If the title of this most recent post seems odd, you aren’t mistaken: portraits have never been my specialty. Anybody that is familiar with my work knows that I invest my time almost exclusively in landscape photography. But at least one unexpected advantage to spending so much time in the wildlands of Connecticut is that I’ve had the privilege of observing a wide cross-section of the state’s fauna. Over the past year, I’ve really started to embrace these photographic opportunities.
The most recent addition to my online galleries includes a small cavalcade of native reptiles and amphibians of Connecticut, creatures which are also found throughout much of the American Northeast. As a child, discovering creatures such as these in the woodlands and wetlands around home served to nourish my enthusiasm and curiosity for the outdoors. I’m grateful to be able to introduce you to some of these remarkable animals through my work. This is probably the closest I come to producing anything that could vaguely be called a “portrait”.
Eastern Box Turtle
Most people are probably familiar with the term “endangered”. In common parlance, it is broadly used to refer to a species that is facing extinction, or at least a severe decline in population. But Connecticut officials actually apply this term fairly technically, as do many states throughout the nation. Only creatures that are potentially facing extinction in the very near future are classified as “endangered”. There are also two less severe, albeit equally serious, categorizations: “threatened” and “special concern”. Although law books specify definitions for these categories, it will suffice to say that “threatened” species are those which may soon become “endangered”, while “special concern” species are those which are in danger of becoming “threatened”.
The Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) is a Connecticut-listed Species of Special Concern. This may be surprising to those that live in isolated areas of the state where the Eastern Box Turtle still thrives. Unfortunately, such places are becoming more and more uncommon. While the Eastern Box Turtle may not be in any immediate danger of going extinct, biologists are warning of a potentially grim future for this woodland turtle.
Studies of the Eastern Box Turtle have revealed that most adult specimens, such as this one which I photographed in southern Connecticut (above), will spend the majority of their lives wandering only one or two acres of home territory. In short, they don’t travel too far. This habit served these turtles well for thousands of years, but makes them especially vulnerable in modern times. I think that we tend to rationalize that, when we develop small portions of land, the local wildlife will simply learn to avoid that area. But for the Eastern Box Turtle, which has such strong ties to its limited home range, the construction of an ordinary one-acre home lot can potentially mean the destruction of the animal’s entire domain.
So while the Eastern Box Turtle continues to thrive in those areas of Connecticut where development has occurred slowly, its numbers continue to decline elsewhere. As a Connecticut state-listed species though, this turtle now enjoys a certain measure of protection against careless land development, at least in those places where its presence has been confirmed.
Black Rat Snake
One of the largest snakes in Connecticut, the Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) is among the more common serpents of woodlands and meadows. I happened upon this particular specimen (above) along Connecticut’s Metacomet Trail in mid-April, probably only a short time after it emerged from hibernation. In fact, this Black Rat Snake was rendered so sluggish and docile in its post-hibernation stupor that I was able to observe it quite freely. For nearly 30 minutes, I watched as it weaved its way through the tangled branches of a fallen tree only a couple feet away, lacking any sense of urgency to escape. Eventually it slithered to the ground and casually vanished beneath a large boulder.
This type of groggy, springtime temperament doesn’t last very long, though. By late May, I ran into another of these serpents in a rocky meadow in central Connecticut. This time around, the Black Rat Snake was not nearly so accommodating. Alertness was noticeably heightened, it was reactive to my every movement and, after only a few minutes, it grew weary of my presence and staged a lightening-quick escape into the grasses.
Gray Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) are the only “true” treefrogs that make their home in Connecticut. Despite a slow decline in population throughout the 20th century, the Gray Treefrog remains at least stable enough that it is not currently a state-listed species. This may come as a surprise, though, because most people have actually never seen a Gray Treefrog… even those that spend a good deal of time outdoors.
Why are these frogs so elusive? The simple answer is that they spend the vast majority of their time in the trees, a behavior which could be easily inferred from their name. In the rare case that Gray Treefrogs venture to the ground, its typically by cover of night in order to breed. So although these arboreal amphibians are quite comfortable in the landscapes of Connecticut, they manage to remain out of sight and out of mind to most people.
Eastern Ribbon Snake
Undoubtedly among the most commonly seen snakes in suburban neighborhoods, the Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus sauritus) is oftentimes mistaken for the closely-related Common Garter Snake. The misidentification is understandable, as both snakes grow to roughly the same proportions and possess distinct, yellow lateral stripes.
For the most part, the field guides will tell you that Eastern Ribbon Snakes live beside wetlands or ponds, feeling most comfortable in the transitional zone between water and dry land. And while that may be the case most often, I discovered this particular specimen (above) on the west-facing ledges of a traprock ridge in southern Connecticut. Naturally, one might wonder how it could possibly find drinking water in such a place; the answer was to be found in the forests towards the interior of ridge top. Although the woodlands there are rather dense, just like any lowland forest, the soil is actually quite shallow. Only about two to four feet below the soft soil lies the solid basalt of the ridge, so that any depressions in the terrain tend to accumulate springtime meltwater and year-round rain run-off. The result is that a small network of vernal pools can be found in this otherwise dry and rocky ecosystem. The Eastern Ribbon Snake routinely makes use of these pools, which occasionally even fill with water during spells of heavy rain during the summertime. As an added benefit, the pools also serve as excellent breeding habitat for various frogs and toads which ultimately provide ribbon snakes with a much-needed food source.
Northern Green Frog
Wherever large swaths of land are developed in Connecticut, there’s almost always some significant impact to the plants and animals which previously had reign over the territory. Some species, such as the Wood Frog and Eastern Box Turtle, can easily vanish from the local landscape. Then there are those creatures such as the Northern Green Frog (Rana clamitans melanota), which probably comprise a larger percentage of Connecticut’s frog population these days than they ever did before the landscape was significantly developed. What accounts for this population explosion in Northern Green Frogs when so many other species are struggling just to avoid yearly declines in numbers?
Quite simply, the Northern Green Frog is supremely adaptable to all types of developed landscapes. While amphibians such as the Wood Frog require undisturbed vernal pools to survive (and will literally perish without them), the Northern Green Frog is content to make its home just about anywhere: rivers or brooks, ponds or lakesides, wetlands and even roadside ditches and storm drains. They are also just as opportunistic in their choice of food, eating nearly anything that they can capture and swallow. This remarkable flexibility means that, even as its wild habitats are tamed by development, the Northern Green Frog nonetheless fares relatively well in comparison to more disturbance-sensitive species. And wherever other species of frog begin to decline in numbers, you can bet that the infinitely versatile Northern Green Frog is itching to fill in the void.
Northern Black Racer
The Northern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor), growing to sizes of between 4 and 5 feet, is one of the larger snakes of Connecticut. The name “racer”, not surprisingly, alludes to the lightning-fast escapes it stages whenever feeling threatened by an encroaching human. While these snakes are undoubtedly fast, I’m not sure that other snakes can’t attain similar speeds on the right terrain. Instead, my experience with these reptiles in the wild would seem to suggest that they are simply more skittish than other snake species that share their habitat. Thus, they are able to escape from approaching humans much faster, not only because of their speed, but also because they tend to be exceptionally weary of potential threats.
My encounter with this particular specimen (above), was a rather intriguing one for reasons that aren’t at all visible in my photograph. As I crouched only a few feet from the snake, being sure to move slowly so as not to startle it into retreat, I suddenly heard a distinct rattling sound. Now, to be clear, there was no question in my mind that this was a Northern Black Racer… a non-venomous and completely harmless snake. Yet the rattling was so peculiar, and so loud, that I actually doubted my eyes for a moment and found myself involuntarily glancing at its tail to verify that it did not possess the trademark rattle segments of the venomous Timber Rattlesnake. It did not, of course. Instead, it was rapidly beating its smooth tail on the leaf litter. Surely, I imagined, this must be some fantastic mimicry tactic in which the Northern Black Racer strikes fear into the hearts of approaching threats by posing as a rattlesnake!
The truth of the matter, however, is perhaps even more fascinating. As it turns out, this supposed “rattlesnake mimicry” is actually common among many varieties of non-venomous snake. And, rather than being an attempt at imitating a rattlesnake, researchers now believe that this behavior is very ancient and actually predates the evolution of the modern rattlesnake. Several snake species will rhythmically beat their tails on the ground in an attempt to frighten approaching threats, but only the rattlesnakes took this behavior one step further and developed a unique rattling tail structure which could amplify the sound.
To see more photography of the creatures discussed above, as well as several others, please visit Fauna of the Eastern US on my online galleries at JGCOLEMAN.COM.