Sunning snappers, cavorting cooters and spirited sliders – unexpected behavioral encounters

All wildlife fascinates me. It’s always a delight when some animal exhibits behavior in my presence that I haven’t seen before. Turtles have not been the most likely candidates in this regard for me, however. That changed this year in two cases (see further below). Mostly I see them basking on logs in bogs, ponds and lakes, like these yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta), either alone or in the company of other creatures.

Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) also like to sun and can be seen in the same environments.

Seeing turtles cross a walking path as they search for a place to dig a nest for their eggs is not unusual.

I’ve come across a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) also on the march, apparently having just completed a nesting site.

There are seven species of cooters (Pseudemys) in the southeastern USA and it can be difficult even for experienced naturalists to distinguish them. They are all large turtles at full growth, with a carapace measuring some 13 inches or more.

 

The turtle that many more people see, including in their yards, is the lovely Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina). During nesting season they are often on the move and several people I know will stop and “rescue” them as they cross busy roads.

The other day, I stopped traffic on a busy neighborhood road when I spotted a box turtle crossing. Drivers of cars going both ways kindly came to a halt as I carried the turtle to the side of the road where it was headed. It was about the 5th time this summer and fall that I had stopped for a box turtle and I always hope that the reptile will go on to have a long and healthy life.

This summer I also rescued a box turtle that I found resting on water weeds in my pond. I had always thought that these terrestrial turtles would drown, so I got the reptile out. There is a small log sticking up out of the pond, which is how I think the turtle got in, but I wasn’t sure it could climb up again.

I did find out later from my friend Lucretia that box turtles are able to swim, despite not having webbed toes like aquatic species.

The box turtles vary a lot in coloring, but the turtle below has to be the most strikingly colorful one I have come across so far. It made me think of a young person who went a bit wild with the make-up.

The slider turtles can also have some beautiful coloring.

One bit of behavior that I don’t expect from snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) is the basking behavior exhibited by many other species. Nevertheless, in June I found one apparently enjoying a sojourn in the sun in a pond kept filled by the local beavers.

Usually, I see snappers with their heads tucked in, but they certainly do earn their scientific name of serpentina (snake-like) as their necks are very long!

And that brings me to the really unexpected behavior that I recently saw while watching turtles. One day, about 20 turtles were swimming and gliding around a pond, close to the surface. Two in particular were not only swimming, however, but also seemed to be playing. After asking for help in identifying them in a reptile-oriented Facebook group, it was suggested they were either sliders or cooters. Both were very large.

They were not near one another but in their own space, showing similar behavior. They would surface, swim along with their bodies stretched out to the limit and then bring up their hind or front legs and slap the surface of the water repeatedly. Then after doing this several times, they would suddenly rise up a bit and splash their whole bodies down into the water, making an even larger spray of water.

A fellow photographer suggested they might be mating or defending territory, but I think they were actually playing.

Some readers might think that makes me very anthropomorphic, but scientists are studying the concept of play in reptiles and one researcher, Gordon Burkhardt, has said that rejection of the idea of reptiles playing has to do with how play is defined.

He has proposed a definition that would make it entirely possible to think of reptiles playing:

“play is repeated, seemingly nonfunctional behavior differing from more adaptive versions structurally, contextually, or developmentally, and initiated when the animal is in a relaxed, unstimulating, or low stress setting.”

It should be noted, too, that websites dedicated to people who own reptiles as pets include articles on how they can stimulate play – and thereby well-being and health – among their animal companions.

I’ll be keeping a more watchful eye on turtles from now on; who knows what other interesting behaviors might be observed? And it would be just nice to think that a turtle whose remains we find in the woods could have had an enjoyable and not just “mechanical” (pre-programmed) life.

As Brian Doyle wrote in Martin Marten:

“The fact is that the more stories we share about living beings, the more attentive we are to living beings, and perhaps the less willing we are to slaughter them and allow them to be slaughtered. That could be.”

 

 

 

Leapin’ lizards! Remarkable reptiles in Costa Rica

Today is the United Nations’ World Wildlife Day, a time to especially raise awareness about and celebrate the earth’s plants and animals. The holiday was instituted in 2013 to be commemorated on 3 March, the day of the year on which the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed. The theme for World Wildlife Day 2020 is “Sustaining all life on Earth”, which includes all wild animal and plant species as key components of the world’s biodiversity.

To honor this international day of commemoration (and hopefully awareness-raising and action), I’d like to share some of the reptiles that I’ve seen in Costa Rica. But first, let me show you one North Carolina turtle that I saw yesterday and that I don’t think I had seen before. It’s a large turtle called a Florida cooter (Pseudemys floridana), which has a nice pattern with yellow accents on the carapace.

In Costa Rica, we came across one turtle at which we got a good look — a black wood turtle, also called a river turtle (Rhinoclemmys funerea). This is the largest turtle among the reptiles in its genus; individuals can grow to 14 in (35 cm).

black wood turtle

We came across several snakes during our trip in 2019, but a few of them were dead on the road and I decided not to show those. One feisty individual was the cloudy snail-eating snake (Sibon nebulatus); when our guide neared it, the snake reared up in self-defense. Of course, it’s good to remember that most snakes will not strike if they do not feel threatened, as we are reminded by the North Carolina Carolinas Reptile Rescue & Education Center.

 

A snake that I found particularly beautiful was spotted during the 2018 trip in which I participated; our guide spotted it after we had stopped at the side of a road. The neotropical bird snake (Phrynonax poecilonotus), also known as the puffing snake, eats small vertebrates such as small mammals, frogs, lizards and insects, but it is known to have a preference for birds and bird eggs.

These are non-venomous snakes, but they will bite hard when feeling threatened. They also will inflate their neck area in a way reminiscent of a cobra in order to appear dangerous.

The presence of caimans was advertised in various places we visited in Costa Rica but I didn’t see one until a spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) was spotted as we were driving down a highway one day.

This brings me to the various types of lizards I saw. Anoles (Anolis) were in all the areas we visited, Although I couldn’t identify the specific species for several, I enjoyed seeing the differences between them.

 

While searching for birds in a heavily shadowed marshy area, we caught sight of what I thought was a slender anole — obviously a male given its prominent inflated neck flap. However, it turns out that slender anoles have white dewlaps with a small orange blotch so this was a different species.

 

I do believe that this anole was a ground anole (Norops humilis) but would welcome correction if I’m wrong. Their diet includes various insects such as termites, beetles, crickets, termites and flies.

 

 

A somewhat larger reptile than the anoles was the – in my opinion – quite attractive Central American whiptail (Holcosus festivus occidentalis). Like the other lizards that you will see below, they have exceptionally long tails.

Juvenile whiptails have blue tails; their skin patterns are quite lovely, which may account for part of their species name – festivus which means merry or joyous in Latin.

Not much information is available online about these lizards, despite their apparent wide distribution. Some studies have been done about another whiptail genus seen elsewhere that aroused scientific interest because reproduction is by parthogenesis. This has not been reported for this species.

 

The iguanas are the very large reptiles seen in Costa Rica. Despite their size, they appear to be quite agile; it was not unusual to see the large black spiny-tail iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) high up in trees.

The male black spiny-tails can grow as large as 4 ft 3 in (1.3 m), while females are a foot or more shorter. During breeding season, the males develop blue- and peach-colored hues on their jowls, as can be seen in the portrait below, captured by fellow traveler Janet Kurz in 2018.

 

They have been said to be the fastest lizard species, reaching a speed of 21.5 mph (34.6 km/h) in a sprint. Running away is a strategy to avoid predators but they can also bite and lash with their tails if cornered. They are mostly herbivorous, although they will also consume small animals and insects. Unfortunately, they are eaten by humans, some of whom think they can cure impotence.

 

The green iguanas (Iguana iguana) are somewhat smaller than the spiny-tails but they are also large, growing to 4.9 ft (1.5 m) or more. We were lucky to see a juvenile green iguana meander along a smaller tree, posing for quite some time. There might have been others nearby but we didn’t see them. It turns out that these iguanas are quite social – juveniles form pods of about four animals and then spend time grooming one another and sleeping together.

 

 

Their coloring is quite bright but can be other hues such as reddish brown, black, lavender and blue. These iguanas are good climbers, often staying high in trees; reportedly, they can fall as far down as 50 ft (15 m) and still land unhurt.

 

The green iguanas are often found near water and they swim well, being able to stay submerged as long as 30 minutes at a time. Like the spiny-tails, they can use their tails in defense. They can also drop their tails when caught and grow new ones.
 

The basilisks are among the “showiest” reptiles even though they are smaller than the iguanas (e.g., growing up to about 2.5 feet/76 cm in length). They gained the name Jesus Christ lizard because they can “walk” across water when rapidly moving (up to 15 mph/ 24.1 km/h) to escape predators. They have special webbing between the toes on their hind legs and cross the water “standing up” on those legs.

The male common basilisks (Basiliscus basiliscus) have a distinctive fin-like crest on their backs. Both sexes range in color from olive to brown; they are distinguished by a light-colored stripe along their upper lip.

 

The common basilisks also have a stripe along their body, although this fades as they grow older. The females and juveniles look somewhat similar. The females do not care for the young, leaving the eggs once laid. The hatchlings instinctively know how to care for themselves.

 

 

The green basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons) is also known as the plumed basilisk. Males have three crests (on the head, back and tail), while females (shown in the photos here) only have a head crest. The juveniles have no crests.

 

Like the other basilisks, these lizards can dive under water after running along the surface for a time. They can stay submerged up to an hour but often do not do this as they could fall prey to aquatic predators.

 

 

Like the common basilisks, the green basilisk females leave their eggs and the newly hatched babies are able to run, climb and swim right after birth.

Among the brown basilisks (Basilicus vittatus), also called striped basilisks, the juveniles (shown below) can often run further across water than the adults.

   

The crests are similar to those in other species. These basilisks have dark bars across their backs and quite yellow stripes.

Like the other basilisks, these lizards often eat insects but also eat berries and other fruit, making them omnivores.

 

The last type of lizard in this reptile review is another iguana known by a couple popular names: the casque-headed lizard or the smooth helmeted iguana (Corytophanes cristatus).They have several distinct features that make them quite unique.

They are characterized by very long toes, a long tail like the other lizards and highly variable coloration, ranging from olive, grey, black, brown to reddish-brown, often with irregular blotches of other color.

 

 

 

They are also able to change their color rapidly as a form of camouflage. Unlike the other lizards, they tend to freeze in place when predators approach (a strategy called catalyptic freezing). If this and trying to appear larger by erecting their crest and expanding their gular pouch do not scare off predators, they will bite and attack.

 

 

 

They differ from the other iguanas and basilisks in that they often do not actively seek out prey. Rather, they sit and wait for worms, other lizards, insects and spiders to wander by and then pounce on them.

One final noteworthy and unexpected fact: because these lizards sit still for very long periods of time, both a fungus and a plant have been found growing on their skin!

Happy World Wildlife Day!

 

My one greed that I do not regret

 

My thoughts & walking wander
Sometimes in conjunction
& sometimes on different paths.

The wheezy red-winged blackbird
Calls out time on this quiet Sunday morning.

An hour’s worth of nature should do me today.
Enough to rejuvenate, calm down, re-fill with some contentment.

A dove’s hooo hooooo
A songbird’s chirrups
The hawk’s plaintive cry.

 

A united triumvirate causes the hawk to flee
As it appears to clutch a prize in its claws;
The flight is too fast to decipher its capture.
Nesting & fledging season continues, so the grackles’ vigilance is warranted.

 

As a vulture descends
Circling downward over my head, I wonder
What does s/he know that I don’t?
Or the grasshopper?
The Nez Perce people said: “Every animal knows more than you do.”

 

 

Lichen-covered and veined stones and rocks jut up from the dirt path.
My feet seek purchase since
An injured leg needs no more distress.

 

 

 

 

A silver-spotted skipper alights on spiky purple thistle
Beautiful white patch on velvety brown.

On another day the summer azures caught my eye.
So small with details of their beauty escaping the naked eye.
The wonders of technology bring them closer.

 

 

 

Someone else has been walking here, too,
Where wetlands waters once flowed.

 

The five-lined skink and Carolina anole
Are not coming out today.

 

The beaver pond is placid
The dragons dip and rise
Turtles break surface and sink
Frogs give a cry of alarm, jumping high-pitched into the depths.

A pair of kingfishers
Fly to and fro,
Practicing their observation skills

As they wait for their permanent colors to come in.

 

Leaves are trembling
Branches and twigs waving
The slightest of breezes beckons
And helps the cattails sway a bit.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hot
Clothing damp and sticking.
Even the honeybee is not staying around long.

 

 

The brown thrasher, on the other hand,
Is enjoying a dust bath and sunbathing in the glaring light…
Until I surprise her/him from behind. Sorry!!

 

 

A three-way Japanese beetle gathering
Is staying put for a while
Eating up the leaves on which they rest.

 

 

A bright American goldfinch stops by.
I do not think of them as sad
Regardless of the name they were given.
Their brief presence makes me happy.

 

Two hours, 20 minutes…
Passed while admiring an eyed click beetle
And acknowledging deceptions in the natural world.

Two not-so-common looking buckeyes delight.
One a little tattered, showing age.
I can sympathize from experience.

 

 

The life-filled ground, plants, water and air
Enthrall.

An hour should do me?

An hour is enough?
It could suffice in some circumstances.
But the one greed I have, which I do not regret,
Is the desire for much more time among the non-human beings in nature.

The trails beckon.
Who’s waiting around the bend?

Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 2: non-avian wildlife!

Birding is an activity I enjoy, especially since I can usually spot at least one bird during my outdoor excursions. I’d prefer to call myself a “wildlifer” rather than a “birder”, however, since all kinds of other wildlife also fascinate me. Here is a selection of some wildlife surprises and new species I saw last year, including a new plant – the honeyvine milkweed (Cynanchum laeve).

 

This vine is sometimes described simply as a native plant that spreads by seed and long roots; other websites call it a noxious weed. It does perhaps spread quickly but it is also a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars so it seems like a desirable plant to me.

This mushroom was another one of my favorite vegetation spottings last year – it looks to me as if it is an animal with large ears.

Mammals are favorites of mine but I only see a restricted number regularly – white-tailed deer, Eastern squirrels, raccoons, Eastern chipmunks. When I get to see an opossum (Didelphis virginiana) – like one who visited the yard at night during our early December snowstorm, it was a treat. It seems many people dislike North Carolina’s state marsupial (and the only marsupial in North America) but it is a valuable neighbor since it eats up to 4000 ticks a week. There likely weren’t many ticks around for it to eat but I hope it found something for a meal!

   

This past year was my “year of the beavers” as I had a chance to follow these nature landscape architects in three different places. And as mentioned in a previous blog, I was so thrilled to get a shot of the warning tail-slapping behavior.

  

2018 was a good year for seeing new insects. Some are so tiny that you can’t really see their body patterns without magnification. Here are a few of my “discoveries”. The flies can be very interesting.

Sunflower seed maggot fruit fly (Neotephritis finalis)


Parasitic fly (Archytas)

2018 was a year for learning about reproduction among the bugs; not only did I see caterpillars but also chrysalids and arthropod parents caring for offspring. The green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) is a very attentive mother; she often hangs her egg sac from a grass stalk and then encircles it with her body to keep predators away.

One green lynx at the NC Botanical Garden placed her egg sac underneath the “lid” of a pitcher plant and then hung out on that and neighboring plants to keep an eye on the sac. I was lucky to see one of the babies after it hatched.

Another spider was not so lucky – it became a meal for one of North Carolina’s endemic “special plants”, the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

North Carolina has many species of grasshoppers; I saw several species this past year, including several mating pairs. Here is a young short-horned grasshopper.

It’s always nice to see some pollinators.

 

  

Brown-winged striped sweat bee                        Small carpenter bee                                (Agapostemon splendens)                                   (Ceratina)

 

I got to see the chrysalids of two fritillary butterfly species, the variegated fritillary (Euptoieta Claudia, left) and the gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanilla, below).

Sometimes, I think the moths get a bum rap, being seen as poor cousins to the “beautiful butterflies”. But there are many really beautiful moths, like the lunate zale moth (Zale lunata) and delicate cycnia moth (Cycnia tenera).

  

I got to see several moth caterpillars this year; the experts at BugGuide were very helpful in identifying them for me.

   

Common tan wave moth                           Gold moth caterpillar  (Basilodes pepita)          (Pleuroprucha insulsaria)

 
Turbulent phosphila moth caterpillar (Phosphila turbulenta)

For the first time, I got to see an evergreen bagworm moth (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis). There were several hanging out in trees next to a rural farm pond – they did not restrict themselves to an evergreen tree but hung themselves from a persimmon, privet and cedar tree. I think the last photo shows the caterpillar as it was completing the “bag” into which it would insert itself.

    

In the summer, I was lucky to see a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia).

   

In December, I discovered two cecropia chrysalids, as well as the cup-like chrysalis of a polyphemus moth (Antheraea Polyphemus, which was empty).

  

Another discovery was that the larvae of soldier beetles look like some type of caterpillar as well.

There were lots of katydids around, including the slender straight-lanced katydid (Conocephalus strictus) and the stockier Scudderia bush katydid.

 

  

Some new bugs appeared in my yard, including a plant bug with muted colors (not yet identified to species) and some more colorful scentless plant bugs (Niesthrea louisianica) on my Rose of Sharon shrubs.

  

  

A seed bug on a seed pod and a head-on photo of a millipede (Narceus americanus-annularis-complex) were cool sightings, too.

   

2018 was a good year for my observations of reptiles, too. Seeing a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) flash its red dewlap (also known as a throat fan) was not a new experience but the fact that it was only a foot away from me doing it was a surprise.

   

 

Seeing one of these anoles jump from one small flower twig to another in order to catch a bee for supper was a surprise – I didn’t know they eat bees. I felt a little sad that we lost a pollinator that way, but the anoles have to eat, too.

 

 

 

One day, when walking at the same wetlands where the anole hung out I came across some beautifully colored turtles. The yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta) had a beautiful pattern on its face.

 

 

 

The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) with its long claws had some beautiful bright red striping. It had gotten a prime sunning spot on a log that another turtle wanted for itself; the first turtle held it off.

 

The second turtle circled around and tried to get on board from the other side but turtle No. 1 kept it at bay.

  

My snake encounters included seeing Northern water snakes and rat snakes. It was a beautiful red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) that caught me by surprise when it suddenly veered off its course toward me. I backed up and the reptile stopped approaching, flicking its tongue out as it explored what was going on.

My final spotting to share with you today is another gorgeous snake – a common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). It had been a long time since I had encountered one and this individual had quite vivid colors.

Next up – some beautiful raptors.

Costa Rican rambles 7B – Cerro Buena Vista and a night prowl

 

After seeing the beautiful green and blue emerald swift lizard, our attention went back to birds and we rewarded with sightings of a few gorgeous little yellow birds – a yellow-winged vireo (Vireo carmioli) and yellowish flycatcher (Empidonax flavescens).

Since I photograph insects to contribute to BugGuide in the USA, I was watching for them in Costa Rica, too. Insect galls on plant stems and leaves were in evidence and a blue damselfly (Argia pulla) posed for a moment.

A yellow weevil was a fascinating find – those blunt-nosed small insects make me think of Pinodchio.

Then – to the delight of everyone in our party – we had the good fortune to see a resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) fly across our path. We had caught sight of a couple flying high over the Lodge before setting off for our hike, but this bird actually perched not too far away, not staying very long at all but giving me a minute to step around a fellow birder and get a couple shots.

A hairy woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus), a more familiar bird for us, looked down on us from high above and a flame-throated warbler (Oreothlypis gutturalis) brought another spot of color to our upward trek.

 

When we started down to make it back in time for lunch, we had time to examine the surrounding flowers and then were lucky to see yet another emerald swift lizard, also kown as the green spiny lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus).

After a meal, it was a treat to see a collared redstart (Myioborus torquatus).

 

 

   

 

A black-thighed grosbeak (Pheucticus tibialis) gave us another yellow-hued sighting before our attention turned to birds with more subdued coloring – an ochraceous wren (Troglodytes ochraceus) which made me think of hobbits in woods for some reason, some ruddy treerunners (Margarornis rubiginosus) and a spangle-cheeked tanager (Tangara dowii).

        

A black-faced solitaire (Myadestes melanops) graced us with its presence before we took an afternoon break. Some of our fellow birders went to rest, but Janet invited me to her cabin where we had the rare pleasure of seeing a lesser violetear hummingbird (Colibri cyanotus) sitting on her nest! When she flew off after a while to get some sustenance, we noted that she had not yet laid any eggs.

 

 

Then, as I scanned the surrounding trees from Janet’s balcony, I discovered another nest, occupied by the young of a gray-tailed hummingbird (Lampornis cinereicauda). It was not easy to see but peering through the leaves, I managed to get a shot of the hummer stuffing some food down an offspring’s throat.

   

Janet’s balcony was a wonderful birding spot – the next visitor was a gorgeous red-headed barbet (Eubucco bourcierii). A flame-colored tanager (Piranga bidentata) was yet another brilliantly hued avian visitor.

Walking along the nearby roads, I saw the horses (Equus ferus caballus) used for tourists’ horse-back riding galloping along – beautiful, well-fed animals to be sure.

  

We soon left on our next excursion to the Páramo zone (montane shrub- and grassland mountaintop environment), where we scaled the Cerro Buena Vista (“Good View Mountain”) by van. This region contains the highest point of the Pan American Highway in Central America (3492 meters or 11456.69 feet in elevation). The peak harbors telecommunications equipment and is noteworthy for the many bird species endemic to this area.

   

The one for which we were especially looking was the volcano junco (Junco vulcani), a great bird that was not shy at all and posed for us in numerous positions and at great length.

After leaving the mountaintop, we descended to the rainforest and there spotted a black guan (Chamaepetes unicolor).

 

Our day ended with a night prowl after dinner, looking for the dusky nightjar (Antrostomus saturatus). And we were lucky enough to have one fly right in when it heard the playback of a compatriot on our birding guide’s sound system!

 

 

 

Well satisfied, I retired to a good night’s sleep after catching a rather large cranefly-type insect, which I let go outside. I wanted to be prepared for our next day’s adventures with the wildlife beauties of Costa Rica.