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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
  11. Thanks for the direct comparison photos! There was a large snake on the rocks by the local creek next to the community pool, and after looking here, it was clearly a Northern Water Snake. Now we all say ‘hi’ if we see it and leave it be.

    Posted by Maureen Berner
  12. Ranger Comment :

    It’s probably a good idea to let all sleeping snakes lie, but yes, you should at least say “Hi.”

    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.

Finally!

August 19th, 2014

After a slow start to the butterfly season I finally saw a few leps other than the silver-spotted skippers (SSSK) that have been buzzing around the Museum this summer. But, even the SSSKs have been fewer in number this year. The paucity in leps may have been caused by the late cold of this past winter and spring.

Whatever the reason, there have been far fewer butterflies this year. I keep parsley on my back porch just for the black swallowtails who lay eggs on the plant. I have four plants with no caterpillars. I’m usually on my second bunch of caterpillars by now and wondering how I’m going to feed them all after they’ve munched the parsley clear to the ground.

Here’s a collection of photos of some of what’s out and about now.

One of very few eastern tiger swallowtails I've seen this year.

One of very few eastern tiger swallowtails I’ve seen this year.

A presumably wild monarch on joe pye weed  (unbeknownced to me there were a group of monarchs were released at a wedding back in May).

A presumably wild monarch on joe pye weed (unbeknownst to me there was a group of monarchs released at a wedding back in May. At the time, I thought they were wild).

A painted lady, an essentially southwestern species, usually shows up in our area each year.

A painted lady, an essentially southwestern species, usually shows up in our area each year. This is a species that is available for purchase from biological supply stores as pupae (chrysalis) so this individual’s origin is questionable.

The upper surface of the painted lady.

The upper surface of the painted lady.

a pearl crescent rest before flying off to nectar.

a pearl crescent rests before flying off to nectar.

I'n sometimes asked why the red-spotted purple is named so, here's why. Not quite red, and not entirely purple, but there you have it.

I’m sometimes asked why the red-spotted purple is so named, here’s why. Not quite red, and not entirely purple, but there you have it.

On the moth end of the lepidopteran spectrum, a bagworm on willow in the Wetlands.

On the moth end of the lepidopteran spectrum, a bagworm on willow in the Wetlands.

Entomologist Leon (BFH) explains to summer campers why you should not pick up one of these saddleback caterpillars.

Entomologist Leon (BFH) explains to summer campers why they should not handle one of these saddleback caterpillars. The sting delivered by the many spines across its body may be one of the most potent stings of all caterpillars in North America. Don’ t Touch Me!

And lastly, a few non-lepidopteran arrivals.

A small milkweed bug (left) and a large milkweed bug on butterfly weed in Catch the Wind. Large milkweed bug a more common here at the Museum than the smaller variety.

A small milkweed bug (left) and a large milkweed bug on butterfly weed in Catch the Wind. Large milkweed bugs are more common here at the Museum than the smaller variety.

The large milkweed bug are mating on the seed pod which will become the nursery for their offspring (that's a small milkweed bug below).

The large milkweed bugs are mating on the seed pod which will become the nursery for their offspring (that’s a small milkweed bug below).

Perhaps the two small milkweed bugs will find each other and we’ll have both small and large milkweed bug nymphs covering the seed pods of the butterfly weed in a few weeks.

Isn’t nature wonderful!

Join the conversation:

  1. I share all your sentiments on the unusual butterfly season, however, I am very pleased to say I counted 18 caterpillars on my parsley a little over two weeks ago (last seen) Today I saw a newly-hatched Black Swallowtail flitting around the remaining parsley! Saw my first Monarch 8/17/14. I recently planted some swamp milkweed (I think), hope it finds the plant.

    Posted by jpo

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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
  15. My neighborhood has hundreds of London Planes – my house alone has 3. There has never been shedding like this, all the trees at once. The sidewalks and yards are covered in bark. There must be a weather-related cause to this phenomenon.

    Posted by R Gordon

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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.

Drones!!!

August 16th, 2014
A drone hovering over the Amphimeadow.

A drone hovering over the Amphimeadow.

It’s Engineer’s Day at the Museum of Life and Science and there are drones over the Amphimeadow!

The same quad drone as in above photo.

The same quadcopter drone as in above photo.

Another quad hovering over the A'meadow.

This one has six rotors.

You never know what’s going to show up here at the Museum!

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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.

Summertime Sightings

August 13th, 2014

With the summer just about gone (for me, fall starts around mid August), I thought I’d give you a pictorial update on some of what’s being seen on our 84 acre campus here at the Museum.

Last month I mentioned that there were again woolly aphids enjoying the sap of one of our alders in the Wetlands in Explore the Wild. The colonies are growing considerably and many bees and wasps are visiting the sight, including bald-faced hornets. The visitants are there to lap up the aphid’s sap-sucking byproduct, honeydew, which drips down onto the leaves and stems below the colonies.

Bald-faced hornet gleans sweets from an alder leaf. Named for white (bald) markings on the face). Note the aphid colony and ants above the hornet.

Bald-faced hornet gleans sweets from an alder leaf. Named for white (bald) markings on the face (inset). Note the aphid colony and ants above the hornet.

Cicadas are in full song. With cicadas come cicada killers, another wasp species.

This cicada killer stakes a claim on a boulder near a potential nesting site.

This cicada killer stakes a claim on a boulder near a potential nesting site.

On the same alder as the hornet above, what looks like an anglewing katydid hides in plain sight.

On the same alder as the hornet above, what looks to be an anglewing katydid hides in plain sight.

A gray hairstreak sucks nectar from joe-pye-weed.

A gray hairstreak sucks nectar from Joe-pye-weed.

A juniper hairstreak also enjoys the nectar Joe pye weed's offerings.

A juniper hairstreak also enjoys Joe pye weed’s offerings.

Named for the "frosty" area on its hindwings, the hoary edge samples the most popular nectar source in town, Joe pye weed.

Named for the “frosty” area on its hindwings, this hoary edge samples the most popular nectar source in town, Joe pye weed.

What looks like a wild indigo duskywing soaks up the sunshine.

What looks like a wild indigo duskywing soaks up the sunshine. 

These two duskywings (not sure what species) attempt to create more duskywings.

These two duskywings (not sure what species) attempt to create more duskywings.

Look what showed up on dwarf sumac down at the Wetlands, a juvenile gray tree frog.

Look what showed up on dwarf sumac down at the Wetlands, a juvenile gray tree frog.

We had an attempt at nesting by two pair of green herons this summer. Both nests were victims of predators. At least one pair of the herons did manage to nest successfully somewhere close by, perhaps even in our own Wetlands, out of view on the far side of the wetland.

An immature green heron searches for a good fishing spot.

An immature green heron searches for a good fishing spot.

After closing time, the resident great blue heron comes out enjoys view from the boardwalk's railing

After closing time, the resident great blue heron comes out to enjoy the view from the boardwalk’s railing.

The heron didn't stay long after I entered the picture.

The heron didn’t stay long, after I entered the picture.

Finally, a bit of flora.

Boneset, said to help in the healing of broken bones, blooms at the water's edge in the Wetlands.

Boneset, said to help in the healing of broken bones, blooms at the water’s edge in the Wetlands.

Each one of the above photos has its own story to tell. And, they are but a small sampling of what you might see on a walk around the outdoor areas of the Museum. So, put on your walking shoes and head on out to the Wild to see what you can discover!

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