Snakes are Friends – The Break Down to Dispel Serpent Hysteria

Snakes have a fearsome reputation for being among the worlds most dangerous animals, with numerous species being the cause of death of many human lives. This reputation has created a hysteria and has generated a far reaching snake phobia. This phobia is especially evident in Australia, which is known to be home to some of the most venomous snakes in the world. This hysteria surrounding snakes has led to many common myths and fears which simply are not true. This article will debunk common myths, identify the most common situations of how people get bitten, how to stay safe, and we will also delve into the snakes mind of how it is perceiving each situation so you understand its reactions and behaviors in response to your actions.

 

Eastern Marsh Snake (Hemiaspis signata) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Eastern Marsh Snake (Hemiaspis signata) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

Disclosure: All photos of snakes being handled were for scientific or rescue orientated purposes and were preformed by experienced snake handlers that have undergone venomous snake handling training courses. Please do not try any of the mentioned techniques of venomous snake handling. If you wish to learn the skills mentioned, please apply to do a venomous snake handling course. Email gumnutnaturalist@gmail.com for information. Even the most experienced snake handlers are putting themselves at risk when handling venomous snakes so do not handle them if there is no need to!

 

Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

The biggest myth is: Venomous snakes are aggressive.

This statement implies that the snake is out to get you. This simply is not true. Snakes are not aggressive they are defensive. They will defend themselves against a perceived threat. A snake will only strike you for one reason: If it feels its life is in danger. If a venomous snake bites you there is a chance it will give a dry bite. A ‘dry bite’ is a bite where the snake does not inject any venom as venomous snakes can control the amount of venom it injects. But once again the more in danger it feels, the more likely it will strike to envenomate. The fact of the matter is that a venomous snake will only use its venom in self defense if it feels there is no other way, as it is incredibly costly to the snake to waste its venom. The reason behind this is because venom is essential in the process of digesting food and takes a lot of time and energy to create.

The most common scenarios people get bitten by a snake are:

1. When attempting to kill the snake – Of course the snake will try to bite and envenomate you if you are attempting to kill it. It has perceived that it is in a lie or death situation and will proceed accordingly: by trying to bite and pump as much venom in you as possible. Wouldn’t you expend all the resources you had if you were faced with a life or death situation? This is the most common way people are bitten.

2. When attempting to pick up the snake – Once again the snake feels it is in a life or death situation. It isn’t aware that your intentions are to simply pick it up. How would you feel if a lion grabbed you in its paws? The lions intentions may only be to play with you and not kill you but you would regardless have a large shot of Adrenalin pumping and rightly so feel like you are in a life or death situation, and defend yourself accordingly.

Snake handling needs to be left to the professionals. If you don’t need to pick up the snake, then don’t. Even the professionals usually get bitten one day. There are techniques which snake handlers use to capture venomous snakes which include ‘heading’ or ‘necking’, ‘tailing’ and ‘hooking’. The risk is greater when heading a snake (grabbing it behind the head) than tailing a snake (grabbing it by the tail). Snakes like the Death Adders should never be tailed but can be caught with a snake hook. Catching a snake is incredibly risky and requires intensive venomous snake handling training to properly master. If you want to learn this skill it is highly recommended to attend a snake handling course before attempting to handle any venomous snakes.

 

George Madani demonstrating the heading or necking technique of snake handling. Small-eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

George Madani demonstrating the heading or necking technique of snake handling. Small-eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Chad Beranek using the tailing technique of handling a snake. Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2014

Chad Beranek using the tailing technique of handling a snake. Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2014

Chad Beranek demonstrating how a Death Adder can be picked up with a hook. Please excuse the excited look on my face, Death Adders are exciting | Copyright Brooke Thompson 2015

Chad Beranek demonstrating how a Death Adder can be picked up with a hook. Please excuse the excited look on my face, Death Adders are exciting | Copyright Brooke Thompson 2015

 

3. When accidentally disturbing the snake – This one sometimes can’t be avoided but can be minimised by paying particular care when working out doors or strolling in the bush. The most common scenario of accidentally disturbing a snake is when you step on a snake. When this occurs it is often that the snake could sense you approaching and decided to stay still to avoid your attention, sometimes though the snake is oblivious to your approach. Both instances are very frightening to the snake and often warrant them to attack in self defense, often striking the object that lands on them: your foot. The easiest way to prevent this from happening is to wear protective shoes.

Other instances of accidentally disturbing a snake include while gardening or lifting up an object a snake is under. Both of these can, once again, be avoided by ensuring to wear proper safety apparel and being careful and perceptive in areas that are known to be home to snakes.

4. Cornering a snake – Many people often accidentally corner a snake and then interpret the snakes reaction as being aggressive. The snake in this situation feels it is a life or death situation as it is cornered, or it’s main escape route is being blocked, and feels it has to fight for its life. Once again you behave in a similar manner if put in the same situation. If you encounter a snake, ensure to step back to give it plenty of room so that the snake doesn’t feel cornered.

 




 

Southern Death Adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Southern Death Adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

So what should you do if you encounter a snake in the bush, or better yet, in your backyard?

In most scenarios the solution with the least amount of risk and danger is to leave it alone. If you are in the bush and run into a snake, if you keep your distance an just leave it alone it will just go on and keep doing its own thing. If a snake enters your garden, ensure that you inform all persons in the residence of the snakes presence and make sure to keep kids and pets away from the snake. Monitor the snakes movements from a distance. Almost every time the snake will leave at its own accord. Occasionally snakes can accidentally find themselves wandering indoors. If this occurs, once again inform all residents and keep an eye on the snake from a distance. Call a wildlife rescue organisation or a professional snake wrangler and be sure to show them where exactly the snake is.

Some last tips and summary

  • Don’t try to identify the snake if you have limited experience. Treat all snakes as potentially deadly and be cautious. It’s only a white facial marking that can determine a Whip Snake from a Brown Snake!
  • Don’t attempt to kill or pick up the snake if you don’t have to. These are by far the most risky actions you can take!
  • Be aware of accidentally cornering a snake or blocking off it’s escape route if you encounter one
  • In almost all scenarios it’s best to leave it alone
  • If it enters your house: alert residence, keep kids and pet away, watch where the snake is at all times and call a professional to handle it

 

Snakes are friends! Not the kind of friend you hug but they hunt pests like rats and mice, and often form an important link in the food chain. I have a challenge for you for the next time you encounter a snake: Simply keep a far distance and follow it around and watch its behaviour. They really are fascinating creatures which deserve more respect and less fear. Many of them are cute! Surely you can’t say this Bandy Bandy isn’t cute?

IMG_4213

Comment below on any close encounters you have had with snakes that tried to bite you and see if you can categorise it in the four categories above. I am confident every situation where a snake is attempting to bite you falls into one of the four categories. In a months time we shall look in depth at venomous snake identification and shed light on other less known species which are otherwise harmless and cop harsh punishment for being wrongly identified as Brown Snakes!

The Casuarina Corridor of Life

At this time of year the days are becoming colder and most animals are becoming less active, or migrated north. This stillness and quietness of winter becomes evident. However there are a few specific vegetation communities which can occasionally provide an abundance of life in the onset of winter, and it’s all controlled by food. One of these vegetation communities are the Casuarina swamp lands which line undisturbed river lines in eastern Australia. Most inland rivers are cloaked by the River She-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana), usually 20 meters each side of the bank, but sometimes more or sometimes less depending on the geological architecture of the area.

 

Tree top view of a Casuarina swampland along Wollondilly River.

Tree top view of a Casuarina swampland along Wollondilly River.

 

 

These Casuarina swamp lands can become a very important niche for many different species of birds during the onset of winter. The reason for this does not lie with the Casuarinas specifically, but surprisingly a parasitic plant which lives on the Casuarinas. These plants are known as mistletoes. While mistletoes have adapted to mimic a multitude of different host tree species, the mimicracy displayed by the Needle-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema cambagei) is extraordinary. This mistletoe has evolved to mimic Casuarinas and Allocasuarinas, and does a remarkable job of disguising itself amoung the Casuarina needles. Unless you are a mistletoe expert, the only sure-fire way to discern mistletoe from Casurina is to witness the Needle-leaf Mistletoe in flower (which are incredibly beautiful and unique!). Casuarina flowers are much different from mistletoe flowers and look like small fluffly red or brown parts on the leaves (needles), while the Needle-leaf Mistletoe flowers have large bright red anthers that a readily distinguishable, and are probably that bright to attract the birds!

 

Needle-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema cambagei)

Needle-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema cambagei)

 

The Needle-leaf mistletoe usually flowers at the beginning of spring, however I must of been at the right place at the right time as thousands of Needle-leaf Mistletoe were in flower, giving the Casaurinas bright red highlights which contrast well among their dull foliage. This earlier flowering could probably be due to the large quantities of rain south eastern Australia has had in the preceding months. With waning nectar resources from other tree and plant species, it seemed all the nectar feeding birds in the area decided to take advantage. We were treated to an avain frenzy of tweets and feathers. There were many bird species I didn’t manage to get a photo of and many bird calls I couldn’t identify, but below are some notable entries.

 

Yellow-faced Honey Eater (Lichenostomus chrysops), preparing for flight.

Yellow-faced Honey Eater (Lichenostomus chrysops), preparing for flight.

A Mistletoe Bird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), flutter around the canopy tops in the Casuarina.

A Mistletoe Bird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), flutter around the canopy tops in the Casuarina.

Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis), eyeing off a flowering mistletoe target.

Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis), eyeing off a flowering mistletoe target.

Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusila)

Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusila)

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris)

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris)

A mating pair of Turquoise Parrots (Neophema pulchella) take off.

A mating pair of Turquoise Parrots (Neophema pulchella) take off.

 

The last bird shown above is the Turquoise Parrot which is threatened in NSW. This was an especially great find! They even landed for me to take a photo, however they chose the ugliest invasive weed species to land on, I was in any case excited.

 

Turquoise Parrot (Neophema pulchella)

 

While the bird life was astonishing, there were other appearances which you usually only get to see in areas which are healthy and remote from urban development. The area harboring this biodiversity is situated between Nattai NP and Yerranderie Conservation Area along Wollondilly River, which gives wildlife to solitude it needs to become especially diverse and abundant. The healthy sections of this river is known to be home to the Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), which I was especially lucky and excited to witness. The photo isn’t great but I was able to view it with binoculars as it would emerge and submerged for ten meters. On the banks of the river I was also able to see a healthy Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) grazing, and well as huge amounts of butterflies fluttering around, which turned out to be the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and Lesser Wanderers (Danuas chrysippus). I am unsure if these butterflies were here for the mistletoe nectar or for some kind of migration.

 

Platypus frolicking in Wollondilly River.

Platypus frolicking in Wollondilly River.

A healthy looking wombat, seemingly untouched by the current wombat disease epidemic, mange.

A healthy looking wombat, seemingly untouched by the current wombat disease epidemic, mange.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). This butterfly is a male, which is distinguishable by the pair of black dots on the lower wings.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). This butterfly is a male, which is distinguishable by the pair of black dots on the lower wings.

 

 

To witness this spectacle of nature was an inspiring reminder that there are still untouched oases of life which escape the reach of man with the addition of wonder with how many features of animal ecology remains unknown.

 

 

Birds of Broughton Island

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Broughton Island, it is a relatively small island (a touch over 100 hectares) a part of Myall Lakes National Park, off the east coast of Australia. This small island has retained some interesting natural heritage, with having the second largest population of Green and Golden Bell Frogs in the world and also one of the few places to find the critically endangered Storm Petrel. Broughton Island also boasts nesting populations of Wedged-Tailed Shearwaters (also known as ‘Mutton Birds’), and also Fairy Penguins which are occurring on the island close to the northern limit their distribution. Broughton Island provides good coastal habitat and heathland habitat which is used by a considerably large variety of different bird species. The island attracts both sea birds, raptors and even land birds which have retained their permanent positions. This makes it a popular spot for bird enthusiasts where they run annual Broughton Island ‘twitching’ events to count how many bird species are present and see if they can spot any new ones. While I stayed at Broughton conducting bell frog surveys I went to do some twitching in my spare time and this is what I found:

 

1. The first bird to great me on the island is an easy guess considering this is a coastal island: the Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) which most people just refer to as the ‘Sea Gull’. They were in a large noisy colony where the fishers huts reside.

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

 

2. The second bird I quickly realised were in abundance on this island were the Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena). There were dive bombing insects and speeding around the main cabins, occasionally taking a pit stop on a twig or branch.

Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxena)

 

3. The next bird I became aware of was the Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae), which were cheekily and quietly jumping and rummaging around the grass and seaweed, presumably looking for invertebrate snacks.

Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae)

Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae)

4. After a heading out to one of the bell frog sites, many small birds were sighted in the Broughton Island heathland. One of them I failed to get a photo of which was the Silver Eyes (Zosterops lateralis) but the other common heathland bird was the Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis), which occasionally perched in the open to let out alarm calls as we approached their territory.

Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis)

A Male Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis)

5. Before leaving the heathlands we keep sighted small ground dwelling birds scuttling in the bushes before we got close. My 300 mm lens proved them to be Brown Quails (Coturnix ypsilophora).

A family group of Brown Quail (Coturnix ypsilophora)

A family group of Brown Quail (Coturnix ypsilophora)

6. When arriving to the beach, the next bird sighted was darting in and out of the seaweed clumps with fast legs. They turned out to be Red Capped Plovers (Charadrius ruficapillus), which are are common occurrence on the coasts of Australia.

Red Capped Plover (Charadrius ruficapillus)

Red Capped Plover (Charadrius ruficapillus)

 

7. Another bird sighted darting amongst the seaweed (albeit somewhat slower and plumper than the Red Capped Plovers) was the  Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), who took flight if approached to closely and directly.

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

 

8. After patrolling making it to the rocky coastal areas of Broughton I stumbled upon a bird which frightened me probably as equally as I frightened it. This dark bird make a shreeking call and darted to a rock almost submerged by the surf. This bird turned out to be a Sooty Oyster Catcher (Haematopus fuliginosus), which were occasionally seen in pairs most likely nesting in the rocky areas of the coast of Broughton Island. https://www.flickr.com/photos/126862220@N06/15905334509/   9. I heard small tweets and chirps within a stand of Knobby Club Rush, and manged to shoot off a few photos. The specific chirps and tweets we heard along with the photo confirmed it as a Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis).

Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis)

Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis)

 

The next few species of birds we witnessed were soaring high above where I managed to capture some of them with the long lens. 10. This comorant flying over head is most likely to be the Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). Many were seen later on drying their wings on small rock platforms further out in the surf.

10.Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

The Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

 

11. The next bird saw flying overhead was the Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans) which was the most common raptor we saw during this trip. One of them were even sighted harassing the gull colony which sent all the adults in the air with attempts to try and drive off the raptor. It looked like the harrier had run off with on of the gull chicks!

Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans)

Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans)

 

12. Another impressive raptor was sighted gliding overhead which turned out to be a juvenile White Bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), which was identified using the specific colour arrangements of the feathers as seen from below.

Juvenile White-Bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)

 

 

There were other birds sighted which I didn’t manage to get decent photos of which include  two other raptors: an Osprey (Pandion haliaeetus), and a Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), plus some extra additions sighted in the heathland including White-Cheeked Honey Eaters (Phylidonyris nigra). In total (including the birds that I didn’t manage to get photos of), I saw 17 birds which isn’t bad for 3 days of twitching. If I kept that ratio of birds to days up I could get all species of birds in Australia within the year!

Australias Ancient Amphibian

Thought to have over 100 million years of independent evolution, the Tusked Frog (Adelotus brevis) is one of Australia’s truly unique amphibians. At first glance you may think it is just like every other frog, however when paying closer attention to the morphology of this frog, there are a few interesting features which set it a part from all other frog species. The most obvious feature is the tusks, hence its name the Tusked Frog. This frog species has small (around 5 mm long) tusks within the mouth on the lower jaw. Males use these tusks for ritual combat and territorial interactions during mating season.

 

A small male Tusked Frog (Adelotus brevis) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

A small male Tusked Frog (Adelotus brevis) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

This photo below shows the remarkable ancient characteristic of this frog species and is why this frog is call the Tusked Frog.

Adelotus brevis - Tusked frog

 

Generally speaking, the larger the head of the male, the more successful the male will be in combat. Head size is an easy way to tell a part males from female. Males always have a disproportionately larger and ‘boofier’ head than females , who seem to have a disproportionately smaller head! Males are usually bigger than females reaching a maximum of 5 cm snout to vent length, where females reach a maximum of 4 cm.

Another interesting feature of the Tusked Frog is the marbled belly which can have white, black and red patterns. Each individual has a unique belly pattern, and this can be used to tell each individual a part from one another.

 

Belly colouration of a large male | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Belly colouration of a large male | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

This photo emphasizes the ‘boofy’ head of the males:

Tusked Frog (Adelotus brevis) - Male

 

Breeding season for the Tusked Frog takes place from October – December within slow moving streams and ponds, usually associated with rainforest or wet sclerophyll forest. They occur along the east coast of Australia, from north of Sydney to about the middle of the Queensland coast. Although they are not classified as threatened in Australia, these frogs have been suffering declines, especially in the New England Tableland. Reasons for their decline in these areas are due to habitat degradation and plague minnow, hence it is always a relief to hear these guys in a water way!

These guys can be quite hard to locate as they dive bomb the water as soon as there is a disturbance. It is easier to listen for their unique double inflection call (see below). Next time you find yourself near rainforest waters, see if you can listen out for this call, and be blessed by the knowledge that you are listening to a very ancient amphibian!

 

 

 

A Quick Guide to Common Rails of Sydney

Just to make it clear for people who aren’t familiar with aquatic birds, a ‘rail’ is the common term given to birds within the Rallidae family which also include coots and swamp hens. They are birds which are adapting to swim and stalk in marshes and reeds. Most healthy wetlands will attract one of the species of rail which rely on aquatic vegetation for the staple of their diet.

The rails that you are most likely to see are:

  • Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)
  • Dusky Moor Hen (Gallinula tenebrosa)
  • Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

 

The largest of the rails around Sydney is the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio). This conspicuous prehistoric looking bird can be told a part from other rails easily by the size (much larger than the other rails reaching almost 50 cm tall) along with the purple/blue sheen across the neck and belly. The Purple Swamphen requires heavily vegetated wetlands with plenty of sun light. Like the other rails, the Purple Swamphens have a confused and complex mating system. Some times the birds pair up, some times their is co-operative raising of the young by other younger individuals in the family group, where all birds contribute time into egg incubation and nest protection. During spring and early summer you may also witness the antics of the males fighting for dominance, with raucous screams and viscous confrontations. The looser is often chased away.

Some easy spots to see these birds include Audley in the Royal National Park and most of the freshwater wetlands within Sydney Olympic Park.

 

Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The other rail you are likely to see and which is probably the most common of the three is the Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa). This rail is smaller than the Purple Swamphen, reaching a maximum of 40 cm tall. This bird is easily distinguished from the Purple Swamphen as it lacks the purple/blue sheen and also has a yellow tipped beaked in contrast to the entirely red colored beak of the swamphen (See photo below).

 

Left - Dusky Moorhen, Right - Purple Swamphen | Copyright Lucy Kidson & Chad Beranek (2014)

Left – Dusky Moorhen, Right – Purple Swamphen | Copyright Lucy Kidson & Chad Beranek (2014)

 

The Dusky Moorhen enjoys heavily vegetated wetlands were they forage on aquatic plants. Like the Purple Swamphen, the Dusky Moorhen also has a complicated mating system involving communal nesting. Many of the Dusky Swamphen populations in Sydney currently have babies with them.

Some easy spots to see this very common rail include Sydney Olympic Park, the wetland in Louisa Reserve in Bass Hill, Tudar Road wetland in Bonnet Bay, Audley in the Royal National Park, even Camelia Gardens in Caringbah has recently had some Dusky Moorhens move in and successfully raise babies their! This rail species seems to be one of the first wetland birds to move in to newly created wetlands (not including ducks).

 

Dusky Moorhens in their preferred habitat of heavily vegetated wetlands | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Dusky Moorhens in their preferred habitat of heavily vegetated wetlands | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

Mother Moorhens feeding babies | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Mother Moorhens feeding babies Persicaria sp. flower buds | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The last rail which is commonly seen is the unique Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra). This rail is easily distinguished from the others as it bears a white beak contrasting with completely black plumage. This bird is perhaps more adapted to an aquatic lifestyle as they have strange webbed feet which is one of their most striking features when you get a closer look. The Eurasian Coot is very adaptable in its foraging and may forage on land, dabble in water or even dive for food. They will eat aquatic vegetation, insects, even birds eggs if they find them. They nest in talls reeds which have died or have been flattened out, where they lay a few young. The young of the Eurasian Coot have a tough life as they are frequently the target of predators such as herons and egrets. Their survival is also at risk from their own parents who are known to be very tough on the hatchlings. If they have no food for them and the young keep begging they will prod their young harshly, sometimes killing them.

 

Webbed feet of the Eurasian Coot | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Webbed feet of the Eurasian Coot | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

Some good spots to see this quite common rail species is in Audley, Sydney Olympic Park and Louisa Reserve in Ball Hill.

If you want to see all three of these rails in one day its best to check out the various wetlands in Sydney Olympic Park or the Audley Lagoon in the Royal National Park. Both of these locations have many extra amazing bird life surprises. Hopefully this post has given you enough information to ID some of your local wetland birds!