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15-21 October 2001

Now You See It, Now You Don't

One of the neatest things about nature is that no matter how many times you go to the woods, you can never predict exactly what you may see. That was the case this week at Hilton Pond Center when a visiting group expecting to band birds was confronted instead with an example of nearly perfect natural camouflage.

Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivus

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

As the group traversed trails to check mist nets for captured birds, we glanced down and quickly grabbed at something that seemed almost not to be there. Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivus, keeled scalesPerhaps frozen by vibrations from our footsteps, a Rough Green Snake blended perfectly with the underlying grass. Like the juvenile Black Ratsnake that last week tried to enter the old farmhouse at Hilton Pond Center, this 18" serpent was perfectly harmless; unlike the ratsnake, it never opened its mouth when we picked it up.

The Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivus, is so-called because scales on its back are "keeled"; i.e., each has a central ridge that makes it resemble the underside of a tiny boat (right). The species is widely distributed across the Central, Middle Atlantic, and Southern states, but in the Great Lakes region and New England is replaced with almost no overlap by the Smooth Green Snake, O. vernalis, which--you guessed it--has unkeeled scales. Both species are diurnal and have particularly good vision, allowing them to perceive and capture quick-moving insects that are often just as green as the snakes themselves.

Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivus, headThe Rough Green Snake is primarily arboreal, climbing through shrubs and small trees at the edges of ponds or streams; it is also semi-aquatic, often taking to water as it moves about in pursuit of prey. It constantly flicks out its pinkish tongue, testing the air for faint odor from crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, and caterpillars--and even an occasional small frog. Its tail is somewhat prehensile and helpful in climbing, but the Rough Green Snake is not a constrictor; it simply grasps food with its tiny recurved teeth and swallows prey alive.

Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivus, cloacaAlthough a Rough Green Snake almost never bites when you pick it up, it wiggles its slender body and often gets loose. And like many serpents, when first handled the Rough Green Snake distends its cloaca (right)--the common opening for waste and reproductive cells--and expels a noxious mixture of feces, uric acid, and musk. A mouthful of this fetid fluid is often enough to make a potential predator drop the snake in a hurry, but we were expecting such behavior and weren't deterred by the smelly tactic.

Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivusThe biggest Rough Green Snakes seldom reach three feet in length, although there is a 42-inch specimen on record; even then, the snake was less than an inch in diameter. The female is usually a little heavier-bodied than the male, all the better to accommodate 4-9 cylindrical eggs she lays in July. These hatch in September, and the six-inch snakelings are faced with finding a few quick meals before the first frost kills off much of their insect prey.

Even though Rough Green Snakes are quite common in the Carolina Piedmont, their camouflage makes them hard to detect. That we were able to see one this week was exciting, but it was even more fulfilling because other folks got to share the experience. Taylor and Rachel (below) were on hand with father Phil Jurney and other representatives of The Impact Fund in Charlotte, and the photo leaves no question about whether these youngsters enjoyed handling a slithery Rough Green Snake at Hilton Pond Center.

Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivus
All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

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15-21 October 2001

Yellow-rumped Warbler, winter

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Although the head is nondescript,
its "butterbutt" is diagnostic in winter


Ruby-crowned Kinglet--2
Black-throated Blue Warbler--1
Yellow-rumped Warbler--13
Northern Waterthrush--1
Northern Cardinal--4
Eastern Towhee--6
Swainson's Thrush--1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker--1
White-throated Sparrow--7
Northern Mockingbird--1
Blue Jay--1

(with original banding dates)
American Goldfinch (1)
Downy Woodpecker (1)
Carolina Wren (1)
White-throated Sparrow (1)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (1)

11 species
38 individuals

73 species
1,210 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
122 species
39,493 individuals

Northern Mockingbird, juvenile

Northern Mockingbird
The muddy eye of the juvenile becomes clear yellow in adults

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

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In 2001, informative and entertaining hummingbird banding presentations were held at four Carolinas locations for more than 500 participants. For more info, and especially if your group would like to host "Hummingbird Mornings" in 2002, click on the hummingbird drawing at left.


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Made With MacintoshHilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka "The Piedmont Naturalist," it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this website--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this website, contact: WEBMASTER.