The First Florida Banded Watersnake on 17 September 2018

Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, the Florida banded watersnake;
Alachua county, Florida (15 September 2018).

As the title might suggest (especially in the wake of the prior ribbon snake posts), my little herping group also managed to find a couple of Florida banded watersnakes (Nerodia fasciata pictiventris) in Alachua county last weekend. It’s been awhile since I’ve managed to get my hands on a banded watersnake —far and away my favorite native snake species–, so it was certainly delightful encounter.

The individual featured here was a small(ish) adult, one that had already seen some action. His tail had been bitten off at some point or removed by some other unfortunate means. Fortunately, it seems to have healed up nicely, and the snake was otherwise quite healthy.

 

The Second Peninsula Ribbon Snake on 17 September 2018

Thamnophis sauritus sackenii, the Peninsula ribbon snake;
Alachua county, Florida (15 September 2018).

I suppose the title of the last post (“The First Peninsula Ribbon Snake on 17 September 2018“) hinted that there might, in fact, be a second one coming up. Indeed, there was, and here it is — another lovely little ribbon.

At the time, I thought we might’ve simply caught that first ribbon once again, which does happen sometimes, but checking out the facial profile more closely, it was clearly a second individual. This isn’t really all that surprising. Whenever I find a ribbon, there’s usually more slinking about in the area. They aren’t necessarily communal, but they do seem to cluster a bit around profitable habitat. Sort of like college students hanging out near a bar that doesn’t i.d., right?

The First Peninsula Ribbon Snake on 17 September 2018

Thamnophis sauritus sackenii, the Peninsula ribbon snake;
Alachua county, Florida (15 September 2018).

This past weekend, I jaunted up to Gainesville for a quick romp around the swamp. I wanted to pick up some Swamp Head Brewery goodness, visit with some old friends, and, of course, try to find a few snakes to photograph. As is often the case, Alachua county did not disappoint. The day’s reptilian offerings may not have been the most dramatic or rare, but, hey, a snake’s a snake — and they all make me happy.

Featured here is the first of two Peninsula ribbon snakes (Thamnophis sauritus sackenii) we found and photographed on Saturday. Slim, elegant, and a bit wiry, the Peninsula ribbon snake is commonly found near the edges of ponds, lakes, and even creeks — especially when there’s decent foliage clustered alongside the shoreline.

If you’re unsure how to differentiate the Peninsula ribbon snake from its close relative, the Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), look for a well-defined white bar in front of each eye. If you see a vertical, white bar just in front of each eye, odds are you’re looking at a Peninsula ribbon snake. Garters can have white (or lighter) tones in front of each eye too, but they’re usually not as well defined. With ribbons, that bar is usually pretty sharp — as you can see in these photographs.

 

The White-marked tussock moth; 15 September 2018

Orgyia leucostigma, the White-marked tussock moth;
Alachua county, Florida (15 September 2018).

Continuing with our little run of furry caterpillars, here’s another tussock moth species in caterpillar form. This is the White-marked tussock moth caterpillar, Orgyia leucostigma, photographed in Alachua county on 15 September 2018.

Ranging across most of eastern North America (throughout Canada and the United States), the White-marked tussock moth is another mildly irritable species in that its caterpillar-stage hairs can cause an adverse reaction with some people. Again, I seem to not be one of those people — at least not when they’re crawling on me. Perhaps if I was foolish enough to pet the caterpillar like an awesome little ferret I might snag that itchy reaction?

The Fir Tussock Caterpillar, 12 April 2014

Orgyia detrita, the Fir tussock moth;
Gilchrist county, Florida (12 April 2014).

Though not considered to be a “stinging” caterpillar, contact with the Fir Tussock caterpillar’s (Orgyia detrita) hairs can cause measurable irritation for some people. Fortunately, I’m don’t seem to be one of those people. I’ve had a bit of contact with two hairy tussock species, and  neither resulted in any kind of irritation whatsoever. At the same time, I wasn’t exactly petting either caterpillar along the backside.  They were crawling on me, and I assume the longer, needle-like “hairs” along the back are what you want to avoid contact with.

This species ranges throughout much of the American southeast — from  Texas east to Florida and then north to New Jersey along the Atlantic coastline. In Florida, I can’t recall ever seeing there in Volusia county, but I have seen plenty of tussocks in north-central Florida (specifically in Alachua and Gilchrist counties).

 

The Forest Tent Caterpillar, 12 April 2014

Malacosoma disstria, the Forest tent caterpillar;
Gilchrist county, Florida (12 April 2014).

This is a Forest tent caterpillar moth — obviously still in caterpillar form. This is also one of Florida’s most lovely caterpillars. With bright splashes of electric blue, orange, and yellow, not to mention its light, delicate, white fur, I could easily watch one of these little dudes go about its business for an hour. They’re fantastically gorgeous.

Ranging throughout must of North America, Forest tent caterpillar moths tend to swarm and feed together as caterpillars, almost like a community. Apparently they aren’t overwhelmingly destructive to the foliage they feed upon, however. Though they can at times strip the leaves of a tree, those trees tend to recover from the Dionysian festival unleashed by these colorful little noodles of awesome.

 

The Orchard Orbweaver, 07 May 2014

Leucauge venusta, the Orchard orbweaver;
Flagler county, Florida (07 May 2014).
Perhaps now Leucauge argyrobapta.

The Orchard orbweaver, Leucauge venusta, is a fairly nifty (and utterly harmless-to-humans) arachnid traditionally listed as ranging throughout much of North, Central, and South America. In Florida, they are most certainly a small, common spider — quite abundant in yards and parks alike, often tucked upon their tiny, fragile webs strung within bundles of foliage and shrubbery.

Interestingly, while writing this post I caught wind from bugguide.net that the Florida-to Brazil orchard orbweavers appear to be, in fact, a distinct species separate from (yet closely related to) L. venusta. The new species is designated Leucauge argyrobapta. For the time being, I’ll classify this with the traditional Leucauge venusta designation, but as the taxonomic sands continue to change, I may update the classification and sorting of this spider in Florida accordingly.

Source to Consider: Ballesteros, J. A. & Hormiga, G. (2018). Species delimitation of the North American orchard-spider Leucauge venusta (Walckenaer, 1841) (Araneae, Tetragnathidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 121: 183-197.

The Black-dotted Spragueia Moth, 02 June 2014

Spragueia onagrus, the Black-dotted spragueia moth;
Volusia county, Florida (02 June 2014).

The Black-dotted spragueia moth, Spragueia onagrus, is fairly common throughout much of the coastal region of the American southeast. A member of Family Noctuidae, the Owlet moths, this species sports a wingspan of only about 15mm or so; it is a fairly tiny (and easy to miss) species of moth. It’s also a nice, subtle reminder that sometimes it’s good to pause and look more closely at the world passing by around you. That tiny moth you just walked by may indeed be something truly beautiful — in only you pause and look more closely.

The American crocodile of South Florida; 21 March 2015

Crocodylus acutus, the American crocodile;
Monroe county, Florida (21 March 2015).

When you think of Florida big reptilian beasts, you probably think of the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). That certainly makes sense given how many massive alligators we have sprawled out and lumbering across the peninsula. What you might not think of (but probably also should) is the American crocodile, Crocodylus acutus. That’s right, Florida is also home to bona fide species of croc.

The American crocodile ranges throughout the southern portion of Florida’s coasts and the coastal regions of central and South America (plus Cuba and other Caribbean isles). Males can average up to around 20 feet in length or so, which is rather considerable and a bit larger than myself. Females are a bit smaller but still clock in around 12 feet in length, which is also somewhat considerable and later than myself. For contrast, American alligators can average up to around 12 to 15 feet in length. A big, adult male croc, then, is something pretty remarkable (and massive) to behold, and female crocs are still nothing but impressive.

Though crocodiles are generally considered to be more of a global risk to humans than alligators, the American crocodile doesn’t carry too much of a Big-Bad reputation, especially in Florida. The species is a bit more reclusive and tends to hang out in more secluded salt- or brackish-water habitats. Personally, I think an eight foot American alligator that’s been fed by hapless humans poses far more risk to people than a sixteen foot American crocodile quietly scratching out a living on the edge of the Florida Everglades. Attacks in Florida are extremely rare. That being said, they can happen, so people should always be extremely mindful and respectful of the crocodile’s presence.

If you really, really want to see an American crocodile, one of the best places to go is Flamingo on the southern end of Main Park Road in the Florida Keys. Flamingo is home to a fairly stable group of crocs (and mosquitos) that tend to float about and bask near the marina at Flamingo. Though I’ve seen people provide and pour freshwater from a hose to the crocs (which will lean up out of the water to snag the fresh water, as photographed below), I have not seen people actually feeding the crocs — which is probably a good thing. I’d rather these big crocs not associate people with food.

 

There’s Nothing Better than a Big Brown Watersnake in Levy County

Nerodia taxispilota, the Brown watersnake;
Levy county, Florida (30 October 2016).

Located within the Gulf coastal region of Florida (west of Gainesville and Ocala), Levy county is fairly small, quaint, and quiet. It’s not a part of Florida you’ll often find featured on advertisements, bumper stickers, and postcards, but it is a part of Florida well worth discovering and exploring if you want to see some awesome Floridian wildlife. Further, they’ve got some seriously kick ass watersnakes. In a state packed to its gills with non-venomous watersnakes, I can honestly say there’s nothing better than the Brown watersnakes (Nerodia taxispilota) of Levy county, Florida.

With incredible texture, deep dark tones, and ventral patterns to beat the band, I can’t get enough of these Levy county Brown watersnakes. Beefy but mild-mannered, robust but agile and fast, this species is, unfortunately, often confused with the venomous cottonmouth. In reality, however, they’re adept swimmers who are also really good at climbing. It’s not uncommon to find brown watersnakes passing the daylight hours from a perch draped over the water’s edge. One sign of trouble, and they simply slip into the water. Hardly something to be terrified of, right?

The Brown Basilisk in South Florida, 11 June 2017

Basiliscus vittatus, the Brown basilisk;
Miami-Dade county, Florida (11 June 2016).

Native to Central America and the northern reaches of South America, the Brown basilisk, Basiliscus vittatus, is an impressively agile and speedy non-native lizard slowly spreading its way across south Florida. Adults range between one and two feet in length, but, despite their size, Brown basilisks are fairly stealthy. They’ll take a position, often near water, and sit motionless — sometimes seeming to hide in plain sight. And then? Once they’ve been seen? BAM! They take off with more than a little acceleration and velocity. In fact, with thanks to its webbed, enlarged rear feet, the Brown basilisk can even “run on water” for short distances. Some people thus call them it the “Jesus Lizard.”

In south Florida, you can find Brown basilisks fairly easily. If you’re anywhere on the east coast between West Palm Beach and Homestead, just head to the urban canal lines. There’s a decent chance you’ll find some basilisks basking adjacent to the canals and then quickly running away.

The Spectacled caiman in Coral Gables; 21 March 2015

Caiman crocodilus, the Spectacled caiman;
Miami-Dade county, Florida (21 March 2015).

Native to the southern reaches of Central America and the northern half of South America, the Spectacled caiman in a non-native species now found throughout parts of south Florida. Only averaging between four and six feet in length, you can sort of think of this species as a miniaturized crocodilian, so to speak. There’s been a breeding population of Spectacled caimans in the Homestead area for decades, but this one was photographed in Coral Gables, Florida. It was the last thing I expected to find on this particular day.

When I found this caiman (or, really, when it found me) I was actually trolling the edge of a mangrove in Coral Gables for a triple-set of non-native lizards: Brown basilisks, Green iguanas, and Knight anoles. I remember scouring the mangrove line, right at the edge of the water, convinced I would find a Brown basilisk in the limbs, a species I’d seen plenty of in this immediate area. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a small crocodilian quietly slinking in my direction. I assumed at first it was just a young alligator checking me out and didn’t really pay it much attention. The trick was, however, it just kept coming closer. I started to wonder if somebody had been feeding the young gator, which is a very bad thing to do. When people feed gators, they are conditioning these same gators to associate humans with food, which is generally not a good idea. Anyhow, shifting my attention to the small gator, I realized it was not, in fact, a young American alligator at all. It was an adult Spectacled caiman — checking me out. I stepped back from the waterline a few steps and shot some picks. The caiman scoped me out for a few minutes and then silently retreated back into the aquatic tangles of the mangrove habitat.

I’d actually considered heading to Homestead to look for caimans earlier on this trip but punted that side trip for my next sojourn south. Crocodilians may be very cool, but snakes and lizards have always been my main collective focus. Fortunately for me, however, this particular caiman decided to scope me out, saving me the effort.

You never know what you’ll find what will find you in South Florida.