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Handbook of Nature Study Newsletter – October 2015 Reptiles

Handbook of Nature Study Newsletter October 2015 reptiles

Handbook of Nature Study Newsletter

October 2015 – Reptiles

When I was preparing ideas for this newsletter, my husband and I were up in the mountains on a camping trip. One afternoon on a hike, we happened to encounter a snake on the trail. Well, apparently I almost stepped right on him without noticing. My husband saw him and shouted a warning to me. I screamed and jumped up and promptly ran further along the trail. Then, I calmed down, gathered my wits and went back to see the snake…a mountain garter snake. He had stopped just off the side, near a log. His amazing coloring blends in and provides such protection in the rugged habitat. We snapped a few images and decided to leave him in peace, probably searching for his next meal.

sugar Pine Point aug 2015 (38) garter snake

As always, my initial reaction to a snake encounter is fear but then it turns to admiration upon closer inspection.

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Remember! All of the archived and current newsletters are available as part of the Ultimate Naturalist Library…every level!

Contents of this edition of the newsletter include:

  • Reptile nature study tips and resources in the form of links to the Handbook of Nature Study website, contributor’s links, and Pinterest. This month’s featured contributors are Heather Woodie from Blog She Wrote and Alex from Life on a Canadian Island.
  • October Nature Study Planning Page printable – don’t miss the little extras I have added this month like nature photo ideas, field trip ideas, and a special 15 minute challenge for parents.
  • I have written an article entitled, Learning About Local Reptiles, where I encourage you to learn more about reptiles using your own personal style.
  • Reptile Study Notebook Page – This page includes a prompt at the top to help your family go more deeply into a leaf study this month or in the months to come. It can also be used as a nature journal topper if you want to cut and paste the prompt into your own nature journal.

Members: You may also wish to download the April 2013 Newsletter from the archives. You will find additional articles, printables, and links to support your tree nature study. Note: All levels of membership here on the Handbook of Nature Study include all back issues of the newsletter.

Handbook of Nature Study Newsletter April 2013 Cover

Please note that Ultimate Naturalist and Journey level members have access to members only printables each month in addition to the newsletter printables. You will need to log into your account and then go to the “Other Releases” section. There is a reptile related notebook page that has been created to go along with this month’s newsletter theme. Look for it in the printables section of your membership.

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Need help getting started with your nature study using the Handbook of Nature Study? Check out the fresh “Getting Started” page here on the website!


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Hiking in the Adirondack Mountains- Mount Arab


What a glorious thing to explore a new state, a new trail, and then to top it off…a NEW to me flower.

Our recent trip to New York (via a road trip across the complete United States), gave us an opportunity to take several new hikes in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. My daughter picked the hike to Mount Arab out of the guide book and it was a winner! Just outside of Tupper Lake, NY, this trail is a short hike up the mountain and through a heavily wooded forest. Since it is early spring, the trees were just starting to get their new leaves and there were wildflowers just starting to bloom alongside the trail.

purple trilium

I created a list of wildflowers to look for during our trip, flowers we don’t have in California but are listed in the Handbook of Nature Study. I had a east coast wildflower field guide with me too for reference since most of the flowers are new to me.  We actually spotted this variety of trillium (Purple Trillium) right at the beginning of the hike…so pretty and colorful in the brown woodsy floor. (Outdoor Hour Challenge for this flower in the future.)

Trout Lily

Then we saw lots and lots of Trout Lilies! This is another one on my list of wildflowers to study and I will now be able to create an Outdoor Hour Challenge for this flower. The abundance of these lilies really created a special atmosphere as we hiked up the mountain.

Mount Arab Adirondacks May 2014 (34)

I read in a guide book before we left that May is “mud season” in the Adirondacks. There were sections of this trail that turned out to be quite muddy but the trail makers had made it easier by adding these board walks to span the muddier parts. The mud created spots for insects to gather and we tried not to stop and get eaten by bugs.

Mount Arab Adirondacks May 2014 (24)

The trail at the top opens up where there are large rock slabs and an incredible view. The weather had been threatening to rain in the morning but we enjoyed sunny skies when we reached the top.

Mount Arab Adirondacks May 2014 (25

Here is the fire tower at the top of Mount Arab. The wind was blowing really hard which felt like air conditioning after a hot hike up. I am not great with heights but my kids and husband were eager to climb up the stairs and check out the view from the top.

Mount Arab New York Adirondacks May 2014 (7)

I was a little sunburned…that’s the trouble with fair and freckled skin. I had on sunblock…really. I climbed about half way up the tower and the wind was whipping through up there. I was good with the view from there, I know my limits.

Mount Arab Adirondacks May 2014 (35)

On the way back down the trail, we spied several toads. The above image is a “Where’s Waldo?” sort of photo where the toad is very well camouflaged by the leaves on the forest floor.

Mount Arab Adirondacks May 2014 (39)

We also saw a snake! He was as curious about us as we were about him.

Mount Arab Adirondacks May 2014 (10)

What a great hike! We will remember this one for its trilliums, lilies, toads, snake, and view from the top. I will also try to remember the variety of bird song we heard as we hiked along as a family.

This hike will count toward my Nature Study Goals for 2014…a new hike!


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Outdoor Hour Challenge – Spring Snake Study

Outdoor Hour Challenge:

This may be a challenging study for many of you but from my experience I can tell you that you may be surprised when an opportunity to view a snake up close comes along. In any account, you can use this snake nature study to prepare for a future snake sighting.

  • Spring Snake Study using the Outdoor Hour Challenge: Use the ideas in this challenge to learn more about your local snake population. In my area we only have a few kinds of snakes so we listed them in our nature journals as a reference. This may give you a way to complete this study without actually seeing a snake.
  • April 2013 Newsletter – If you have access to this newsletter, there are some ideas and printables for you to use in your snake nature study, including a Reptiles and Amphibians nature study grid.

Special Activity: Field Trip-Amphibians and Reptiles

Use this free printable activity while on a field trip to a place in your local area that has reptiles and/or amphibians. This could be a zoo, pet store, nature center, or local park. Instructions are included on the bottom to create a mini-book to complete and then to attach in your nature journal.
Free Printable Amphibian and Reptile Field Trip Mini-Book

If you already own the Getting Started ebook, complete Outdoor Hour Challenge #2. Make sure to take your 10-15 minute outdoor excursion to spend some time outdoors this week. After you walk, help your child with finding words to describe their experience, whether they observed a snake or not. Use the accompanying notebook page to record your outdoor time.

Note: You can find the Getting Started ebook in all levels of membership here at the Handbook of Nature Study.

Handbook of Nature Study Ultimate Naturalist Library


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Nature Walk – Of Butterflies and Labradors

We set out to look for signs of mammals but good intentions were set aside when we spotted some wonderful butterflies along our hiking trail. I reminded myself that the best advice I always give is to follow interest and to be flexible if a nature study topic comes along that you can’t pass up.

We have long past our winter season anyway so last week’s Winter Mammal study not really a perfect fit. We had plenty of winter mammal observations when we saw the signs of beavers at our creek. We see scat all winter long just beside or in the middle of our walking trail. I have stopped sharing scat photos because it seems a little weird. I don’t want to be the “weird nature lady”.

So, our first subject of the day is this Mourning Cloak butterfly. We looked it up when we got home in our insect field guide and online. It seems the host plant for the caterpillars is the Black willow. I am going to check and see if what I remember observing in this area is a willow.I also read in my field guide that the edges can look a little “tattered” and that was the case with this particular butterfly.

We hiked down to the river, which was extremely low from lack of rain and snow melt, and we threw the ball in for our Kona dog. She never tires of retrieving the ball even when the water is cold. The sun was warm though and I sat on a big rock and felt the refreshing air and sunshine.

So how did this violet arrive here below the normal water line, in among
the river rocks? What a surprise to see its pretty purple blossoms!

Taking a break from swimming…love the pink tongue. She is one happy dog.

On the way back up to trail, I was able to capture another butterfly that we saw as we hiked. There were many, many of these flying around the area but managed to get a really good close-up of this one to share. This is a Pipevine Swallowtail. I did some research and found that this butterfly only lays its eggs on the Dutchman’s Pipe plant. I found after digging on the CalFlora website that this particular plant is found in the area we live in but I have never seen it. I am now adding it to my list of plants to look for during our travels.

Can you see his proboscis?

One last image from our hike today. The dog went off the trail and disturbed some leaves…my husband spotted this snake all coiled up underneath. We came home and looked it up on California Herps and it appears to be a Sharp-tailed Snake. It was very small but bright red on top and black underneath. I am not a big fan of snakes but we will keep this one in mind when our spring snake study comes along.

Although we set out to look for signs of mammals and we didn’t find any to note, we feel like we were a success in keeping our eyes open for interesting things to learn about as we hiked.

I hope you get outside this week to look for something to share alongside your children.


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Nature Study Goals 2013: New Hike #1 Cronan Ranch

I challenged myself to hiking four new trails this year and we are excited to share the very first one with you because it was such an awesome hike! My husband and I had an afternoon to spend together last weekend and he picked the destination. We packed up a few snacks and filled up our water bottles, traveling light. The sun was hot and had the feel of late spring/early summer….I made sure to put on sunblock and secure my hat before setting off on the dusty trail. Northern California doesn’t stay green very long in the spring so I will share with you my green hills while I can.

Our new trail at a familiar spot..the Down and Up Trail at Cronan Ranch. The Bureau of Land Management has a huge section of this foothill property down to the river set aside for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. We opted to hike…I love the slow easy pace that we take and the ability to easily stop and take photos of all the amazing sights.

The rolling foothills give way to a river canyon about two miles from the parking lot. Now you can see why this particular trail is called the Down and Up Trail. The gentle ups and downs make it interesting and around each new corner and on top of each new hill there is another sight to take in as you go along. The soundtrack is birds in the distance, slight breeze blowing over the grasses, and the buzz of bees and other flying insects.

We usually hike the Long Valley Trail but this time we heading up hill and along the ridge. The Fiddlenecks are in full glory and I kept trying to pick just the right spot for a photo. This view is looking up from the trail to a hilltop oak….so very Sierra Nevada foothill in flavor. This IS my habitat.

There were many, many butterflies flying and landing on the wildflowers along the trail. Some places had so many that I thought they were going to fly into my face as I hiked. I don’t complain about dodging butterflies because I love them so much.

There are some magnificent oaks in this part of California and we could hear and see woodpeckers as well as swallows flying over and around the trees. I dream of having a home with a huge old oak on the property. I love the shape of them and the smell of the hot oak leaves in the sunshine is a wonderful fragrance…one you don’t forget.

I wondered about snakes as I climbed up on the rock for a better view and to take a few photos. I also stood on the top of this rock for a long time having some FaceTime with my daughter who is living in Bolivia…the reception was perfect up there on the rock and my daughter got to see some of the view that she has been missing.

Then we hiked down the trail and I saw unusual metallic bugs on some grasses and I stepped off the trail to investigate. As I stepped back onto the trail my husband starting yelling at me that there was a snake. A snake indeed! It was a huge rattlesnake and it was stretched out across the trail…I hopped over and out of the way and the rattler moved quickly up onto the hillside into the grass. A little way down the trail we saw a much smaller snake but he was a gopher snake…much to my relief. We think this rattler is a Northern Pacific Rattlesnake.

We made it down to the river at last and I took off my shoes to cool my toes. We had a cool drink and watched the whitewater rafters float by and on down the river. It was so refreshing! Two hikers came along as we rested and we told them about the snakes…showed them some photos and swapped snake stories. I love the camaraderie of hikers who share their passions and interests. One of the guys told us of his sighting of a rattlesnake on the trail to Half Dome in Yosemite and we tried to decide how high in elevation rattlesnakes are found. We decided to look it up when we got home. (We read in our field guide that there is a rattlesnake that is found up to 11,000 feet in elevation.)

The water was high and there was very little beach so we opted to sit on the granite rocks and enjoy the sound of the water rushing by. The sun was hot but the water was still freezing…melted snow.

Back on the trail again we found a large area of lupine blooming, this one was in the middle of the trail. The bees were buzzing and it reminds me how much I love the purple and green combination.

Here are some more lovely wildflowers that were clustered along the trail.

I learned about the Monkeyflower a few years ago and now can spot it in the moist parts of our area. These were growing along a little moist ditch with just a bit of water and a bit of shade.

One more snake…snake number three was another gopher snake and he was quickly moving across the trail in front of us as we hiked up the hill. You can read and see the difference between a Rattlesnake and Gopher Snake on the CaliforniaHerps website.

And here is one last look at the trails from the top….left to the Down and Up and right to the Long Valley Trail. This is one of our favorite local hiking spots and there is one last trail to try before we have tried them all. (Don’t you love the panorama setting on my iPhone?)

The East Ridge Trail is on the list of things to do in May before it gets too much hotter. I will be glad if we don’t see any more snakes but I am anxious to explore a brand new area of this park. My goal for the year 2013 is four new hikes…one is accomplished and three more adventures to go!

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Focusing on Reptile and Amphibian Nature Study

Last week’s Focus on Reptiles and Amphibians challenge was to start a focus study of reptiles and amphibians in our local area whether that was actually going out and finding a subject to investigate or to use this week’s challenge as a preparation for a future outing. We were fortunate enough to have two different snakes cross our trail (literally) last week and for my nature journal I used the printable reptile notebook page from the Reptile and Amphibian Grid Study entry earlier this month.

I pulled out our field guides and did some research into our two snakes and recorded the information and a couple of quick sketches for my journal. Snakes are not my favorite nature study subject but it is helpful to know a little bit about these two common snakes that live in our area.

I started a “reptile and amphibian” section in my nature notebook and I plan on adding to it as subjects arise. I have a short list of things to research and record as I have time over the next few weeks.

Nature Journal Organization - tabs
You can read more about how we organize our nature notebook pages in a binder in this entry:
How to Organize Your Nature Notebook Pages.

Have you seen any reptiles this month?

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Frog Pond Study Plus a Rattlesnake Friend

Our first attempt at a tadpole/frog study was unsuccessful. We visited my dad’s pond and could  not scoop up any tadpoles but we did get some great insect larvae to observe in the pond water sample. We brought them home in a bucket and used our pond field guide to try to identify them.

Edit to add: I was told this is not a Mayfly but a Damselfly so I will be off to do some more research….now you will understand why I say I should take Eva’s free entomology course down below. 🙂

Meet the Mayfly….which we learned are called naiads during their aquatic stage. (This is an image of a dead one I found lodged in my net.) They live in ponds, lakes, or streams for up to several years. They molt 20-30 times during that period of time. The most interesting thing about Mayflies is their short lifespan for adults- only a few hours to a few days, depending on the species. We actually observed an adult Mayfly that landed on my dad’s shirt while we were observing the pond. What a great insect to learn about!

Even if we didn’t find any frogs on this outing, we sure enjoyed our time just being outdoors at the pond.

As a sidenote: I think we need to take Eva’s Introduction to Entomology course that she is offering on her blog Academia Celestia. It is a free six week online course in a subject she is highly knowledgeable in and is passionate about. If your family is looking for a way to learn more about insects…click over and see it this would work for you.

We took a second trip to the local walking trail where I had observed some frog’s eggs earlier this month. Success! There were hundreds of tadpoles but I didn’t get a single decent image…the one below is the best I was able to get with all the reflections but if you look closely you will see some dark tadpoles swimming in the water.

We will continue to observe these critters in the weeks to come…easy to do since they are on the side of our usual route on the walking trail.

I highly recommend this Golden Guide to Pond Life. We have always been able to identify any creatures or plants we found at Grandpa’s pond using this simple field guide. Great beginning guide for young ones!

There are affiliate links in this entry. 

 Rattlesnake Video on YouTube….
My husband and I took a hike to the river on a glorious day last weekend. The grass was green, the wildflowers were amazing, and the sun was warm….perfect day for a spring walk through the Northern California foothills.

I was sort of worried about the possibility of encountering snakes but we were keeping a close eye out. I had stopped a few feet off the trail to look at some metallic insects on a wildflower stem. I was trying to get a really close look and then I stepped backwards to the trail. My husband immediately started yelling  that he saw a snake….startling me and making me scream. The snake was right by my feet….a really big rattlesnake!

He pulled me out of the way and the snake moved across the trail over to the other side. I (of course) pulled out my camera and started taking a video. That is what you see in the video above….me still all shaky and out of breath capturing this huge old rattler as it slithers into the tall grasses but not without showing us his extremely long rattle.

We ended up seeing three snakes that day, one rattlesnake and two gopher snakes. Just in time for reptile month!

So have you seen any reptiles in your area yet?

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Yosemite National Park – Hikes and Wildflowers

Evening Primrose - Yosemite
Evening Primrose

Up until last year I would not have know what this flower was called but we focused on it during the Summer Series of challenges last year. There is something wonderful about being able to name a flower or tree or bird, making it a part of your world. You can own it.

Yosemite Creek Trail

We took two hikes in Yosemite while camping this week, one new and one familiar. We drove up Tioga Road towards Tuolumne Meadows and stopped at Yosemite Creek. We hiked down the creek about two miles, enjoying the sound of water running over the rocks. This creek eventually filters down to fill Yosemite Falls…the iconic waterfall that so many come to see from all over the world. This time of year it is not much more than a small stream coming over the top but come next spring it will be a torrent.

Yosemite Creek and Wildflowers

Here is another view of Yosemite Creek which right now is lined with wildflowers. We stopped and took a break sitting on rocks as we took in the sights and sounds of the wilderness. We only saw two other people hiking on this trail the whole afternoon we were out there. It is an amazing experience to have this spot of the wild all to yourself.

Ranger Buttons with Insect

Well, unless you count the insects. These Ranger’s buttons had a variety of insects enjoying the summer sunshine. We couldn’t name these critters but it was interesting to watch them do their work.

Tree with Bark Scratched by Bear

This trail was also home to quite a few trees that showed signs of bear scratchings. The bark on this cedar tree was roughed up by bear’s claws.

Tree with Bear Curls

I started calling these “bear curls” since they were where the bear had pulled the tree bark down making it twist into curls. Interesting? I think so.

Giant Fungus on Tree

We also spotted this HUGE fungus on the side of another tree…really high up. Can you believe the size of it? Amazing to see!

Taft Point Trail

The second hike we took was to Taft Point which is off Glacier Point Road. It is a favorite hike for the boys since there are lots of boulders to climb and the view once you get to the point is incredible….and high.

Taft Point

Here is a shot of the boys at the railing which is right at the edge of the cliffs….sorry no photos of the view to the valley or over across the valley to Yosemite Falls since my camera batteries were both dead. I broke my camera when we were at the Grand Tetons and I now have it duct taped shut but the battery door opens up and somehow the battery drains down very fast. I am in the market for a snew point and shoot.

Yosemite Snake - Rubber Boa

The hike was highlighted by a slithering Rubber boa crossing the trail right in front of us. He was about 24-30 inches long and not in a very big hurry. We were able to get a really good look at him. Funny thing is we were just talking about how we never see snakes while in Yosemite and then we saw this one….weird.


Okay, so if you are not into snakes, how about a pretty wildflower? This is Monkshood and I have only seen in two places at Yosemite so I was happy to catch it in bloom. The yellow in the background is Arrowleaf groundsel.

Bull Thistle and Milkweed - Yosemite Valley

We spent some time in the Valley walking the paths under the trees and I was on the look out for some thistles in preparation for the up-coming thistle challenge. I was pleased to find both milkweed and thistles growing right together along the trail. The thistles are in a variety of stages of life…some blooming, some going to seeds, and some getting very dry.

Dragon Fly on Bull Thistle

Guess who came along for us to observe? Mr. Dragonfly was enjoying the Bull thistles right along with us. So very pretty to look at!

Bull Thistle with Insect

Here is another insect coming to feast on the thistles…this one was very buzzy and I took a quick photo and then got out of his way.

Milkweed Beetle

The Showy milkweed is all producing large seed pods and we found this milkweed beetle crawling on one of the pods. These pods are amazing to see and touch…just like velvet.

Sierra Lessingia

So this is my new wildflower for the trip. We identified this lovely lavender flower as Sierra lessingia. We read in our field guide that Mary Curry (of Curry Village) called it Summer Lavender and I would agree with her that because it grows in such large patches in the flat spots along roads and in the valley, it looks like clouds of lavender. I love learning something new and now I can name that pretty flower that grows so profusely this time of year in the Valley.

So there you have our hikes and wildflowers, bears and beetles, dragonflies and snakes. So many things to enjoy and learn about when you get the opportunity to get to know a place….

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Another Snake: Kingsnake This Time

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Were there always this many snakes and we just never noticed them?

I kid you not….yesterday my son and I were were in the car and one block from our house there was a dead snake in the middle of the road.

At first we thought it was a fake snake because it was so colorful. I actually *turned around* and went back so we could get out and look at it. My son was shocked! He could not believe that I was going to actually go back and look at it up close. Well, I looked at it from the car window while he got out and took a photo of it with my phone. It was not in bad shape so it didn’t seem weird to take a photo. I really just wanted to go home and make a positive identification using the photo. I will spare you the photo this time. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons) The one we saw was much yellower in color than this one in the photo which made it very conspicuous.

It was a kingsnake. It looked like this one: California Kingsnake. Here is a good article: California King-snake.

These are good snakes…they eat rattlesnakes.

Okay, so now in less than a week I have seen two of the common snakes from our list of snakes from our snake study. It makes me wonder whether they were always here before and I did not notice them. I have been left in no doubt this week of the value of nature study and learning about what is right in our own neighborhoods.

It is a good thing we are not studying mountain lions…..

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Today’s Teachable Moment: Gopher Snake

So who said they rarely see snakes in the wild? Me? Yikes, I should have know better than that.

Today on our hike I took a little side trail because I could see some delphiniums blooming on the hillside. I was by myself and down about 20 yards from where I left Mr. A and our dog sitting in the shade.

I was busy taking photos when I looked to my left and just a few feet away was this huge snake laying half on the trail and half in the dry grass.
Gopher Snake 1

He was so still that I thought maybe he was dead and at first I couldn’t see his head. I hollered up to my son not to come down with the dog because there was a really big snake. He wanted to know what kind because immediately we think rattlesnake when we see a big snake.

Gopher Snake 2
I checked his tail and didn’t see a rattle and then I moved ever so slightly closer to see if I could locate his head. Wow! He was a big snake but I did manage to see the head and it was round and not diamond shaped so I felt fairly comfortable identifying it as something other than a rattler. I am guessing that he was at least 5 feet long. I snapped a few photos so we could take a closer look once we got home and make a positive identification. I didn’t get the whole snake in the photo and I did not take a photo of his head since I did not want to get that close to a live snake.

We had done the preparation work (you can read our entry HERE) for all the snakes on our list last week so I thought it was either a kingsnake or a gopher snake. We came home and pulled out the field guide and sure enough….gopher snake or Pituophis melanoleucus. The guide says gopher snakes can be up to 7 feet long. They eat small animals such as gophers, mice, ground squirrels, and small rabbits. They squeeze their prey until movement stops and then it swallows it whole.

I found this graphic online for our future reference:
Know Your Snakes: Differences Between Gopher Snake and Rattlesnake

I knew we wanted to do more snake study but I never dreamed a subject would come our way so quickly.