Common Box Turtle

Jul 19, 2019

Terrapene Carolina is a common turtle of Hudsonville. The species is well known to anyone who spends time outdoors in the woods or in the fields.

Box turtles have a high domed carapace with often the remnant of a keel down the center. The plastron is hinged and can completely enclose head and limbs within the carapace.

It can be variable in color from olive brown to yellowish with dark markings or not. Out of the four sub-species of the South East, two are overlapping in Hudsonville: the Eastern Box turtle and the three toed box turtle. In general males have red eyes (left) and females brown eyes (right).

The Eastern box turtle (T. c. carolina) has a variable shell coloration, usually a mix of yellow, orange, brown and black and the shell pattern can be spots, dashes, with a complex design on each scute.

Three-toed box turtles have a rather drab, horn colored carapace, but the head can have bright spots of red, orange, yellow or even blueish. Three-toed box turtles usually have three toes on the hind feet, but a few individuals have four. Intergradation occurs in Hudsonville, just like along the zones where the two sub-species come in contact, resulting in a mix of colors and patterns that make subspecies identification difficult.

Box turtles mainly mate in Spring on land. They will nest in the evening from May to July, laying one or two clusters of about 5 eggs each. The eggs hatch in early September and most hatchlings will emerge from the nest in the Fall.

Hatchling box turtles are very secretive and are seldom seen before 2 or 3 years of age. They are believed to frequent subterranean passageways and leaf litter where they are protected from most predators. The following pictures have been taken after a cluster of 3 eggs hatched in the incubator early September 2018. These hatchlings still display the ‘tooth’ on the nose that allows to slice the egg shell open.

The young turtles display a noticeable keel or line of raised bumps down the center of the carapace. The shell is not as domed as for adults and the hinge of the plastron is not functional.

Box turtles are active during the day and especially early morning in the warm season of Hudsonville (June to September). During drought or heat waves, they congregate in shallow ponds or in moist areas. Individuals create shallow pits beneath the leaf litter in the woods where they spend the night in the hot season or may be dormant in winter, often returning to the same locations the subsequent years. They can be difficult to spot in the mud, as shown on the picture on the left.

Box turtles eat an array of plant materials, including mushrooms, roots, flowers and seeds, berries, grapes, mayapples, but will not refuse a worm, grub, beetle, frog or toad.

Large dogs and coyotes occasionally kill adults. They leave marks on the carapace that will heal if they survive.

Habitat fragmentation is the reason of most mortality of the box turtles. They are long lived animals established in home ranges and favorite habitats. They may visit the same berry bush or pond every year at the same time. When roads fragment the habitat it can wipe out a whole population. Successful strategies to maintain a population require passage ways that allow the animals to move under or over the roads.

Rat snake

Jul 14, 2019

Elaphe obsoleta is a common snake I find by the house, in the barns, even in drawers and which will feed on mice, toads and even in nests they will reach thanks to their extraordinary climbing capabilities.

Rat snakes show a  high regional variation in body pattern and color. Our area in Hudsonville is an overlap of the gray rat snake with the black-and-gray rat snake. However further North -East, in Tennessee, one can find the black rat snake and I would believe it is here as well, as one can see on the pictures below, from Black to Black-and-Gray to Gray.

The Rat snake is also called chicken snake or simply black snake, this specially when the snake is slender and looks like a racer. It is said that the size reflects their recent diet, and they can be pretty stout. They are found most of the year, hibernating when temperatures are really cold in rotten logs, hollow trees or in the barn or in the workshop under a pile of boards. In spring one can find them on the ground or in the trees, I have never seen them in the swamps, even if they are reported to hunt there. They are most active in day time, especially when they climb trees and bushes in Spring, they will be active all night long in the summer months. They are hunter constrictors using smell and vision to find their prey: small mammals, birds and eggs, which they will swallow whole and break in their throat by squeezing the shell against the vertebrae.

Rat snakes lay eggs after the mating months of April, May and June. The clutch size is on average 15 eggs that hatch in two months. The eggs are laid in stump holes, tree holes or other moist and dark cavities. Rat snakes are known for returning to the same area to nest, year after year. Newborn rat snakes look like miniature versions of the gray adult with dark botches on a lighter gray body. They will assume their regional coloration when they grow older.

Copperheads, King snakes, Racers, hawks, owls, raccoons, coyotes prey on rat snakes. When they are encountered on the ground they exhibit this behavior called ‘kinking’, in which the stretched out snake makes a series of kinks along the length of its body while remaining motionless. Presumably this would be a form of camouflage. see picture below.

They may also bite and will coil in a spring in order to strike, but this is not their first reaction, they will remain quiet and rather mellow in most encounters.

When the leaves have fallen in Autumn we will find the skin remaining from a late molt in the trees or shrubs.

The taxonomy has been under review and some place the rat snake under genus Pantherophis rather than Elaphe. Furthermore the eastern rat snake, the Texas rat snake and the gray rat snake would be three distinct species with no recognized subspecies.

Common Snapping Turtle

Jul 14, 2019

Chelydra serpentina serpentina (Eastern Snapping Turtle) is a common turtle in the ponds and the marsh of Hudsonville. At 14 inches long, it is the largest turtle to be encountered on land crossing from pond to pond.

The snapping turtles are gray to black, often infested with leech. The head is large with powerful jaws, the tail is long with hard tubercules giving it a saw-toothed appearance. While the younger specimen display a carapace with rough texture, the older ones show a smooth dome. The plastron is greatly reduced (see picture) and the skin is lighter underside.

They derive their name from their tendency to snap or strike defensively when they feel threatened and are capable of delivering a painful bite. Males and females are not distinguishable when adult. This being said the male cloaca extends beyond the edge of the carapace.

They are primarily aquatic but they also can be found inland traveling from one wet area to an other. Females dig their nest on land. In the water they can be active day and night. They will hibernate in winter, and I have even seen one slowly swimming in winter as it was freezing cold. They may climb on stumps to bask, but this is not their common behavior, they rather float on the surface. They eat a wide variety of plants and animals, insects, cray fish, carions and are proficient scavengers.

Female snappers will look for open exposed areas to lay their eggs (I know one digging her nest every year on a tennis court). Nests are usually close to the water, but the turtles can also move overland to a distant nest site and back. One of the nest sites here is behind the vegetable garden (see picture below) and is 300 yards away from the pond, it is flat and treeless as it used to be a tree loading dock. Females will typically lay 20 to 40 eggs, which is the largest clutch of South-Eastern turtles. The young turtles will hatch end of summer and will leave the nest back to the water. I find them on their way to the pond.

Babies and young ones are the rough shelled version of the adult, with a very long tail and keels down the length of the carapace.

The hind legs elevating the rear, lunging forward with open mouth is familiar to anyone who encountered a snapper. It is a defensive posture discouraging even a pack of dogs.  This can come with a foul musk smell. Large snappers do not fear much, they can be eaten though by alligators down South or by otters in the Hudsonville marsh over winter.

Snapping turtles are widespread and abundant in Hudsonville and the surrounding area. I do not know anyone eating them, but they are being taken to make soup with a declining popularity.

Yellow-bellied water snake

Jul 06, 2019

The yellow-bellied water snake, Nerodia erythrogaster, is a common water snake on the property.

They are stout snakes with a gray to blueish back and a plain yellow to pale orange unmarked belly. the Nerodia erythrogaster flavigatser, as the Latin name says it, has a yellow plain belly and is one of the three sub-species found in the South East with the red-bellied to the East and the Blotched in a tiny coastal part of Louisiana.

They can turn up in or around any aquatic habitat thanks to their propensity to travel long distance over land. They are associated with rivers and floodplains. In Hudsonville they travel from pond to pond and into the marsh by the Cold Water river head.

They hibernate during the coldest part of the year, but  become active earlier than other water snakes in Spring. The picture above was taken on a warm February day of 2018 on the banks of one of our pond. As this snake has a dead right eye, one can approach it very close. It is not uncommon to see the yellow-bellied water snakes basking on vegetation along the ponds or on the levees, swimming or even traveling overland and across our yard. As they are more likely to be found over land than any other water snakes, it is believed that their diet is made of a high proportion of amphibians (frogs and toads).  The picture below shows one snake I picked up in the yard to protect it from the dogs. One of its first reaction was to regurgitate its meal, made of a frog. This reaction is pretty common and I am almost systematically granted with a frog as I relocate a yellow-bellied water snake. As out house is surrounded by several ponds and a wet prairie, they often roam by the house or the barns for toads or frogs and I have to relocate one or two a year.

The pictures below shows a removal from the house and how it coiled around my arm as I took it to a distant pond. (Water snakes are not constrictor snakes though). When caught, they release a musk, while trying to bite.  This very snake came back within 10 days, still same dead eye snake, intending this time to live in the house.

They rather actively forage for prey but have been known to sit in the water open mouthed, waiting for a prey to come near. Like other water snakes they swallow their prey and do not constrict it. The two pictures display two different snakes, one by a pond and the other on a path in the woods.

Mating occurs from April till mid-June, females giving birth to an average of 18  live young snakes in August or September.

They fall prey of terrestrial predators like dogs, hawks, but also cotton mouths, king snakes, egrets, baths.


The saga with the ‘dead eye’ water snake is not over, it keeps ongoing in 2019. Now it lives in the workshop.

Luna Moth

Jul 05, 2019

Actias luna: a conspicuous nocturnal moth of Hudsonville.

Family: Saturniidae
Subfamily: Saturniinae, a group commonly called Giant Silk Moths
Identification: This was the first North American saturniid to be reported in the insect literature. Hind wings have long curving tails. Wings are pale green, each with a transparent eyespot. Outer margins are pink in the southern spring brood, yellow in the southern summer brood and in northern populations.
Wing Span: 2 15/16 – 4 1/8 inches (7.5 – 10.5 cm).
Life cycle: Adults are very strong fliers and are attracted to lights. Giant silk moths have in common a mating process wherein the females, at night, release volatile sex pheromones, which the males, flying, detect via their large antennae. Males can detect these molecules at a distance of several miles, and then fly in the direction the wind is coming from until reaching the female. Luna moth females mate with the first males to find them, a process that typically starts after midnight and takes several hours. Females lay eggs in small groups or singly on both surfaces of host plant leaves. Life stages are approximately two weeks as eggs, 6–7 weeks as larvae, nine months as pupae, finishing with one week as winged adults appearing in late May or early June. Leaves and silk are used to spin papery brown cocoons in litter under the host plant. Male and female Luna moths can be distinguished by their antennae. A Male’s is larger and bushier.  
below a male southern spring brood.

Flight: One brood from May-July in the north, two to three broods from March-September in the south.
Caterpillar Hosts: A variety of trees including white birch (Betula papyrifera), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), hickories (Carya), walnuts (Juglans), and sumacs (Rhus).
Adult Food: Adults do not feed, no mouth parts.

I find the adult alive occasionally, but I frequently find the remnants of the adult, usually eaten by ants, which leave the wings. The picture on the left shows the right hind wing with teeth marks.

The adult does not show any mouth parts.

Holley collected cocoons in fall and kept them alive and developing over winter into Spring. She offered me a container in which the chrysalis of a few Luna Moths were budging, ready to reveal their adult phase. They emerge from the pupae with the wings small, crumpled and held close to the body. Over a period of several hours the wings will enlarge to full size. I took a short video as I release the first one, which hatched over night.

The Luna moth appeared on a first class United States postage stamp issued in June 1987.

Snowberry Clearwing

Jul 05, 2019

Hemaris diffinis: Order Lepidoptera, Family Sphyngidae, subfamily macroglossinae

Adults are somewhat variable in appearance; Bumblebee mimic. The thorax is golden or olive-golden in color, abdomen is black dorsally with 1-2 segments just prior to terminal end being yellow to various extent, while black ventrally. H. diffinis is the only eastern species to exhibit blue abdominal tufts on the first black segment in some freshly emerged specimens. Wings mostly clear with reddish brown terminal borders and dark scaling along veins. While wing maculation is too variable to be 100% diagnostic, diffinis typically has very thin terminal borders and the discal cell is elongate and without scales. However, diffinis can always be distinguished from gracilis and thysbe by two diagnostic characteristics: 1) the black band that crosses the eye and travels down the lateral side of the thorax; 2) diffinis always has black legs. The moth’s wings lack the large amount of scales found in most other lepidopterans, particularly in the centralized regions, making them appear clear. It loses the scales on its wings early after the pupa stage by its highly active flight tendencies. It flies during the daylight much like the other hummingbird moths, but it may also continue flight into the evening, particularly if it has found a good source of nectar.

Wing Span: 1 1/4 – 2 inches (3.2 – 5 cm).
Life History: Adults fly swiftly during the day. Caterpillars pupate in cocoons spun in leaf litter on the ground.
Flight: Two broods from March-August.

Caterpillar Hosts: Snowberry (Symphoricarpos), honeysuckle (Lonicera), dogbane (Apocynum), and dwarf bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera).

Adult Food: Nectar from flowers including lantana, dwarf bush honeysuckle, snowberry, orange hawkweed, thistles, lilac, and Canada violet.
Habitat: A wide variety of open habitats, streamsides, fields, gardens, and suburbs.
Range: East of the Continental Divide, through most of the United States to Maine and Florida. Some overlap with Hemaris thetis just east of the Divide.
Conservation: Not usually required.