With all of the development that has taken place on Pelee Island and is proposed to take place, some of the critical habitat elements that snakes require are at risk, placing these already endangered snakes at further risk. There are options, however, which may reduce further risk:
- one option is to buy up the island and convert it back to its natural habitat (believe it or not, that was an option that was bandied about several decades ago! It didn't get too far, not surprisingly);
- another option is to acquire some of the best remaining pieces of natural area and if possible, connect the pieces so that the snakes have a safe travel corridor along which to go to and fro;
If habitat is to be protected, it may be necessary to create features on it that would serve the snakes well for some critical aspects of their life cycle. There have been various efforts to create what I refer to as Critical Habitat Element Clusters (CHEC) on Pelee Island, and include:
- Egg-laying sites
- Basking hot rocks
- Brush piles
Snakes are cold-blooded, and spend a good part of their lives underground, below the frost line. There are various ways to create hibernacula, but here are the basics of how we did it on Pelee Island.
A backhoe was used to dig a hole almost two metres deep.
Progressively smaller sized rock was placed on top, being careful not to damage the pipes. The smaller and smaller rock will prevent the uppermost layers of material from falling through, leaving the largest cavities at the bottom.
Having several access points allows for safety: if for some reason one pipe gets plugged or collapses, there are still others to enter or emerge through.
Basking Hot Rocks
Being cold-blooded, snakes rely on the warmth of sunlight to maintain or increase their physiological activity. For females that are developing eggs inside of them, proper physiological processes are critical for them to be able to lay their eggs early enough, so the young will develop in enough time so that they can hatch early enough in the summer to be able to grow a bit before finding a place to hibernate for the winter. Timing is everything!
The top of the hibernacula can be useful for basking, as mentioned, but one can create other basking sites as well. It is important to have the basking surfaces in layers. And being elevated, it increases the time that the sun is available for basking.
First, place some blocks on the ground in an open area with lots of sun.
|Another version of basking hot rocks|
Both the endangered Blue Racer and Eastern Fox Snake lay eggs. They seek out a pile of decomposing material that they consider to have the right sunlight exposure and moisture so that the eggs, once laid, will have the benefit of warmth and humidity to maximize the chances of the young being able to hatch successfully. In a totally natural setting, this could be an opening in a decomposing log. But where logs are unavailable, snakes have been known to use piles of straw, manure, or wood chips. Creating a suitable egg-laying site is really quite simple: find an open sunny area and dump a large pile of wood chips!
Snakes shed their skin several times a year. During this period, their eyes cloud over as they "go into the blind". They are much more vulnerable at this time, so they seek out areas where they can hide safely for several days, until the skin is shed. Suitable sites for this period could include a brush pile. Since Pelee Island has a lot of grape growing operations, there are lots of old grape stalks being culled from the vineyards. They are robust, and should last for many years. The material was free for the asking.
As mentioned earlier, having these CHEC in close proximity will minimize the need for the snakes to travel far and wide to seek the habitat they require. This next image shows a brush pile, egg-laying pile and a hibernaculum all within sight. The basking hot rocks are just around the corner. All four of these Critical Habitat Elements are important. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, if any one of these CHE are not available, the survival of the population of Blue Racer and Eastern Fox Snake on Pelee Island is at risk.