, as its rattle has more segments.


With this snake, I tried the 300 mm. It compresses the perspective, makes the colours pop a bit, and overall emphasizes the snake.


Again, a wide and close shot to put the snake in the landscape. This accomplishes the opposite of using a telephoto, but can also produce a pleasing composition.


After a short photo session, the snake just disappeared into the next rocky overhang. And that was the end of our rattlesnake adventure!


Accumulation: excess photos from the past few weeks


Myrmica rubra tending aphids, Annacis Island.

I am working again with ants this summer, and have been getting out a bit for work and on the weekends for special outings. I have been accumulating a number of excess photos over the past few weeks that don’t really fit in with the special topics (Guyana, Expeditions, Okanagan) so I have put them together here. I hope you enjoy them!


Myrmica specioides ascends a blade of grass.


Carabus nemoralis in the hand…Worth two in the bush!


Formica oreas workers cutting some grass for their roof. These are “thatching ants” and the top of their nest is insulated with cut grass. Annacis Island


I see you, sac spider! South Burnaby.


A tetragnathid on a flower. Iona Beach, Richmond.


Myrmica incompleta, moving larvae to safety. Iona Beach, Richmond.


A damselfly, still sleepy in the early morning. Iona Beach.


Trying for a bit more detail with the Raynox DCR 250.


Phidippus johnsoni. Iona Beach.


A wolf spider with a great egg sac. Iona Beach.


A gorgeous Sialis alderfly, Chilliwack.


The Ammophila are out again! McDonald Beach, Richmond BC.


And speaking of sleeping Hymenoptera, here is my first Coelioxys of the year! Iona Beach, Richmond.


With fingertip for scale.


A gorgeous sawfly from Maplewood Flats, North Vancouver.


You can get some really diffuse, wrappy light with just a handheld reflector!


A big, likely gravid Dysdera. Iona Beach.


Speaking of Dysdera, Catherine and I had some dysderalings! (Well, one of our captive females did).


Local badass cat! Super friendly though! Vancouver.


Here is an amazing mite, probably an undescribed species of Lasioerythaeus! McDonald Beach, Richmond BC.

Wine takes fertilizer



The Okanagan is famous for its wine, and vineyards are raking it in and popping up like mushrooms on the floors of the valleys (this is actually one of the major development pressures threatening the scarce habitats). We found an unusual nitrogen subsidy taking place when we ended up on Road 22 outside Osoyoos. I will let the pictures do the talking.


Here he is, an osprey in a vineyard…


Hmmm. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that carp yesterday…


Hmmm. Something is about to happen…


Yep! There it is!


What? What you lookin’ at?




Heck with this, I’m going fishing.


Ain’t I majestic?


On a mission….yeah…


There were three osprey nests in very close proximity.


This one was closest to the road and was just being started.


In the nearby Osoyoos Oxbows, the osprey found abundant fish.


This area is an osprey-watcher’s dream.


I worry a bit though that not all of the power lines are fitted with shock-proofing insulators.

Back from vacation!


We have been back nearly a week now, and the time in the Okanagan was absolutely amazing! I have not had time to work up many posts, but I hope to do so very soon. In the meantime, here are some landscapes to give an idea of the environments we were in.





Going on Vacation!!!!

2746599591_1e2bdf8f93_bSo Catherine and I have a week off this coming week, so we are planning to go for a bit of a vacation in the Okanagan. We will be mostly in the boonies, camping and searching for critters, so will be out of contact for a bit. It also means I will have to interrupt my series on the Guyana trip. When I come back it will be all Guyana, all Okanagan, all the time!

Our transport will be a venerable old Honda Civic that Catherine picked up for 500 bucks! It has new brakes and everything so should be a safe and reliable steed to carry us eastwards.

We are going to look for a long list of interesting animals, from scorpions and rattlesnakes to a few special spiders (Argiope, Antrodiaetus, Latrodectus [of course!)). Catherine and I will be trying to get some shots of rubber boas as well. Who knows what we will see! This will be a time for us to get out and get busy searching for whatever we can find. I think it will be awesome.



Further shots from Naramata


The Rubber Boa I wrote about yesterday was just the icing on the cake of my recent trip to Naramata.


Here is a large mayfly by the shores of Lake Okanagan.


The owner’s friendly dog at the Village Motel.


My first sighting of a very elegant myrmicine, Manica invidia


One of the coolest wineries in BC!


With the namesake!


This is probably BC’s smallest ant, Solenopsis molesta.


This gives an idea how tiny these ants are!


Another elegant myrmicine, Aphaenogaster occidentalis.

Framed spider art on a fence in town.


A large tenebrionid in a defensive posture.


A Cooper’s Hawk with some prey.



Rubber Boa!


This past weekend, Erin Adams and I were up in Naramata to do some ant surveys. This beautiful little town is right near Penticton on Lake Okanagan. This arid, yet fertile land is home to fruit and wine growing, as well as the wonderful faunal diversity of the northern Great Basin Desert.  One of the great species we have is Canada’s only species of boa, the Rubber Boa (Charina bottae). These gorgeous snakes make their living mainly preying on subterranean nesting mammals, and hence they are difficult to find in the open.

Nonetheless, we set out to find some on the KVR trail above the town.  Erin must have the golden touch, because on the very first rock she flipped sat this lovely female rubber boa.


Erin posing with her catch! They are not big snakes, but they certainly have some impressive constricting muscles.


Me with one of my childhood heroes! Photo by Erin Adams


These snakes have a special place in my heart, because when I was a child, visiting Science North in Sudbury Ontario, I got to hold one of them! This was a great thrill for me, and it was so great to get the opportunity to see these wonderful animals again in the wild. I can personally attest to the lasting effect that brief encounter had on my outlook and interests.


A natural light shot on a warm rock. Apparently, these snakes will roll into a ball with their head tucked in when disturbed, but this individual was not playing that game.


What a great snake to have in Canada. Although they are not yet considered threatened, I certainly hope that enough of their habitat can be conserved so that they may persist.