Friday, July 3, 2009

The Serpent, the Robber, and the Fool

Who robbed the woods,
The trusting woods,
The unsuspecting trees
Brought out their burrs and mosses
His fantasy to please.
He scanned their trinkets, curious,
He grasped, he bore away.
What will the solemn hemlock,
What will the fir-tree say? - Emily Dickinson

I might have missed it if it hadn't moved, so well did it blend into the leaf-litter and sticks. But it did move, and when it did, it immediately caught my attention. The small brown snake darted for the cover of the woods, then paused to see if it was being followed. I had instantly stopped walking the moment I saw the snake. I was hiking the Kilkenny Ridge Trail in the White Mountains on my way down from Mt Cabot. The snake had paused and was watching me and waiting to see if it needed to flee or not, so I took advantage of the moment to snap a photo of the watching snake in-situ.

Can you spot the snake along the trail-side?

Then the chase was on! As soon as I took a step in the direction of the serpent it shot off for the cover of the brush at the forest edge. I had to move quickly if I was to catch the little fellow so I threw myself onto all fours and scrambled after it. Of course I was wearing a 40lb backpack and its momentum nearly carried me forward into a "face plant." I did want to catch the snake, just not with my lips. It was the work of an awkward moment to regain my balance, and the snake took advantage of this moment to nearly escape. Nearly, but not actually. I managed to catch hold if it just as it was disappearing into the vegetation, and after a few minutes of gently untangling it from the brush, it was safely in my grasp.

I inspect the snake while it inspects me by smelling the air with its tongue.

Upon inspection I wasn't sure what species of snake I was holding in my hand. I had originally thought it was a Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi), but it lacked the characteristic dark mark behind the eye. It was the perfect color for Brown Snake, however as I was to later learn, Brown Snake doesn't occur this far north in New Hampshire. Well with a few good photos I could identify the species when I got back to Connecticut. So I proceeded to take some in-the-hand photos while the snake repeatedly attempted some in-the-hand biting. I succeeded in getting pictures without being bitten, but the snake must be given an "A" for effort.

Well camouflaged and beautiful. The serpent had had more than enough of me by this point.

What it did succeed in doing was to smear a copious amount of musk over my hands. This unpleasant act is something some species do to repel predators. The musk of Garter Snakes back home in CT is rather nasty smelling. I suppose it is bad tasting as well, but I have absolutely no intention of finding out. I did cautiously smell the musk of this montane serpent and discovered it smelled nothing like the Garter Snake musk I'm used to. This difference further made me wonder if this was a variant of Brown Snake. It wasn't actually. As my friend John Philip would later tell me after inspecting my photos, it was indeed a Garter Snake. But it was a different race than the CT snakes. It was a Maritime Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis pallidula), a race not found in my home state. Maritime Garter Snakes can be much paler than the Eastern Garter Snake. All Garter Snakes were considered nonvenomous, however this appears to be not strictly true. It has been discovered that they produce a mild neurotoxic venom in very small amounts. Lacking fangs in the front of their mouths they can't inject it into humans and so they are essentially harmless to us. Indeed, as is the case with most snakes, they are beneficial to humans. They prey on many of the things most humans want less of in their yards, like slugs, spiders, rodents, etc. Very pleased to have met this mountain serpent, I released it back into the forest and continued upon my way.

After hiking down from Mt. Cabot to my awaiting truck, I drove to the southern side of the Pilot Mountain Range, a part of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and started hiking up Starr King Trail, planning ultimately to pick up the Kilkenny Ridge Trail at its southern terminus on the summit of Mt. Starr King. This is the shortest hike to Mt Waumbek, one of the New Hampshire 4,000 footers. Mt. Starr King's summit is flat and wooded with limited views, as is Mt. Waumbek's summit. If you want to climb all the 4,000 footers in NH you have to make this hike, but you aren't going to be rewarded with very many of the spectacular views offered by some of the other White Mountains.

One of the few views available on the hike to Mt. Waumbek. Summit area on Mt. Starr King

It was on the summit of Mt. Starr King that the Robber visited me. He came in silently and watched me from the trees. It was a Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis), one of the smallest Jays in the world. Once officially called "Canada Jay," the species has had many nicknames, such as "Camp Robber," "Whiskey-Jack," and "Moose Bird." The name "Whiskey-Jack" is believed to come from Algonquian mythology. "Wisakadjak" was a mischievous prankster in that mythology. And the name "Camp Robber" stems from the same behavior of this northern coniferous forest denizen that the early Native Americans experienced. That is to say, Gray Jays take things. Food mostly. They cache it against the harsh weather to come. Gray Jays produce a sticky saliva that they use to build food stores by sticking foraged items in hiding places such as bark crevices. Many logging camps of yesteryear had their meals plundered by Gray Jays which swooped in and nabbed untended food, hence the appellation "Camp Robber." This food storage technique allows Gray Jays to be non-migratory and to stay in harsh climes during the winter. Gray Jay do not open cones you see, so to have food throughout the harsh winter, they must build a larder instead. As I attained Starr King's Summit, a Whiskey-Jack heard my approach and silently came a-robbing!

A thief in the woods

To be honest, I was thrilled to have the thief watching me. I hadn't seen a Gray Jay in several years. I have seen them right across the North American Continent during my travels, and though the plumage varies a bit geographically, they all look somewhat like Black-capped Chickadees on steroids. And they all will accept a hand-out. If you come across a Gray Jay you can have them eating out of your hand. Literally. I was carrying some food specifically for this eventuality and I broke off a piece of granola bar which I held it out to the Jay. It took a few moments for the Jay to decide whether to trust me or not, but eventually it swooped in and took the proffered treat.

A Gray Jay in the hand is worth...

It alighted on my hand, had a look about, and off it flew with its treasure. After a short interval, presumably having cached the food, the Jay returned for more. I gave it a couple more pieces over the next several minutes and then continued on my way with the Jay following until it was sure I wasn't going to offer up any more food. When I would eventually reach the summit of Mt. Waumbek I would encounter another Gray Jay. However that bird would not land on my hand and I would soon discover the cause of its reticence. It was one of a mated pair tending a young bird. Young Gray Jays are battleship gray overall when they fledge. The adults on Waumbek refused to come to my hand but they did take the food I put on the summit cairn. I guess it was a case of teaching the young bird discretion. Oh if only it was that easy to teach human young...

Gray Jay on Mt.Waumbek's summit cairn.

When I had left Mt. Starr King's summit on my way to Mt. Waumbek, I was visited by a fool. Shall I say more precisely, a "Fool Hen." Even more precisely, a Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis). Spruce Grouse are something of conifer specialists, feeding on pine or spruce needles for most of the year. They also show little fear of man, allowing very close approach with little or no apparent concern on the part of the bird. Hence "Fool Hen." One could ponder what this says about homo sapiens that allowing us to get close equates to acting foolishly, but I suppose that is a discussion for another day. This male Spruce Grouse actually approached me and boldly flew from the forest floor passing very close to me to perch in a spruce that stood alongside the trail. This made me suspect a hen and chicks might have been near by. However this bird may simply have been playing "cock-of-the-rock," flaunting it's territorial mastery over me.

The Lord of the Manor sits on his high perch

The Grouse then sat in the spruce and studiously ignored me, indeed choosing to point its rear end at me. I had to call and prance about a bit to get it to turn and look at me so I could try and get a decent photo. So who was the fool now? The apparently disdainful bird, or the oddly behaving human who jumped about and made funny noises trying to catch its attention? It rather seems like the King and the court jester in retrospect. And I wasn't the King. The male Spruce Grouse is a beautiful bird indeed, patterned to blend in with the coniferous forest it inhabits. The one exception is the bright red comb above each eye which presumably is simply irresistible to Mrs Fool Hen. The female is more cryptically colored than the male, patterned more in browns and lacking the red combs, and can be nearly impossible to spot if she doesn't move. I have seen both males and females during my hikes in the mountains, but never very many or very often. Despite their "foolish behavior," they are a difficult bird for many New England birders to see. They need healthy coniferous forest and that results in a remote distribution in northern New England where most birders visit only occasionally if at all.

A male Spruce Grouse I encountered on Mt. Hancock during 2007

So the Serpent, the Robber, and the Fool all live in the mountains of New Hampshire. On one fine day in June, a solitary man from Connecticut wandered by and made the acquaintance of each. He was musked by the serpent, robbed by the robber, and haughtily disdained by the fool. And in the end, he was a better, happier man for it.

If you would like to learn more about Garter Snakes, visit;

If you would like to learn more about Gray Jays, visit;

If you would like to learn more about Spruce Grouse, visit;

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