Snakes on a road

Leah and I saw this snake last week when we took the dogs for a short evening walk.


This is a blurred shot. It was past sunset so the light was bad, and all I had to take the shot was my phone. On top of that, this little snake was really moving. I didn’t recognize it. In fact, I’m not sure I have ever seen one before. I searched online for a black snake with a white ring around its neck and quickly found that it was – surprise! – a ringneck snake.

This link leads to an article about the ringneck snake at the Savannah River Ecology Lab website

According to the SREL site, ringneck snakes are 10 to 15 inches long. The one we saw was less than six inches, so it was almost certainly an immature example, or possibly a hatchling (see the image of a hatchling ringneck in a person’s hand at the SREL site). SREL says that the ringneck snake has one of the largest ranges of any North American snake. Its range spreads from Florida to Canada, across the US Southwest and up along the Pacific coast.

Wikipedia says, “Ring-necked snakes are believed to be fairly abundant throughout most of their range, though no scientific evaluation supports this hypothesis.” However, SREL cites a capture-mark-and-release study by Henry Fitch in 1975 that found densities greater than 700 to 1800 per hectare (2.47 acres) in Kansas. That’s a lot of snakes.

This small, shy snake seldom shows itself during the day, which probably explains why I had never seen one. But then a couple of days later I saw another one when I took the dogs on their morning walk. This one looked like it had been run over at the edge of the road, but when I nudged it with my foot, it raced off into the weeds.

I should have taken a picture before I nudged it, but I didn’t want to take a picture of a dead snake. Dead snakes are not uncommon on the roads around here. Just last week, in addition to the live ringneck snakes, I saw one large black snake and a large copperhead that had been run over. Both had apparently been sunning themselves in the road after a cool night. That was probably what the little ringneck was doing as well. Since they’re small, the ringnecks aren’t as good a target for our local drivers as larger other snakes.

Top o’ the mornin’

I took this picture Monday morning when I walked the dogs up to the top of the mountain. It was about 9:30, long after sunrise. Just right of center, where the steam plumes are, you can see the remains of the temperature inversion from the calm, clear atmosphere we had over Sunday night.


The foggy, linear stream on the left side of the plumes is the top of the inversion. If we had walked right after sunrise, the top of the inversion would probably have been more obvious, but it was already dissipating by this time. It would, however, have been at approximately the same level in the atmosphere.

An inversion serves as a cap on the atmosphere close to the surface. It traps moisture or pollutants that are beneath the top of the inversion. The temperature normally decreases as you go up higher in the troposphere. Air that is warmer than the air at the surface (like smoke from a brush fire) will tend to rise through the troposphere because it is lighter than its surroundings. In an inversion, the air actually gets warmer is you go up, so things like smoke will rise for a while, but will tend to stop at a low altitude. A very hot plume can push through the inversion and then continue to rise. The steam plumes are doing that.*

The steam plumes are coming from a paper mill. The two tall stacks to the right of the steam plumes are an old and a new stack at Plant Hammond, one of the two Georgia Power coal-fired power generating plants we can see from Lavender Mountain.

Plant Hammond’s active stack is 675 feet (205.8 m) tall. Although nowhere near the tallest stack in the world, it is tall enough to be on the Wikipedia list of the tallest stacks in the world.

It’s tall for a reason – the Clean Air Act, which goes back more than 50 years. That act has provisions that limit the concentration of pollutants at ground level. One might think that the logical way to do that would be to limit the emission of pollutants, but it happens that if you introduce the pollutants high enough in the air, they will have been diluted enough that by the time they can reach the ground, they will meet the standards. So the Georgia Power stacks are high enough to push emissions above the top of any reasonably probable inversion height. If the stacks were below the top of the inversion, their emissions might reach the ground because they might be trapped by a particularly strong inversion, or they might just reach the ground because of other atmospheric conditions. When the emissions are injected into the atmosphere high enough, they will be diluted enough to meet the letter of the law.

Rome happens to be in a nonattainment area for atmospheric particulate matter. That status somewhat limits the industrial development of this area. Our local newspaper, the Rome News-Tribune, does not like that. They have published editorials mocking the nonattainment status (like saying that our air seems clear enough to them).

To cast doubt on the legitimacy of the measurements that caused the nonattainment status, the editorial writer has pointed out that the air quality monitoring station is located near the base of the Plant Hammond stack. The implication seems to be that only an idiot would measure air quality that close to a pollution source, and thus the measurement must not be representative of Rome’s true air quality. I have written letters to them in the past pointing out that if you want to avoid measuring the emissions from a tall stack, the best place to put your instrumentation is at the very bottom of the stack. That is perhaps not intuitively obvious, but it is nevertheless true. However, the truth seems not to be a persuasive argument when it comes to commercial development and newspaper editorialists. (I might have mentioned this in an earlier post.)

You might be wondering why the top of the inversion is so much lower than the top of the mountain, where I have mentioned on several occasions that we are warmer than the surrounding lowlands because of a temperature inversion. The reason is that although the top of Lavender Mountain is above the actual inversion, the conditions that cause the inversion also work on the atmosphere up here. As the air on the mountaintop cools, it flows downhill into the lower areas, reinforcing the inversion down there. That air is replaced up here by the surrounding air, which is warmer than the air that flows down the mountain. I have mentioned before that we can be as much as 10 degrees F warmer than the air at the bottom of the mountain.

Oh, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

* The tropopause acts like the top of a temperature inversion. The air temperature gets lower as you go up in altitude until it reaches the tropopause. In the stratosphere, which is the layer above the troposphere, the air gets warmer as you go up. That’s why thunderstorms form anvil tops when they get to the tropopause. The clouds hit the warmer air and their buoyancy can’t get them any higher. At that point they tend to spread out sideways, forming the anvil top. Occasionally a very strong thunderstorm can push its clouds through the tropopause, but not very much higher.

The Berry Eagle

I mentioned in an earlier post that someone had dumped a deer carcass near the intersection of Fouche Gap Road and Lavender Trail, not far from our house. On Saturday our neighbor stopped to talk when I was walking the dogs. He said that a bald eagle had been feeding on the deer carcass. I didn’t see it when we went down the mountain, but when we came back up, it was feeding. I stopped as soon as I saw it and took some pictures. Unfortunately, all I had was my phone, which has a wide angle lens.

eagle on deer_atadistanceThe eagle is the little speck that looks like it’s part of the shadows where the road curves back to the left. If you squint and take my word for it, you can see the bird standing on the carcass. Here’s a blowup that’s not much better.

eagle pointed out

I tried to get closer, but as soon as I moved, the eagle saw me and immediately flew up into a tree.


The image quality is not good, but it’s the best I could do with the phone. I cropped down as far as I could without losing too much detail.  I took my little Canon with a short telephoto lens on my dog walks on Sunday and Monday but didn’t see the eagle. I’m afraid the deer carcass is so worked over now that the eagle may not come back.

This was almost certainly one of a pair that has been nesting on Berry College property for the last few years. Berry has a Web cam at the nesting site. According to Berry’s Web page, this is the “first documented nest in the modern history of Floyd County.” There are two eagle nests on the Berry campus, but it’s not clear whether there are two nesting pairs. One nest is close to the main entrance of the college, and the other is somewhere on Lavender Mountain in an inaccessible area. The inaccessible nest is probably only a few miles from our house.

One pair has laid, hatched and fledged eaglets from the accessible nest.

Berry College had planned to construct an athletic facility near where one nest is located but has moved the construction site away to avoid interfering with the eagles.

I have never seen a bald eagle in Georgia, so it was a real thrill to see this one. There is an eagle nest on an old bridge over the Tennessee River near Scottsboro, Alabama. I used to cross that bridge almost every week when I worked in Huntsville, and I am pretty sure I saw an eagle on that nest on one occasion. The only other time I have seen eagles is when Leah and I visited Alaska on our honeymoon in 2005.

Mountain Toad

This fine specimen has been surveying the insect population around the driveway in front of the garage for some time now.


I’m pretty sure it’s a female, and I’m pretty sure it’s an American toad. There is often a smaller toad not far away, which might be a young toad or a male, since, according to this site, the female is larger. That site says its habitat “varies widely from mountain wilderness to urban areas”, so it pretty much covers our area.

The toads have no problems with the cats, who also tend to hang out in the area immediately in front of the garage. They pretty much ignore each other. The dogs sometimes sniff at the toad (the cats, too, for that matter), but the toad couldn’t care less. There are lights that stay on continuously on the garage, so the hunting is probably pretty good for the toads.

There is some dense foliage next to to the paved area which may provide shelter during the day. The Web site says they need water to breed, but I have no idea where they could find that around the house.

Pileated woodpecker

The pileated woodpecker (dryocopus pileatus) is one of the most impressive birds in the forest. Crows may be slightly larger, and eagles may look more imposing, but nothing thrills me more than the cry of a pileated woodpecker. To me, they symbolize wild nature more than just about anything else in our woods.

Pileated woodpeckers are hard to see in the forest, but it’s not so much because they’re shy as the fact that they seem entirely uninterested in anything human. They mind their own business, and that rarely has anything to do with people.

According to various sites, they feed largely on carpenter ants, which they usually find in standing or fallen dead trees. That means they need a mature forest that isn’t cut or managed to eliminate dead trees. That tends keep them away from large population centers, since most people don’t want dead trees nearby. Despite this limitation, their range is large. Here’s the US Geological Survey map showing their range.

US Geological Survey figure

US Geological Survey figure

According to the USGS website, the pileated woodpecker averages about 15 inches long. It has a prominent red crest and a white throat. It’s almost entirely black, with white on the under side of its wings. But if you’re looking for a pileated woodpecker, I don’t think you will have any problems identifying it. Here’s what the USGS says: “No other living woodpecker could be confused with the Pileated.”

The best view I ever had of a pileated woodpecker was many years ago at my parents’ house. My father had cut a small pine and laid the trunk along the edge of a terrace in the back yard. After it had dried and started to decay, a pileated woodpecker lit on it and started pecking at the bark. When a pileated woodpecker pecks, it hits like a hammer. This bird means business when it feeds.

They are not rare in the woods around the mountain. I hear their call quite often, but although I have looked for an opportunity to photograph one, I haven’t been able to do it. I see them at a distance, too far to photograph, or maybe flying over the road, there and gone before I can even think of getting my camera or phone out.

Since I don’t have one of my own photographs, here’s one from online:

"Pileated Woodpecker male" by D. Gordon E. Robertson

“Pileated Woodpecker male” by D. Gordon E. Robertson

Wednesday I was able to get a poor quality recording of the “wuk” call, along with dark and shaky video of some trees where the bird seemed to be perched. I was with the dogs, and I kept walking while videoing, hoping the bird would fly. I was holding the phone vertically because I wasn’t sure where the bird was and I wanted to catch it if it flew. That’s why there are black bars on either side of the image.

I normalized the volume of the clip, which brings out the call, but unfortunately, it also brings out the jingle of the tags. Sorry about that.

Cornell University has a website with good examples of pileated woodpecker calls. If you have never heard a pileated woodpecker, go listen there and imagine yourself deep in the woods.