Species of the Week: The Eastern Milksnake

Photo by Simon Lunn

This week’s featured #SpeciesOfTheWeek is the Eastern Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum). This species of snake inhabits a wide variety of habitats including rocky outcrops, forests, meadows, and pastures, and can occasionally be found here in the park along the trails or even inside buildings like the McParlan House. As adults, milksnakes typically reach 60-90cm in length, with reddish-brown blotches outlined in black along their beige backs. A little more timid than Grey Ratsnakes, milksnakes will often try to escape when approached, and may even vibrate their tails, hiss, or strike when they feel threatened – though they do not actually have rattles and are non-venomous of course. As you may have wondered, the name “milksnake” comes from an old fable about the snakes sucking cow udders to get milk. While this story is total fiction, as they are physically incapable of such abilities, milksnakes are often found in barns as they enjoy the dark and cool environment, as well as the abundance of rodents that make for a convenient food supply.

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The History and Astronomy of the Perseids Meteor Shower

The following post is contributed by Friends of Murphys Point student Lazar Stevanovic.

This week we will be taking a closer look at the Perseids Meteor Shower, named after the constellation Perseus. When the shower is at its peak, Perseus is at its highest point in the night sky. This meteor shower lasts from late July to mid-August, reaching its peak on August 11th-12th.  When watching the Perseids, the peak of activity occurs in the hours after midnight with 50-80 meteors becoming visible per hour! The Perseids are caused by the Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. During its orbit around the sun, it ejects dust and gravel.  When the Earth passes the debris, it enters our atmosphere as the meteors.

Meteors seen in the night sky during the 2020 Perseids Meteor Shower © Nata Culhane

The Perseids Meteor Shower has special significance in Christianity.  The martyrdom of St. Lawrence, known as the “Tears of St. Lawrence,” occurred on August 10th, which coincides with the Perseids.  To Christians, the Perseids symbolize the tears of St. Lawrence during his martyrdom.  Historical records of the Perseids go back to an even earlier time. Chinese records from 36 A.D. show that the Perseids were even occurring then.

The comet which causes the Perseids was discovered in 1862 by Lewis Swift.  This same comet was sighted 3 weeks later by another astronomer, Horace Tuttle.  Swift did not announce the discovery of the comet so the comet now bears both of their names (Swift-Tuttle). The orbital period of 109P/Swift-Tuttle is 120 years, with its last near-Earth appearance being in 1992. 

Many Indigenous Peoples have stories about comets and asteroids, one of which is the story of Genondahwayanung from the Ojibwa of the Upper Great Lakes.  The meaning of Genondahwayanung is “long-tailed heavenly climbing star.”  The story speaks of how Genondahwayanung, a star, would return one day to destroy the Earth. It had arrived one day thousands of years ago and burned everything, even rocks. Nothing was left except the Indigenous Peoples, who had covered themselves in mud to protect themselves from the heat. This is just one example of an Indigenous story amongst many about comets.

Frank Hitchens, an amateur astronomer who has led programs at Murphys Point, explained some of the science behind the Perseids Meteor Shower.  When asked about how the strength of the Perseids Meteor Shower is measured, he responded: “As the comet called Swift orbits the sun, it leaves a trail of debris behind it and once a year the Earth passes through that trail of debris, and sometimes we pass through areas of that debris that are denser and sometimes areas that are less dense. So, the numbers [of meteors] per hour can differ significantly.”  When asked about whether this year’s meteor shower will be stronger than past years, he responded: “All the information I have, it seems to indicate it will be about average, so you’re expecting to see probably 40 to 50 meteors per hour.” 

Murphys Point Provincial Park is an excellent place to see the Perseids and we hope you will come and observe this meteor shower in the park!

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Species of the Week: The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

This week’s #SpeciesoftheWeek is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), one of the most brilliant woodpeckers we have in the park! Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are medium-sized woodpeckers with distinct, beautiful colouration, as well as a name-giving yellow belly. They are most common in young forests and along edge habitats, as young, fast growing trees are great places to look for their favourite meal… sap! They drill both circular and rectangular wells, often in sick or wounded birch, maple and hickory trees, and then lap up the sap that comes out… that’s right, sapsuckers love maple syrup just as much as we do! They will also eat insects they find below bark or in their sap wells. Interestingly, by creating these holes sapsuckers make sap available to many other animals that love this sweet liquid. Bats, squirrels, warblers, nuthatches, hummingbirds and many others come to eat at the ‘sapsucker cafe’, and lots of insects are attracted to the sap as well, attracting yet more birds that eat them. Sapsuckers nest in trees, usually picking those that are suffering from a fungal disease that makes heavy-duty excavating easier. Females have one brood per year, each clutch being 4-6 eggs large. We often see sapsuckers along the Silver Queen Mine Trail. Have you ever seen one of these lovely birds?

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