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Cold-blooded Harbingers of Spring

Although as I’m writing this on March 2nd, 2018, when Philadelphia is in the middle of snowy and windy Northeaster that makes it hard to believe winter wasn’t a wet cold mess, February 2018 was one of the warmest in memory, matching or beating records that were held since the 1930s.

Warm weather causes cold-blooded animals such as reptiles and fish to spring (pardon the pun) into action, and they can be observed in the City’s wilder areas seeking warmth and food. On Tuesday, February 27th, I took a bike ride over to Cobbs Creek park, looking for likely places to find panfish, which I’d heard were biting in some places around the city. Walking off the main trail under Sycamores and Bald Cypress to survey the creek and scan for what I hoped would be attractive pools for holding fish, I was distracted by the sudden presence of a funky stench. I looked around, wondering if I’d stepped in a dog or a human’s unmarked urinal, but soon made out the source of the musky odor - a snake!

Common Garter Snake (Thermophis sintalis) amid Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) at Cobbs Creek Park, February 27, 2018.

Moving carefully, I brought into action my cell phone and captured the above image of one of Philadelphia’s most common resident reptiles, the Common Garter Snake (Thermophis sintalis). These snakes are found in wooded areas throughout the city, and although this is my first living snake observed in 2018, in January in the same park I spotted the corpse of a Garter Snake that had interrupted hibernation even earlier in the year. Garter Snakes are beloved by humans; they aren’t poisonous, they’re relatively easy to handle, and they eat garden pests like slugs. Actually, they eat anything they can catch, really - not just slugs, but earthworms, frogs, salamanders, and if they can get them, even mice or minnows. Knowing my new buddy was probably hungry, I left him alone after snapping some pictures, and tried to find some fish.

My hope was that some of the many fish of Cobbs Creek I’ve encountered in the past, such as Brown Bullhead or Pumpkinseed, might be tempted into making an appearance by the warm weather, and might respond to the bacon and worms I’d brought along as bait. I searched up and down the creek, but all I was able to find were a number of minnows. Diligently jigging a weighted worm and hook with my tiny rod, after about 45 minutes of steady concentration I caught the behemoth in the below picture- my first fish of the year!

Cyprprindae minnow- possibly a juvenile Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus)- note the rosy pectoral fins. Caught on a #8 baitholder hook on a piece of red worm, February 27th, 2018.

I rank my fishing trip as a mixed success, at best, but I’m excited to see the exothermic fauna of Cobbs Creek becoming active, and I’m looking forward to my next encounter with the wildlife of Philadelphia.

#urbanecology #wildlife

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