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by , Ranger
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
Stop by and say hello Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dino Trail.

Northern Water Snake vs Copperhead

May 29th, 2013

It’s almost a daily occurrence, I’d be watching a water snake coiled up and snoozing in the grass on the north side of the Wetlands, point the snake out to someone passing by and they’d say, “That looks like a Copperhead,” or, “Is that a moccasin, cottonmouth?” or most often, “Is it poisonous?”

The answer to that statement and those questions is always no.

In explaining my no response, last question first, no snake in our area is poisonous. It’s an honest mistake but the correct word for a biting snake with fangs that injects toxins into its prey, or enemies, is venomous.

Moving forward, water moccasins, or cottonmouths as they are often called, are scarce above the fall line, or coastal plain in our state. This too is an honest mistake for some folks. The Museum, in Durham, is not very far from the fall line (just one county east) and many people who visit us live below the fall line where they are likely to encounter cottonmouths. That’s not to say that a cottonmouth has never been or never will be seen above the fall line or in Durham, but the chances are pretty slim.

The copperheads? The pictures below do a better job of replying to the statement, “That looks like a Copperhead,” than simple words.

A Northern Water Snake crossing the path in Explore the Wild (5/7/13).

A Copperhead crossing the path in Explore the Wild (5/17/13).

And here they are again in direct comparison.

Water snake (top) and copperhead.

Putting aside the broad, copper-colored head of the bottom snake, look at the pattern. Although variable, the pattern on the northern water snake is never as clean and bright as it is on the copperhead, at least in our area.

Both patterns serve their wearer well in their respective habitats. The close banding on the water snake works well in the reflective, dappled light of a watery domain while the wide-spaced, hourglass pattern on the copperhead suits its leaf-littered wooded haunts. They’re easy to see on the pavement, but not so easy to spot in their natural habitats.

If you like to hike in the woods you’ve probably walked past more copperheads than you’d care to know about. You may have even stepped directly over one without realizing it. But that’s a story for another time.

Look at the patterns on the snakes above and you should have no problem differentiating a northern water snake from a copperhead. As I said, the water snake’s pattern is variable, some may be darker, lighter, or may even be quite red, but the pattern on the copperhead is locally consistent.

Have fun!

 

Join the conversation:

  1. thanks. Everyone thinks I’m a dork for dissing their supposed copperhead. Now I point them here.

    Posted by Bill Knighton
  2. Ranger Comment :

    What’s your location, Bill?

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  3. Near lake wheeler , Raleigh.

    Posted by Bill knighton
  4. This is a useful comparison of the markings on the two snakes. I have seen both in this area, around the Eno River, in particular.

    Posted by Robin Sheedy
  5. Ranger Comment :

    Yes, the question of “Is that a Copperhead?” comes up so often here at the Museum that I thought it a good idea to point the differences out in simple photos.
    Thanks,

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  6. Thank you so much for this article! I used to work as an assistant wildlife biologist in NJ specializing in T&E surveys and it drives me crazy the amount of people down here who see a snake and just assume its venomous and kill it. The NC Herp Society doesnt seem to really update their NC Snake guide or website with regard to changes in scientific names and ranges so it makes it very hard to direct people to the proper resources for them to decide for themselves.

    Posted by Kat Squibb
  7. Just found your site when I was looking up a snake that was near my husband (who was outside – in Durham – mowing the lawn). Wasn’t sure what it was, and didn’t want to kill an innocent creature, now I know it was a copperhead. Thank you for posting this! It was very helpful.

    Posted by Barbara
  8. Ranger Comment :

    Good, glad to have helped.
    Thanks.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  9. Hi, I was in the northeastern part of Tennessee near a lake. I was around 5-8 miles away from it. This area does have water snakes (I’ve seen their little heads sometimes in the lake) and copperheads are prevalent.

    I ran into a snake that was around 4-6 ft in my opinion. It was a dark gray, almost black with an off white/pale yellow tinted pattern on it’s back.

    I was in 2 ft of this beautiful snake when I had the thought to back off a little bit because I didn’t really know what a copperhead looked like.

    But it was on the road (basking I’m assuming) and was starting to head into the tall grass/woods nearby.

    I never got a look at the head, and it didn’t seem aggressive (but then again, I wasn’t bothering it).

    Would you say it was a darker morph of a copperhead or a water snake? It was a beautiful snake regardless.

    Posted by Angela W.
  10. Ranger Comment :

    Hard to say exactly what you saw. Judging from the size of the snake you described, and the location, I’d have to guess it may have been one of the rat snakes. See here: http://www.tennsnakes.org/tn_ratsnake.htm
    Thanks,

    Posted by Greg Dodge

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by , Ranger
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
Stop by and say hello Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dino Trail.

The Big White Tree with the Peeling Bark

March 3rd, 2010
am sycamore

American Sycamore

I was recently asked whether or not I knew why the bark on American Sycamore drops off the tree in large thin flakes. Coincidentally, while walking around the Outdoor Exhibits this winter with camera in hand, I’ve been taking photos of various trees to use on this blog in a series of informal, mini-field guides. My intention was to start with some of the more readily identifiable winter trees, trees without leaves. Although winter’s nearly over, this is a good time to squeeze in at least one of those mini-guides.

One of the easiest of trees to identify is the American Sycamore. It’s white upper bark standing off against the winter sky, and other trees in the forest, make it hard to miss and appreciate.

Sycamore is a tree of the bottomlands. Just about any stream or river in our area has it’s share of sycamores growing along its banks, often alongside River Birch. Here at the Museum it grows next to the Wetlands as well as in the swamp between Catch the Wind and Explore the Wild. This handsome tree is often planted along city streets but its roots are near the water.

Many trees have a different type of bark at the base of the trunk than they do at the younger, upper portion of the tree. The sycamore takes this to the extreme.

Take a look at the tree on the right. Scroll up and follow the bark up to the top. It starts out as “typical” gray bark. As you scroll up you’ll notice that the darker bark begins to flake off until finally it becomes nearly all white at the top of the tree.

Towards the middle of the three, starting at about a quarter to a third-way up the tree, the bark often appears “camouflaged” with various gray, brown, and green hues.

Below are some close-ups of the bark.

lower bark

The lower portion of the trunk has rough gray-brown bark.

middle of tree

The bark becomes scaly and flakes off about 1/4 the way up the trunk. It often appears as if camouflaged.

Towards the top of mature trees the bark may be nearly all white.

But, why do sycamores shed their bark? Why does the bark peel off in large thin flakes all season long? I’ve sometimes wondered that myself, but apparently not long or hard enough to actually find out…until now.

Trees have bark to help protect them from losing moisture and drying out, protect themselves from insects (although there are many insects that get past this defense), birds (woodpeckers go in after the insects), and disease. And, all trees have bark specific to the trees themselves. Flowering Dogwood has scaly “alligator” bark. Loblolly Pine has furrowed, segmented bark which bares a resemblance to the loblollies on a dried lake bed. Shagbark Hickory has a shaggy appearance with big, gray pieces of bark sticking out from the trunk. Sycamore has bark that peels off and becomes white near the upper portion of the tree.

What evolutionary advantage is it for a tree to shed it’s bark the way sycamores do? Everything from the tree’s favored habitat to photosynthesis has been suggested by people who should know, people who study trees. Most of the theories that I’ve read seem like sound reasons for this bark shedding habit. Apparently though, there is no definitive answer to the question of why this tree looks and behaves the way it does.

Instead of me quoting or paraphrasing the various suggested answers to this question, from another source, it may be easier for you to read them yourself. The linked article is from the Daily Plant out of NYC, NY and tries to answer the question of why sycamore sheds its bark through an interview with Dr. Marc Abrams, Professor of Forest Ecology at Penn State University.

Oh yeah, back to the identification of the tree. If the bark doesn’t nail down the ID of this tree for you, perhaps the many fruit balls that typically dangle from the branches will do it.

Sycamore has fruit balls on its branches all winter.

The fruit hang from the tree throughout the winter, are about an inch to an inch and a quarter in diameter and, unlike the spiky seed balls of Sweetgum, are soft to the touch.

On your next walk through Explore the Wild stop at the platform midway down the boardwalk. If you stand facing the Animal Footprints Exhibit and look about 40 degrees or so to your left you’ll see an excellent example of an American Sycamore with all of the features described above. Another is about the same amount of degrees to your right. If you look about 90 degrees to your right you’ll see a slim, straight sycamore which is nearly all green, all the way to the crown. Why is this sycamore green and not white? That one will have to wait for another day, maybe.

Enjoy your walk.

Join the conversation:

  1. We have a tree like that in our yard and we never knew what kind of a tree it was. Know we know…

    Posted by Joseph Caswell
  2. Thanks for the post!! Very informative, if not totally conclusive. I was looking at the sycamores again yesterday and noticed that, along with their fruit balls, there were what looked like some little balls of fluff hanging from the branches. I guess the seeds are about ready to disperse? Has the warmer weather awakened them?

    Posted by Leslie A
  3. Ranger Comment :

    That’s right, the seeds are ready to disperse. The balls break apart and the seeds are cast to the wind. In fact, with the steady SW winds today (Wednesday, 3/10) I saw many of the seeds floating by me like little paratroopers as I stood on the boardwalk and elsewhere in Explore the Wild and Catch the Wind.

    Posted by Greg Dodge, Ranger
  4. We have dozens of these trees in my neighborhood, and I couldn’t figure out if they were diseased or what was the reason for them shedding their bark. I couldn’t identify them either except that they were white where the bark was gone. Thanks for clearing up this mystery for me.

    Posted by Elizabeth Westra
  5. Ranger Comment :

    My pleasure, Elizabeth.
    Although these trees are associated with wet areas they have been planted extensively along streets and avenues across the country. How many towns and cities have a Sycamore Avenue, Lane, or Street?
    Thanks,

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  6. Thanks for the info–tried several sites to identify but mostly leaf ID’S. I’m a “recycler” of trees, i.e., in my fireplace or neighbors with woodstoves and the ash goes to my compost. Have several downed A.S. in my area and wanted to know if hardwood before I “light up?” How hard is A.S.??

    Posted by Jim McDole
  7. Ranger Comment :

    I’ve never burned sycamore but a quick search revealed that it is “OK” to burn, not the best but it will produce a moderate amount of heat. Make sure that you season it, let it dry out. I would think that if you’re cutting it now it probably won’t be ready before next winter.
    Good luck,

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  8. Thanks for the info!! Your site’s the best.

    Posted by Jim McDole
  9. I never thought about the trunk of a large, mature sycamore continuing to grow when I had a tree house built around mine in 2008. Now the tree has filled the gap in the flooring and has popped some of the smaller boards loose. Is there any chance that other areas will grow around the framing, like in the roof, or is my tree house doomed?

    Posted by Lynette Gaines
  10. Ranger Comment :

    Not being able to see your tree house I can’t tell what may happen to it, but yeah, the tree will continue to grow as long as it’s alive. There is more of a height limit than there is a girth limit, the trunk keeps getting wider, hence the rings inside the trunk. There’s a tree near Waynesville, NC that is “132 feet tall and 268 inches wide” (probably means 268 inches in circumference), which is about 22.3 feet in circumference. There’s a stump of a dead sycamore in Indiana that was/is 57 feet in circumference when a storm split the trunk and knocked it over.
    Good luck!

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  11. I was driving through a section of Rouge Park in Detroit and noticed a group of white trees with patchy, scaling bark. Thanks for your in depth explanation.

    Posted by Chae
  12. Ranger Comment :

    Glad to have helped.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  13. My to sons planted one each on Arbor day over 20 years ago as little saplings and now they are about 50+ tall. Out of all these years I have never seen it shed this much at one time. We had a storm with straight line winds up to 90 mph about six weeks ago and lost some big limbs in the process along with having to cut some off with a chainsaw which I would think it would cause a growing spret. My question is could a sudden spert in growth cause shedding , kind of like buying a 10 year old clothes and they out grow them as fast as you can buy them?

    Posted by Robert21
  14. Ranger Comment :

    I don’t really know whether or not a quick spurt in growth could cause more shedding, but in theory it sounds good.
    Thanks,

    Posted by Greg Dodge

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by , Ranger
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
Stop by and say hello Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dino Trail.

Frogs Mature

July 25th, 2014
A newly morphed bullfrog.

A newly morphed bullfrog.

If you’ve walked through the Wetlands lately you may have noticed amphibians floating on the water or perched on sticks, logs, or rocks in or next to the water. The amphibians are two inches or so from the tip of their noses to the end of their bodies. Some of them are trailing tails, vestiges of their days as tadpoles. Others have already absorbed their tails and appear as miniature adults.

These amphibians are bullfrogs. They are, in fact, the product of last year’s bullfrog breeding and are just recently morphing into their adult form. It may take one, two, even three years further north, for bullfrogs to reach their adult form.

Bullfrogs here in our Wetlands are an important food source, as both tadpoles and adults, for many species of wildlife, including raccoon, gray fox, red-tailed hawk, kingfisher, green and great blue herons, hooded mergansers, occassionally pied-billed grebes, water snakes, and even other bullfrogs.

Perched on a floating willow branch, this young frog still totes a small tail.

Perched on a floating willow branch, this young frog still totes a small tail.

Note the long, shriveling tail on this individual.

Note the long, shriveling tail on this individual.

These frogs can grow to over eight inches (not including out-strecthed legs), so the frogs still have some growing to do. They won’t be able to breed for another couple of years. If they’re careful, they have some eight years to reach their full potential.

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by , Ranger
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
Stop by and say hello Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dino Trail.

Stacked and Happy

July 22nd, 2014
Two male yellow-bellied sliders.

Two male yellow-bellied sliders.

The two sliders were just off the Main Wetlands Overlook. One might think from their situation that space was limited on the log that they chose to perch upon. There were no other turtles present.

Join the conversation:

  1. Wow. Balancing rock turtles!

    Posted by Wendy

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by , Ranger
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
Stop by and say hello Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dino Trail.

Bluebird Update 7/22/14

July 23rd, 2014
Four nestling bluebirds sleep warm and dry after yesterday's heavy rains (7/22/14).

Four nestling bluebirds sleep snuggled warm and dry after yesterday’s heavy rains at the Amphimeadow nest (7/22/14).

We are most certainly coming to the end of the nesting season. There is only one active nest, the Amphimeadow (AM) nest, and it has four fresh bluebird nestlings within. The nestlings haven’t yet opened their eyes so they’ll still be there when I make the rounds next week.

All of the other five nest boxes are empty, the Butterfly House nestlings having fledged during the past week. I expect the nest boxes will remain empty. There’s not much left to do except wait for the occupants of the AM nest to depart. But, as I said, they will probably still be begging for food next Tuesday when I take a peek into their nest box.

So, wish the bluebirds well, and I’ll see you next week!

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