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Herp Atlas Newsletter Spring 1999

Herp Atlas Logo
Herp Atlas Logo


New York State
Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project

Department of Environmental Conservation
Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources


Focus on Snakes

In each of the spring newsletters since 1995, we have highlighted one group of herps, starting with frogs & toads, then turtles and, last spring, salamanders. Now we move on to snakes, the most misunderstood of the herps. There are 17 species of snakes that occur in New York State. Surprised? Many people would guess that there are fewer than that, probably because only 8 of the 17 species occur statewide. They are the water snake, brown snake, redbelly snake, eastern garter snake, ribbon snake, ringneck snake, smooth green snake and milk snake. Of these, the garter snake is the most common, as well as the most easily recognized. The remaining 9 species occur in restricted areas of the state. All 17 species are listed below along with their status on the state endangered species list (E = endangered, T = threatened, SC = special concern).

You can find snakes by searching in sunny areas where rock piles and other loose debris provide hiding places. Snakes can be harder to identify than other herps, though, because they tend to move away quickly and also because not everyone is willing to grab one in order to confirm its identity. Binoculars can be handy for looking at identifying characteristics. It also helps when you know what species to expect in the habitat and area of the state where you are searching. Check your field guide for this information.

List of Snakes of New York

Unfortunately, snakes are often killed by people who assume that they are dangerous. Three nonvenomous species that are often mistaken for venomous snakes are the water snake, the milk snake and the hognose snake. The water snake is generally found near water and has a thick dark body with large dark blotches on the back. The milk snake is light colored with reddish brown saddles on the back and a "Y" or "V" shape on the head. Its habit of shaking its thin tail and striking when threatened often leads people to think that it is a rattlesnake. The stout bodied hognose snake is the only species in New York that flattens its head and hisses when threatened. If this display does not scare away predators, the hognose snake will writhe as if in pain, turn on its back and play dead. A good rule to remember when identifying snakes is that nonvenomous species have round pupils. Venomous species have vertical pupils as well as pits (small holes) on the face, in addition to the nostrils.

We have three species of venomous snakes in New York: the massasauga rattlesnake, the timber rattlesnake and the northern copperhead. The massasauga occurs only in two small, isolated populations in western New York. The timber rattlesnake occurs in the lower Hudson Valley, parts of western New York and the southern Adirondacks while the northern copperhead occurs only in patches in the lower Hudson Valley.

With the great diversity of snake species in New York, and the relative ease with which they can be found, this is a great group of herps to be on the lookout for. As usual, if you find a species that you cannot identify, send us a picture and we'll be glad to let you know what it is. Good luck!

New Atlas of County Highways Available

The New York State Department of Transportation has published a 1998 edition of the New York State Atlas. Along with each county map, there is a shaded map showing the relief of the area as well as a map showing the names and locations of each of the 7.5 minute topographic quadrangles in the county. The Atlas also clearly delineates publicly owned recreation areas, hydrographic and physiographic features, as well as a lot of other useful information. The Atlas is available through bookstores or from the NYSDOT for $40.

Request for Photographs

We are interested in receiving photographs of amphibians and reptiles that can be used in the publication of the Herp Atlas, on our website or in other Department publications. The photographs should be of excellent quality and should clearly show characteristics that identify the species. We also need photographs that show various developmental stages (e.g. tadpoles, gilled salamanders, egg masses or nests), sexual dimorphism (e.g. front claws on turtles, vent of breeding salamanders), subspecies characteristics (e.g. midland vs. eastern painted turtle), color variation (e.g. striped or checkerboard pattern on garter snakes), or key characteristics (e.g. costal groove on salamanders, post orbital ridges on toads). Prints, slides or digital photos are acceptable, but they must be original. Credit will be given when photographs are used. Please include your name, species name, the county and town and date where the photograph was taken. Submit photos with a completed Herp Survey Card. Photos will be returned.

Our Website is Your Tool for Success

The Herp Atlas website can be a great resource for folks who want to do some directed herping this year. The address is: http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7140.html. Here are some suggestions on what to do with the information you'll find there: 1. Look at the species maps on our website and fill in gaps where common species are missing. 2. Expand the known range of rare species by searching blocks directly adjacent to those that are filled in.

Graph of Species Reports

Cabin Fever?

Does the graph showing the bimonthly frequency distribution reflect activity of the species or of the volunteers who are reporting? Perhaps some of both. Chorusing frogs, basking and nesting turtles and warm, spring, "get out of the house" type weather all come together to give us a broad activity peak beginning in early April and extending until early July. But even with our frigid winters and sweltering summers, if you know when, where and how to look, you can continue to atlas. Start looking before you hear the first spring peeper this year. You might be surprised how hardy and active some of these cold-blooded critters really are when the temperature tells you it is still winter.

The Final Year

This year marks the final field season for this ten year effort. Our enthusiastic volunteers have been using every opportunity to report their observations. In early December we had several reports of basking snakes and calling spring peepers. The New Year had hardly begun when we started to get calls from volunteers with their first herp sighting of the year. The extended January thaw brought reports of frogs and salamanders. On Long Island tiger salamanders were laying egg masses by the first week of February and spotted salamanders were active as far north as Tompkins County. In 1998, we added 350 volunteers to our list of contributors. Our 1400 contributors submitted a record 14,000 species reports. Our general goal of 15 species per quad will be reached if we make this final year another record year. But while our latest interim map shows that we have some coverage from all parts of the state there is still a need to report even the most common species and plenty of opportunities to fill in significant gaps. For those of you who would like to focus on these gaps, please write and request one of our interim reports. And finally, we expect some atlasers will keep looking until midnight, New Year's Eve when the atlas comes to an end. Thanks to all for making this a great Atlas!

Map of Species Reported by Quadrangle


In addition to funding from New York State, support for the New York State Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project has been provided by the following:
Biodiversity Research Institute State University of New York at Cortland
Institute for Ecosystem Studies Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles
Mohonk Preserve Upstate Herpetological Association
New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Cornell University U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Federal Aid to Endangered Species (Section 6)
New York Turtle & Tortoise Society U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partnerships for Wildlife
Return a Gift to Wildlife Tax Checkoff Sabin Conservation Fund
New York Natural Heritage Program The New York Chapter - The Wildlife Society
Harvey and Bernice Weinstein

Atlas Staff

Alvin R. Breisch, Project Director
John W. Ozard, Computer Systems Design
Kimberley C. Hunsinger, Project Coordinator
Christine G. Vitale, Data Control

This issue of the newsletter was printed courtesy of Harvey and Bernice Weinstein.

New York State Amphibian & Reptile Atlas Project
Bureau of Wildlife
625 Broadway
Albany, NY 12233-4754

REMEMBER...Send in your survey cards as you complete them. This will allow us to track our progress more efficiently and not become backlogged in the fall. Thanks!

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