Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Reptilian Bigfoot

Here on southern Vancouver Island, it is possible to find the herpetological equivalent of Bigfoot.  Luckily, I have a knowledgeable source that would be on par with having a Bigfoot researcher point out a sasquatch den.  This reptilian Bigfoot, if you're not familiar, is the Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis).

I had no idea such a creature existed for most of my life.  It wasn't until I started working with LGL Limited and found myself doing terrestrial mollusk surveys down in southern Oregon that I learned about this small, primarily subterranean snake.  Even then, despite rooting through litter and flipping over logs and rocks constantly, I did not encounter one of these enigmatic creatures.  I was thoroughly intrigued about this elusive snake and made a mental Post-it note to seize any opportunity to see one.

A few years later, I learned that Camas Hill in Metchosin was a great place to see Sharp-tailed Snakes.  There was, however, a catch: it is on private land.  Luckily Moralea Milne is the landowner and she is an environmental saint.  The land is protected in perpetuity through a covenant and will hopefully remain a safe haven for the hundreds of species that occupy the rocky outcrops, dry Doug-fir forests, Garry Oak meadows, and moss balds of Camas Hill.  I arranged to meet up with Moralea and she toured a small group of us around the property.  Several number-tagged cover objects have been selectively placed on the hillside by researcher and local Sharp-tailed Snake expert Christian Engelstoft, so we visited several of these on our way to the top.  Eventually we struck gold with a beautiful little Sharp-tailed Snake and I was able to see what the hype of this mythical creature was all about.

That was at least a few years ago and I really wanted to spend more time observing this species, so I gave Moralea a call and got permission to ramble around the property.  It is a bit of a crapshoot as to whether you'll see a Sharp-tailed Snake or not up there, but the odds are pretty much as good as it gets in British Columbia.  Regardless of whether luck was on my side or not, I knew it would be a great morning up on the hill.  That point was made abundantly clear very quickly when I had my first Moss' Elfin of the year at the start of the trail.

Moss' Elfin looking remarkably crisp and fresh

I made my way up near the top and checked a few cover objects to no avail.  Highlights from the insect world continued to delight me, including a cool snakefly and a marchfly!

When I see a snakefly I always make me think back to when I first saw one and I described it as a brontosaurus fly.

This is a marchfly belonging to the genus Bibio, and the small head indicates it's a female

In the early spring, Satinflower (Olsynium douglasii) is one of the first flowers to bloom.  Consequently, you can round a corner on a trail and encounter a sensory overload of vibrant purple.  I encountered a nice patch of Satinflowers up near the top of Camas Hill and photographed a perfect specimen.

Satinflower in full display - stunning!

After roaming around for a while, I decided to make my way back down the hill and check the cover objects one last time.  I checked a few of the obvious ones and once again struck out.  I knew I had missed at least one of the cover objects I had found on the way up, but nearly left without checking it.  Even knowing the prospect of finding a Sharp-tailed Snake was a gamble, I really didn't want to miss out on seeing one.  My stubbornness led me to head back up and search for that last cover object.  The first cover object I found was actually one I had missed the first time, but the location looked promising.  I slowly flipped up the asphalt roof shingle and this is what I saw:

Just my luck - I find a Sharp-tailed Snake and it's only partly visible!

And with a flash of the pointed scale that gives the snake its name, it was gone...

Yes, I had found a Sharp-tailed Snake but it was certainly not a very cooperative one.  I was excited that I got to see one, but I was really hoping to get some good photos and it just wasn't possible.  I started to head back to the trail down and found another cover object.  I slowly peeled the shingle back and there was a perfect little Sharp-tailed Snake sitting on the litter.  It was very calm and cooperative, so I was able to snap off quite a few photos.

This was the Sharp-tailed Snake shot I was hoping to get - what a great little snake!

The smooth scales help distinguish this from our three local species of garter snake, which all have keeled scales

After several minutes of observing and photographing this mythical creature, a slight breeze stirred the trees.  I noticed the Sharp-tailed subtly raise its head and start to flick its tongue.  I feel it sensed it was exposed, so it dug its head into the litter and slowly wormed its way down.  I thought I would have a chance to photograph that cool pinprick scale at the tail tip, but the last two-thirds of the snake vanished like a vapour.  This exit reinforced the enigmatic nature of this gentle snake and left me in awe of my good fortune.

This was exactly the hike I needed.  The combination of the setting, the sightings, and the serenity were magical and I look forward to my next opportunity to explore Camas Hill.

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