There are two species of striped snakes in New England, the Common Garter Snake and the Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus). One way to tell the two apart is to note the location of the light-colored side stripe. If the stripe occurs on scale rows 2&3 (counting up from the belly), then you've got a Common Garter Snake. If the pale stripe is on scale rows 3&4 (see Quiz #162), then you've got an Eastern Ribbon Snake.
The Eastern Ribbon Snake is slender with a long, thin tail and total length of 1.5-3'. Also, note the narrow yellow mark just in front of each eye. To learn about this species' habits and life history, visit Animal Diversity Web. And, the next time you encounter a snake with whom you're unfamiliar, take some pictures or make a quick sketch, and then consult the simple key on the Snakes of Massachusetts website published by UMass Amherst.
In May and June, throughout much of New England, female Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) risk venturing over land to find suitable soils in which to bury their eggs. Pavement is perhaps their most serious obstacle, with motor vehicles routinely striking and killing turtles traversing roads.
Chain link fences and stone walls, while not as immediately dangerous, may restrict their wanderings, forcing them to nest in less than ideal situations. Once a female chooses a location, she buries around 2-3 dozen eggs before retreating to her wetland home.
When not wandering on land, adult snappers face few threats. Humans are likely their largest predators, in places where turtle soup is still savored. Their nutrient dense eggs and later the hatchlings are much more vulnerable, serving as important food sources for many creatures including Northern Raccoons, Striped Skunks, Red Foxes, American Crows, and Great Blue Herons. This time of year, it's not uncommon to encounter unearthed nest sites littered with egg shells.
To learn more about these powerful creatures, visit Animal Diversity Web. To view the following images in full-size, click here.
Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) are small frogs with big voices. In early spring, these rarely seen, insect-eaters sound off en masse (though I've heard individuals vocalize in every month of the year, including the occasional sunny winter day). Both male and female peepers gather in wetlands, many of which only hold water in spring, but it's the males who announce the coming green season with their chorusing. Guided by their calls and those of Wood Frogs who often share the same breeding season habitat, species of Salamanders join the party, as they all seek to ensure future generations of moist-skinned amphibians.
Roads pose a potentially fatal obstacle to creatures journeying to these springtime gatherings. I escorted the above Spring Peeper, presumably on his or her way to a nearby wetland, off of a wet road early one warm morning in mid-March, but many other frogs had waited out winter only to be killed on the same roadway. So, if you can, please don't drive on warm, rainy nights in late February through early April, and instead walk to a wetland near you and enjoy the sounds of the season.
Want more? Animal Diversity Web has a comprehensive species account which includes identification, behavior, and life cycle info, along with many photos. For a look-back on a wetland-focused Moon Challenge that I did when I lived in Massachusetts, see my Wetland Loop Recap.
Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans) are common New England natives. Often found at the edges of wetlands (perhaps in the company of American Bullfrogs), Green Frogs typically leap to wet safety when they sense human approach. They have skin folds (called dorsolateral ridges) that extend from behind their eyes, a feature that American Bullfrogs lack. Male calls sound like single notes plucked on a banjo. If you need help getting close to a Green Frog, I recommend consulting a young amphibian-loving child. They seem to know what it takes to sneak up on these aquatic creatures.
Perhaps the most likely snake encountered in New England is the Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). They live in a variety of habitats, from wetlands, forests, and fields, to suburban yards. Body patterns vary widely but often feature three light stripes and speckled sides. Eastern Ribbon Snakes are also striped but are more slender and lack side speckles. If a snake has you puzzled, the Snakes of Massachusetts website published by UMass Amherst contains a simple key that can aid with identification. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)