Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Back With the Alfreys: Part 1

 Hey guys! As I said in a previous post I was planning to go visit Dylan and his family once again. Last time I was in Shipka I made a post about it and it got pretty popular, so I hope this one is as good, if not better than the last one. Now, the story is quite long, so I'll split it in  three parts - one for each day I spent there.
 Credit for most of the photos (the prettier ones, to be exact XD ) goes to Chris, who you'll meet later in this post.

Day 1:

 I couldn't get on the early bus from Sofia to Kazanlak, so I took a late one instead, which was pretty awful. What was worse, though, was the fact that it wasn't even a bus, but a minivan. All the seats where taken, so there was too little room for comfort. The journey went on for about four hours, so it was very exhausting. When I finally arrived in Kazanlak it was already quite dark (about 9:00pm). Dylan was waiting for me. We took a taxi to his village, Shipka. While in the taxi, we caught up with each other for the past year or so. The poor driver was stuck listening to our excited babbling, but he didn't mind, especially when Dylan left a tip for him.

A funny looking pigeon at the bus station in Sofia.
 When we got to his house everybody was there waiting for us. Pete, sadly, couldn't make it to Bulgaria this year, since he was busy with his new baby, but promised to come and visit as soon as possible.
 The next day me and Dylan got pretty early and prepared ourselves for some early herping (about 10:00am, which is considered early for snakes and other herps). Didn't expect to see anything thrilling, so we just walked casually, catching up on what we haven't yet. First we stopped at the garden. Last night Dylan's mom, Sophie, told us that she saw a little dead snake there, but couldn't identify it, so we decided to look for it. It wasn't long before we discovered it - a young dead Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus):

Poor thing's head probably got smashed by a non-educated gardener or something.

 After we where done guessing the cause of death we moved along. Surprisingly, a lot of cold-blooded critters where out and about already. Green and Balkan green lizards where darting around in the bushes, and a lot of insects and arachnids where hiding under rocks and stuff.

A dead Green lizard (Lacerta viridis). It's tail and abdomen were probably bitten off.
False black widow. First time I've encountered one. It was definitely a cool experience, though Dylan is slightly terrified of spiders. XD

 At one point we reached a little water fountain. We wanted to drink, but it seems we weren't the only thirsty ones around:


Dylan specifically told me not to film him while he went for a drink with the bees. I'm not sitting on the sidelines, tough! Of course I'm gonna get all the action on camera. XD 

 The find of the morning was definitely this guy though:

 A juvenile Aesculapian snake. As soon as we saw him crossing the street we raced to catch him, because we had a bet who would catch more snakes on my visit - me or Dylan. Luckily, I caught this one (Dylan claims that he went easy on me this time, but he totally didn't XD) It was a pretty healthy lookin' fella, except for the tail, witch looked broken and twisted. Definitely a nice find, but our main goal was an adult one, 'cause I've never caught one before. 

Some more shots from our morning trip:

Those brown things that look like hanging poop are actually wasp nests.
Yup... definitely a new FB profile pic. XD
I don't know if it's visible, but there are threads of frog and toad eggs in this puddle.
A dragonfly, ready to emerge from his childhood and into adulthood.
Waiting for it's wings to strengthen and dry out. 

 Later that day Dylan's parents introduced us (well, Dylan already knew them) to Gabriel and Chris (he's the guy who made some of the photos on this post). The four of us where planning to go herping on the "herping/birding" road me, Dylan and Pete used to visit last year. It was nice to go back there, though we didn't see much snakes.

A truly magnificent looking Balkan green lizard.

And it wasn't just that one, we found a dead calf in a underground river pipe as well!
 At some point the wind brought an awful stench to our noses. It appeared to be a rotting dead cow. At first we where just standing there, looking at it, but Gabrielle broke the silence with a joke: "Well... I guess dinner is served?".
 We also found a few big Mediterranean banded centipede, of witch, oddly enough, I don't have any photos. Last time I argued with Dylan and Pete if those where dangerous to people. Chris, who's an entomologist, said that while they do possess venom, they aren't too dangerous to humans. Feeling confident, I looked at Dylan proudly: "Did ya hear that?". Though, as I said it, the centipede bit my right index finger. It stiffened momentarily from the venom and remained like that for the next half an hour, making flipping larger rocks a lot harder. Well, at least I learned my lesson...
 After a while we where ready to give up. It was too hot, we'd ran out of water and there was no sign of any snakes. Dylan, now angry and frustrated, flipped one last rock, and what he found under it was a huge female Smooth snake.

It was a big one, about 80 centimeters, witch is crazy for a Smooth snake, considering they are normally 60 or, rarely, 70cm, and the biggest one ever found is about 90cm!

It still wasn't as cool or rare as the combo-morphed "gold and cream" one from last year, but it was the biggest one each of the four of us had ever seen, so it was definitely a great find!

 So, that'll do for day 1 from my stay with the Alfreys. Soon I'll be posting day 2, so be sure to check it out as well. ;P

Friday, May 19, 2017

Smooth Snake Relocation Mission

 Yesterday (5/18/20017) I went to Samokov for karate practice. Usually this is when I visit the Iskar river, since it's right next to the building I train at. The weather was nice, so I decided it's gonna be a great time for a little herping. Sadly, I was wrong: I only saw about 4 or 5 snakes, all of which where Grass snakes, except a young female Smooth snake (Coronella austriaca). They are very rare in that section of Iskar that crosses the city, and the reason is very simple: they don't belong here.

 Usually, Smooth snakes end up in Samokov when the spring snow up in the mountain melts and the river drags them down to the city. Smooth snakes are reptilophagous (I don't know if that's even a real word XD ), meaning they prefer to eat reptiles such as lizards and rarely baby snakes. The problem, though, was that the wall alongside the river gives a huge advantage to the lizards to escape a hungry Smooth snake, leading it to its eventual starvation and death, which is the reason they haven't already created a stable population in this region. So, what I had to do, was to find a suitable bottle to keep the snake in while I was at practice, and when I was done - to take it to my village and release it in a proper habitat for it. Eventually I found my bottle. I made sure it's a water bottle, and not from beer or some other strong-scented beverage that the snake wouldn't be comfortable with. And, of course, I did look for an empty one.
 I made some holes in the bottle and introduced it to its temporary inhabitant. Luckily, the snake didn't mind it and snuggled in. I left the bottle in a dark hole in the wall, making sure its the kind of place a snake will feel most safe and secure in, and went to karate. Two hours later I was done and went to get the snake. Everything was alright, thank God, but the sun had almost went down, and the snake was a little cold, so I heated the bottle with my breath. It worked and the snake became a bit more active.
 When we arrived home we grabbed our bikes and raced to the hills to the west to catch the last sunlight. Sadly, we missed it. Nevertheless, we released the snake in a crack in the rocks, but not before we took a few goodbye shots:

 We where a bit surprised to see that in the crack there was already another Smooth snake, as if waiting for our little adventurer. Good thing is that Smooth snakes aren't territorial and don't fight with each other. They both snuggled in the hole and we left them in peace, and headed home with the feeling of a job well done.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Grass Snake Mating Season

 Today and yesterday I'm all about snake-hunting, because it's one of the best times of the year for herping - the mating season. Grass snakes are everywhere at the Iskar river in Samokov, so I decided to take advantage of the moment.

The first two snakes I caught yesterday, a big female (left) and a gorgeous olive-green male (right). Though not the most spectacular in terms of size, the male, without a doubt, was the find of the day for me. 
Another shot of the two.
Headshot of the male only.
After releasing those two I continued my journey. Though not the most pleasant to the eye, the Samokov part of Iskar is a great place for herping.

View to the north
View to the south.
A pretty healthy looking male Natrix.
Awesome shot of the same individual I'm especially proud of. XD
What I noticed is that during mating season the best strategy to find a lot of snakes is to find a big female, they're often in the center of a huge area filled with males. One female means a handful of males.
Later on, I stumbled upon a ball of six baby Grass snakes basking in the sun in one of the cracks of the wall. I didn't manage to take a shot, sadly, because they quickly scattered in all directions.
In the evening, when I was back in my village, me, my sis and bro stayed up late outside. Our game of hide and seek was interrupted by a stunningly beautiful Great peacock moth. Here they're pretty damn rare, so I was very excited to see one.

Isn't it a beauty? They're famous for having unique patterns on their wingtips that represent snake heads to scare some predators away.
 The next day I went to Samokov again, but this time my bro Fifo accompanied me.
The first snake we caught today, a normal sized male Natrix natrix. It was a good start.
Derp. :P
Another three males. My theory from yesterday clearly appeared  to be correct - these three naughty boys where trying their luck with a fairly big female, which, unfortunately, slithered away before we could catch it.
While looking for snakes, Fifo found a nest with cute little birdies inside. I couldn't get an ID on them, 'cuz we didn't want to disturb them for too long.
Besides baby birds we also found an adorable little mouse. (> v <)
Ok, this guy was straight up odd. When we caught him he started SPITTING saliva from his mouth at us like a spitting cobra instead of the normal disgusting mucus from the cloaca. 
Dice snake (Natrix tessellata). Pretty rare in Samokov.
Another shot of the same individual.
Find of the day was this huge female Fifo caught all on his own. He is very proud of himself and so am I.
Strange thing was that there where absolutely no males around, considering the size of that big girl.

I couldn't miss the opportunity to make a new facebook profile pic. XD 
Last snake of the day - a very nice looking male Dice snake. We where very surprised to see a second one despite them being so rare in our region.

Lets hope I can make as many herping trips as possible before the mating season ends. Oh, and by the way, next month I'll probably be visiting Dylan Alfrey from the Balkan Ecology Project once again, so stay tuned for the upcoming awesome adventures!


Note: I forgot to speak English in the vids, so I apologize to all viewers who don't know Bulgarian. :P



Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Samokov Herping 2017

 Today I went to Samokov to repair my bicycle that I haven't used for about two years. The bike looked terrible, all dusty and warped in spider webs, but after the man I took it to finished repairing it, it actually started looking like a suitable vehicle. So, while waiting for the bus, I decided to go on a little herping trip at the Iskar river. Loads of Wall lizards, as always, but I also managed to catch a young male Grass snake, the first snake I've caught in my home region this year.

 After I was done herping, I thought it would be very nice to just ride my bike around the city, listening to music on my headphones (I bring them literally everywhere). I felt so good and free, I didn't feel like taking the bus to my village, but ride my bike through the fields instead. It was a long trip, maybe 30-40 minutes or so, I can't remember, I lost track of time.
 While I was pedaling my way to the village, I got the opportunity to do a little on-road birdwatching. Common buzzard, White stork, Common kestrel and Common raven are some of the more interesting species I stumbled upon.

Was nearly home when this guy showed up. He got pretty angry and growled when I started taking pictures. The little bugger was in the middle of the road, so I had to move him aside.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

March Update: South Park Herping

 Spring has officially begun, and so has the mating season for most animals, which means the time for herping has come. So today, I'll show you guys everything I've seen so far in the month of March.

Agile frog (Rana dalmatina). Saw this one in my backyard while eating breakfast.
Isn't it a beauty?

As I said, mating season has started for many species. Butterflies are no exeption.

 I spent the first weekend of March in Gotse Delchev, southern Bulgaria, staying at my cousin's house. Not much went on then, except that the weather was a lot warmer there, meaning that the reptiles had already awakened from their winter hibernation. Loads of Wall lizards where darting around on the walls on both sides of the nearby river. In one of the cracks of that wall I found a dead Great Tit, which at first I assumed suffocated in the wall, but then it all became clear - a young adult male Caspian Whipsnake had captured and killed it. As soon as I moved the bird aside, the snake hissed and slithered further underground before I could even catch it. So, yeah... sorry guys, no photos of it, yay!

 On the 24th of March, I traveled to Sofia to help some friends with a garden they where working on. After the work was done, I headed for the park in southern Sofia, called the South Park. It's a pretty popular place, and some cool animals could be seen there, too. Last September me and Dylan Alfrey went there herping and found some beautiful Grass and Dice snakes, as well as European pond turtles and some Red-eared Sliders. So, after the garden work was done, I decided to visit it once again.

The stunningly beautiful ponds in the southern part of  South Park. Here I find most interesting animals I see in Sofia.

Some ducks are swimming in the ponds as well, alongside the snakes and turtles. There's also a ton of fish and crayfish.

Some more landscape shots.

A dead duck, probably killed by a dog. A sad sight, indeed, but it cannot be helped in the park, where dogs interact with wild animals.

And here's my first snake of the year. It's a totally ordinary Grass snake, but it still was a cool find.

Challenge for all of my fellow herpers: Try to find a snake while listening to music. It's A LOT harder than it sounds. :P
Red-eared Slider. They aren't native to Bulgaria, but a lot of irresponsible pet owners release them in the wild, resulting in them creating a fairly stable population.

Some more shots of the same individual.

 Now, time for some videos! ;P Sorry for the awful quallity, but the Grass snake wraped itself around my phone earlier and covered my camera with mud.