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A face like a pig and a penchant for drama; on the trail for a rare snake

October 20, 2014

by Chris Schultz

By Harland Hiemstra of the DNR

Slowly waving what looks like a small rooftop TV antenna from side to side, Erica Hoaglund steps carefully through the little bluestem, blazing star and black-eyed Susans growing in the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. In her other hand she holds a small receiver that periodically emits a chirping sound, louder or softer depending on where she points the antenna.

Out there somewhere in the expanse of sun-soaked sand and prairie plants is snake number 431, a female plains hognose with a small radio transmitter implanted inside. Hoaglund is tracking it as part of a study to learn more about the rare species, its behavior and habitat needs. That information will help provide baseline data to gauge the results of restoration efforts soon to get underway in portions of the adjacent Sand Dunes State Forest, where snakes also are being tracked.

The hognose snake is currently on the state species of special concern list, and it is also a species in greatest conservation need in the DNR’s State Wildlife Action Plan.

A biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Nongame Wildlife Program, Hoaglund tracks her quarry to a small pile of brush. She pokes around and finds the snake taking refuge under a log. A small bulge toward its tail indicates where the transmitter – about the size of a small unshelled peanut – has been implanted. It’s only within the past few years that snake telemetry has been made possible by the development of transmitters small enough and with sufficient power and battery life. The unit weighs only four grams and will keep transmitting for a year and a half, with a range between a quarter and half a mile.

She picks up the snake and it coils lazily around her hand. With its upturned snout -- used for digging -- the snake’s face vaguely resembles a diminutive pig. Hoaglund examines it, then slips it into a plastic bag that she attaches to a scale: 150 grams. She enters the information on an electronic tablet, recording the location, time, and air and soil temperatures as well.

Based on its weight and appearance, Hoaglund suspects the snake may be gravid, which would be noteworthy because it already laid one clutch of eggs earlier in the season, and “double-clutching” has rarely been reported in wild snakes living in northern climates. She gently slides the hognose into a white cloth sack before phoning her colleague Chris Smith, who’s tracking other snakes nearby.

Smith contacts a local snake breeder who has an ultrasound machine with which he can check to see if the snake is indeed pregnant. The process is much like the one experienced by many an expectant human mother: a handheld scanner is slid across the snake’s abdominal area, producing a grainy black and white image on an attached monitor.

The result in this case is negative, so the hognose is returned to its log on the prairie.

Number 431 is one of several plains hog-nosed snakes being tracked in the area. Each snake is checked two or three times a week. The study, which eventually will include about 25 snakes and go for two or three years, is the largest done on this species. Already, the new information is dispelling some prior misconceptions.

“It’s been illuminating to see sometimes how wrong we can be,” Hoaglund says. “Before this study it was commonly believed that they didn’t move around much. Now we know that they actually move around quite a bit.”

Hoaglund and Smith also have learned that hognose snakes tend to return to the same place every fall, over-wintering underground in a group with other snakes. They typically linger in an area before laying eggs, then head off toward a wetland where they eat things like frogs, toads, skinks – even turtle eggs. Hoaglund recalls one snake she found with a large bulge in its midsection: while in captivity it vomited out an egg from a Blanding’s turtle, a threatened species.

“That’s nature,” Hoaglund says. “One rare species eating another.”

Snakes are ectotherms, meaning their temperature varies with their surroundings. Because they don’t have to expend energy maintaining a constant body temperature, they’re more efficient than mammals, sometimes needing to eat as little as once a month. Their forked tongue helps provide them with a sense of direction, sensing different chemicals in the air on each fork.

If reptiles were awarded Oscars, the hognose might be top contender for best actor. When threatened, it sometimes flattens its neck and head to resemble a miniature cobra. Other times it feigns death, writhing about, rolling on to its back and remaining motionless with mouth open and tongue hanging out until the threat has passed. Sometimes, for added dramatic effect, it even will regurgitate a recent meal or excrete feces.

Those characteristics are part of what makes the hognose intriguing to Hoaglund. But it’s how the snake fits into the landscape, what it says about ecosystem health, that’s the real point of interest and the chief purpose underlying her research. By learning more about the hognose snake and its habitat needs, biologists will better understand what the area was like at the time of European settlement. That will help guide them as they undertake restoration projects in portions of the Sand Dunes State Forest, work aimed at returning some of it to better and more balanced ecological health.

“We spend a lot of time trying to understand how animals use the landscape, what’s crucial in their landscape and what’s not,” Hoaglund says. “There’s a whole set of things that need to function together for these species to persist.”

For Hoaglund, who sometimes uses words like “beautiful” and “elegant” when talking about snakes, it’s also part of a fascination with some of the lesser appreciated aspects of the natural world, a fascination she wasn’t even aware of until her first term in college. As a child growing up in the Midway area of St. Paul, with parents who weren’t exactly the outdoorsy types, her few experiences with nature were largely limited to visits to her grandparents’ farms. After high school she first had thoughts of enlisting in the Navy as a step toward becoming an astronaut, but ruled that out after further reflection. A last-minute enrollee in the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts, she looked over the limited number of classes still open and signed up for one called “Intro to Fisheries and Wildlife Management” because it fulfilled a requirement.

“The first day in that class, the teacher gave an overview and it was like an epiphany,” she recalls. “I realized, this is what I want to do.”

Hoaglund’s sense of wonder and excitement hasn’t worn off; it’s evident as she talks about her work to learn more about the natural world, help others appreciate it and be good stewards.

“Everyone deserves the chance to chase a snake through the grass or help a turtle across the road,” she says. “Nature is as much a part of our legacy as a great painting or a classic building. We need to take care of it so we can pass it along.”

The Minnesota DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program focuses on the role animals that aren’t hunted play in healthy ecosystems -- critters such as snakes and frogs, turtles, swans, loons, songbirds, bugs and many more. It is supported almost entirely by grants and donations, including those made at income tax time via the “chickadee check-off.” More information can be found at www.mndnr.gov/nongame.

Youth archers harvest six deer at Ripley and Lake Alexandria Preserve
From the DNR

Cool, sunny conditions greeted youth participating in the 13th annual youth archery deer hunt at the Camp Ripley Military Reservation north of Little Falls and the 11th annual youth archery hunt at nearby Lake Alexander Preserve over the weekend.

Five deer were harvested at Camp Ripley and one at the Lake Alexander Preserve for a success rate of 4 percent for the two-day hunt. At Camp Ripley, 134 hunters participated; 15 hunters participated at the Lake Alexander Preserve.

“Youth were paired with nonhunting mentors,” said Beau Liddell, Little Falls area wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “For some, this was the first time they had taken a deer.”

Logan Lunow of Belle Plaine harvested the first deer taken during the Camp Ripley hunt, a male fawn. Brent Waytashek of Holdingford took the largest deer, a 120-pound yearling buck. Joshua Monk of Maplewood took the only deer at the Lake Alexander Preserve, a 113-pound doe.

The Minnesota State Archery Association and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association were the primary hunt sponsors.

The Department of Military Affairs, The Nature Conservancy and the DNR provided logistical and planning support for the two hunts.

The Camp Ripley youth hunt was the first of its kind in Minnesota and it laid the groundwork for similar youth hunts now offered elsewhere in the state.

Mankato named host community of 2015 Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener
From the DNR

Gov. Mark Dayton announced earlier this evening that the city of Mankato has been chosen as the host community for the 2015 Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener.

“I want to thank the people of Mankato for putting together a fantastic plan to host next year’s Pheasant Opener,” Dayton said. “The communities of Montevideo, Marshall, Madelia, and Worthington have helped establish a great Minnesota tradition. I know next year’s event in Mankato will be just as outstanding.”

The announcement was made during the Governor’s Banquet of this year’s pheasant opener event, hosted by the city of Worthington.

Mankato was selected through an application process that considered hunting land in the area, event facilities and community support.

There are more than 9,100 acres of public hunting land within 20 miles of Mankato.

The 2015 event in Mankato will mark the fifth annual Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener, initiated by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2011.

Previous host communities have been Montevideo, Marshall, Madelia and Worthington.

The event highlights the many hunting, recreational, travel and local opportunities that host communities have to offer visitors.

Explore Minnesota Tourism and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will assist local partners in planning the event.

Mankato has a population of 40,119. It is located in south-central Minnesota, at the intersection of U.S. highways 14 and 169.

CO weekly reports
From the DNR

• CO Brian Mies (Annandale) checked anglers.
CO Mies also worked on waters and wetland complaints.
CO Mies checked hunters and ATVs and finished a case on aquatic vegetation.

• CO Rick Reller (Buffalo) began Step 4 of field training with a COC.
Areas of emphasis were related to waterfowl, small game and archery deer.
It was a great turnout for waterfowl hunters.
A variety of ducks were taken on local lakes with the divers now starting to appear.
Calls for service this past week included a report of a swan taken by waterfowl hunters on North Lake in Monticello.
Upon completion of the investigation, it was determined that a juvenile misidentified a Trumpeter Swan for a goose and shot and killed it.
His father, whom also was present, was cited as the responsible party and the juvenile was issued a written warning.
Assisted a partnering CO with AIS checks on waterfowl hunters coming in to boat accesses; most were in good compliance.
Enforcement action was taken for taking ducks out of season, failure to have license in possession, angle w/o license, parent allow a violation of game and fish laws, take waterfowl after closed hours, take small game w/o license, take Trumpeter Swan, use of motorized decoy in WMA, no state migratory waterfowl stamp, no federal migratory waterfowl stamp and operate Class1 ATV on public highway.

• CO Mitch Sladek (Big Lake) assisted Zimmerman Forestry with trespassing and litter issues where summons and written warning will be issued when the investigation is complete.
He checked waterfowl hunting areas.
He also checked small game hunters in the Sand Dunes State Forest, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge and a number of WPA and WMA.
He assisted Wright County surveyors with DNR contacts.
He continued investigating a number of deer baiting issues.
He also assisted his swan rehabilitation team with coordinating a capture of injured Trumpeter Swans shot by waterfowl hunters last week.
The rehabilitation team successfully captured one of the swans and transported it for rehabilitation.
The individuals were issued summons for the shooting of the swans.

• CO Steve Walter (Waconia) gave a presentation to several kids and adults at the Watertown Rod & Gun Club before a pheasant hunt at Wings of Watertown shooting preserve.
The pheasant opener and south and central duck zone second opener was worked with CO Grewe in Scott, Carver and Hennepin counties.
AIS interviews were done on watercraft inspector violations found on zebra mussels.
Telephone calls were returned all week on hunting questions.
Enforcement action was taken for spinning wing decoys, shooting waterfowl from open water, no personal flotation devices onboard watercraft, no HIP certification, no small game licenses in possession, no federal duck stamps, unsigned federal duck stamps, no state duck stamps, transport loaded firearms in motorized boat, litter and transport zebra mussels on watercraft.

• CO Brent Grewe (Minnetonka) spent the week monitoring bow hunting activity and investigating TIP complaints.
CO Grewe answered calls with questions regarding the upcoming Deer Opener and checked a few pheasant hunters, who were frustrated with the lack of birds.
Violations included, hunting waterfowl during a closed season, use of spinning wing decoys during restricted period, possession of lead shot while hunting waterfowl, unsigned federal duck stamp, and no lifejackets.

• CO Jen Mueller (Hutchinson) observed two hunters duck hunting on a local lake during the closed southern waterfowl season.
During their check they admitted not being aware the season was closed.
The two were also missing lifejackets in the boat.
The pheasant opener was busy with the good weather.
An ATV driven on a WMA was also investigated during the week.
A call of a trumpeter swan shoot was taken.

• CO Brett Oberg (Hutchinson) reports rescuing a trumpeter swan with CO Mueller.
The swan had been shot and is currently at the wildlife rehab center.
Oberg reports some confusion on when the 4 p.m. closure ended.
Most hunters seemed to think they couldn’t hunt past 4 p.m. until Sunday, when actually they could have on Saturday.
Several popular lakes were without hunters on them past 4 p.m.
Oberg also responded to TIP calls relating to rallying ducks, taking in open water, and shooting from a motor vehicle.