July 2018 Archives

Alert Gazette readers will recall our encounter with a cottonmouth (aka water moccasin) last fall. Then, a couple of months ago we discovered a four-foot-long blotched water snake in our courtyard. The latter encounter taught me that distinguishing between the poisonous cottonmouth and the non-venomous water snake wasn't as easy as I had initially assumed.

If you google "cottonmouth vs water snake," you'll see that I'm not the only one who needs some help with this subject. There are many articles and videos that attempt to teach you how to correctly distinguish these species, something that could literally be a life-and-death skill. Unfortunately, in the real world, snakes don't carry ID cards, and making an absolute identification is hit or miss.

Case in point: a few days ago MLB and I were walking on the trail that encircles our neighborhood, and which roughly parallels Pecan Creek for about half its length. Something in the creek caught my eye and I scurried over to investigate. I'll save you a few thousand words, and substitute the following video instead.



According to "the experts," there are several factors to consider when trying to decide if the snake you're confronting will deliver a potentially fatal bite or just a very painful one (yeah, they pretty much all bite). But I think there are drawbacks to each of those factors.

Distinguishing Trait Why It Won't Work
Unique body pattern/coloring Ha. Good luck with that. They all look alike.
Cottonmouths float when they swim. Water snakes swim with only their heads above water. The truth of this is debatable. Plus, they're not always IN the water.
Cottonmouths have thicker, heavier bodies than water snakes. A common defensive measure of a water snake is to flatten itself to appear thicker and heavier.
Cottonmouths have triangular heads and thin necks. A common defensive measure of a water snake is to flatten its head so that it appears, well, triangular.
Cottonmouths have heat-sensing "pits" between their nostrils and their eyes. Those pits aren't readily discernible unless you're really, really close.
Cottonmouth eyes have vertical pupils. Water snakes have round pupils. This is probably the best differentiator, but you still have to get close enough to discern the shape.

So, while I lean toward identifying "our" snake as a cottonmouth, I wouldn't bet the farm on it. In any event, we're stepping more cautiously when we're out in the yard, even though the likelihood of one coming that far from the creek is pretty small. I'd hate for either of us to make a positive identification of a cottonmouth in the worst possible fashion.

Photo - snake in creek
You decide.

Web Weaving Weirdos
July 20, 2018 9:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I'll fight a bear, but I don't like spiders. I'm not a fan of those.
  -- J. J. Watt
I'm an unabashed arachnophobe. Spiders are not just creepy; they're intentionally malevolent. God created spiders because snakes weren't sufficient to remind us that we live in a fallen world. Spiders are the only creatures that have the capacity to make me hurt myself while attempting to avoid even the most benign encounter. 

Given those facts, it amazes me that I'm posting this. You should be impressed.

A few weeks ago, we had at least five yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) nesting in our back yard landscape. [Note: I have previously -- and erroneously -- referred to these spiders as orb weavers.] They ranged in size from about a quarter inch in body length up to more than an inch...and that doesn't include their devastatingly creepy legs. Some of them had future meals trapped in their webs.

Yellow garden spider with prey trapped in its web

Several of them were in the process of building their webs, and I tamped down my revulsion in order to video what I grudgingly came to appreciate as an amazing natural phenomenon. I filmed a couple of spiders during this process and compiled the following short (~3 minutes) movie. I hope you'll find it as fascinating as I did.



The following photo is a closeup of the spider's spinnaret, which is emitting the silk thread that comprises the web.

Yellow garden spider spinning silk for its web

Of course, the purpose of the web is to snare prey. Below is a photo of one of our spiders feeding on an unidentified insect (possibly a moth). The next photo shows a different spider feeding on a rather large cicada. Judging by the state of the web, the cicada put up a fight, but it obviously was to no avail.

Yellow garden spider feeding on mothYellow garden spider feeding on cicada

As I mentioned in the video, while the spiders are definitely predators, they're not at the top of the food chain. None of the spiders shown in this article are still around. I suspect they themselves have become prey to birds or lizards, or even mammals such as possums. I honestly can't muster any sympathy for them. For one thing, it's just nature at work. But really, in the end, regardless of the exquisite elegance of their silk spinning, spiders are just creepy.

Wildlife Update
July 6, 2018 3:58 PM | Posted in: ,

It's been awhile since I provided a wildlife update. But, first, here's a squirrel (turn up the sound to get the full effect):


That's the noise a squirrel makes when its annoyed or angry. I couldn't discern what caused this one's panties to get in a wad, but it was obviously too lazy to do anything but gripe about it. I'll remind you that the Gazette is an apolitical publication so don't try to anthropomorphize this phenomenon.

Back to the subject at hand. It's been a slow summer for wildlife in the neighborhood. It's been weeks since we've sighted any raccoons, skunks, foxes, or possums (and that includes not catching them on the game camera at night), much less trapped them. In fact, I've retired the raccoon trap to the attic until we find new evidence that they're around and up to no good.

I'm not naive enough to think that I've trapped out the area, but the aforementioned critters have apparently found more desirable habitats. One neighbor across the creek recently reported that his dog came out on the losing end of a tangle with a skunk in their back yard, so perhaps the crew has migrated north for the summer.

However, alert Gazette readers have no doubt noted the absence of one species from the aforementioned list. That's right...the State Small Mammal of Texas, the armadillo, has not abandoned our neck of the woods. I did have a few consecutive 'dillo-less weeks, but they're now back and making up for lost time. In fact, armadillo captures have caught up with and surpassed the raccoon count.

I've actually had to rework the Official Critter Capture Scorecard©, for reasons that should be obvious. Here's the original (and up-to-date) version:

Critter Capture Scorecard

And here's the new improved version:

Critter Capture Scorecard - New Version

The first version is perhaps more visually impressive, but the new version has the distinct advantage of not requiring any counting. By the way, I've done some ciphering and determined that the next catch will make an even 50 animals that we've trapped and released in less than a year.

That's not to say that we're completely bereft of living creatures around the house. I'm contemplating doing a spider-centric post as our flowerbeds are practically overrun with orb weavers, but I'll have to undergo some arachnophobia therapy before I can do that. In the meantime, fixate on this more benign invertebrate as a visual amuse-bouche.

Photo of a bug

Oh, by the way...MLB and I have often remarked on one unusual aspect of wildlife in our vicinity, and that is the complete absence of rabbits. We had not seen a jackrabbit or a cottontail since moving here last summer...until this morning. As we were on the way to release the latest armadillo in an undisclosed location, MLB spotted movement along the road. I backed the truck up a half block and, sure enough, a jackrabbit was loping through the brush. I guess coyotes are next on the agenda.

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This page is an archive of entries from July 2018 listed from newest to oldest.

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