Spring, summer or fall, it doesn’t matter – when the sun sets on the far side of the Mississippi, amphibians and reptiles are out and about in the La Rue-Pine Hills Research Natural Area. Walking along Snake Road after dark can be interesting and can produce a few surprises.
Treefrogs tend to start coming out after sunset, and it doesn’t have to be completely dark out – mostly dark seems to be enough to trigger activity. Perhaps the most common (and most iconic) is the Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea).
Green treefrogs are easier to spot at night. They tend to move out from their hiding places in the vegetation, and they stand out very well in the beam of a flashlight.
Not as common are the Gray Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor), which come -down- from the higher portions of trees at nightfall, in search of insect prey and perhaps to soak up a little moisture. There are two species of gray treefrogs that are nearly indistinguishable from each other , H. versicolor and H. chrysoscelis. Their calls differ, and from what I’ve heard over the years, H. versicolor seems to be the dominant frog of the two around Snake Road.
Nighttime is the right time for finding Bird-voiced Treefrogs (Hyla avivoca) as well. The adults are a bit smaller than gray treefrogs, and sometimes the two have similar patterns and they both share a light colored flash mark under the eye. But around Snake Road at least, H. avivoca usually sports a ‘greenback’ pattern, and the flash marks inside the hind legs are yellow-green, while the grays have orange or yellowish orange marks.
Most of the treefrogs are in the air, but on the ground you’re likely to see Southern Leopard Frogs (Lithobates sphenocephalus utricularius) many of which are quite lovely.
Every once in a while an uncommonly seen frog pops up, like this Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus), which put in an appearance in October of 2021. Wood frogs may not be all that rare, but they’re not as commonly seen along the swampy edges lining Snake Road.
It’s not unusual to see Dwarf American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus charlesmithi) hopping around, starting at dusk and into full dark. The “chucks” around Snake Road are usually a nice bricky orange.
Snakes are out too – Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) can be active during the day and night.
Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) are also moving after the sun goes down. I think I’ve seen just as many after dark as I have during the day.
Rough Green Snakes (Opheodrys aestivus) are not particularly active at night, but they are much easier to spot with a flashlight.
They may be observed resting on low bushes, but they can also be spotted high up in trees, and of course, everywhere in between. On a night walk in October of 2021 we saw more than a dozen green snakes.
I see Plain-bellied Water Snakes (Nerodia erythrogaster) once in a while, usually just after dark.
Every once in a while, a Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) will turn up on the road. Like copperheads, I thing my milk snake sightings are about equally divided between the sun and the moon.
Occasionally I see Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) moving after dark.
Salamanders are also active after dark, and perhaps my favorite species to look for are Cave Salamanders (Euryea lucifuga).
Shortly after sunset, lucifuga emerge from their hidey holes in the limestone bluffs, to hunt for their invertebrate prey across the forest floor.
Snake Road is great for a night hike, even in cool temperatures. Critters will be on the move and you will be rewarded. At the worst, you can count on the owls to provide a nocturnal serenade.