Herping the Siouxland
Snakes of the
Tom Jessen (TJ)
Southern Minnesota Biological Survey
(Check out the latest research information down
Since I was 10 years old I’ve had a burning desire to pick up and
examine all sorts of squirming creatures. I was lucky enough to have been raised
up on a farm just a few miles west of The Blue Mound in SW Minnesota and about
south of The Pipestone National Monument.
(Both of these places had a tremendous
amount of early childhood influence on me.)
Rock County is famous for its Sioux
Quartzite outcropping. I encountered my first Fox Snake in 1968 on my Uncle
Elmer’s farm near Jasper. And despite the fact that the poor thing had just gone
through a baling machine and was badly mangled…I was still fascinated. Since
then I’ve been bringing home all manner of strange creatures.
After graduating from Luverne High School in 1976 I traded Quartzite for
Dolomite when I moved to Mankato. After 20 years of Prairie Grass and Corn…the
vast wooded areas of the Minnesota River Valley and it’s Limestone Formations
seemed like a tropical rain forest and it has been my beloved new home ever
since. Its here I began my slightly extended (and dubious) career as a college
In June of 1995
I started field research for the Minnesota DNR. (Dept. of Natural Resources)
In ‘95 and ‘96 I went back out to SW Minn. to monitor
some newly discovered isolated colonies of Blandings Turtles. From 1997 to 1999
I was part of the Minnesota County Biological Survey concentrating most of my time in the Minnesota River Valley.
the next 2 years pounding nails and building instruments.
In 2002 I started
working for South Dakota conducting field surveys for Reptiles and Amphibians of
the eastern counties.
Since 2000, South Dakota has begun to map out its wildlife
and I signed up for the
Program Small Grants Program.
In 2006 and 2007 I worked, once again, for the
Minnesota County Biological Survey.
From April to October I drive around
(and sometimes live in) my 1990 Chevy Lumina mini-van.
(I took out the seats and made a
nice little traveling field lab and apartment on wheels.)
Since 2008 I've been busy researching a newly discovered population of
Blandings Turtles in south central Minnesota. That work continues to
The search continues for Blandings Turtles!
(A state threatened species) We are still looking for
reports and sightings of these rare and reclusive Turtles in the SW and south central counties of
If you find a
Turtle with a bright yellow chin and throat and it looks like its Smiling at
you...PLEASE: Leave it Alone and DON'T bring it home as a "Pet" !!!
If you can...take a good close-up photo, let it go on it's way and contact me.
Actually...If at all possible...try to take as many detailed photos as you can.
(Especially of the chin, throat and belly) The belly pattern on each Turtle is
different (kind of like a finger-print) and we use these to identify each
Part of the Blandings Turtle project involves radio telemetry.
month of April, turtles are captured and a small radio transmitter is
attached to the back of the shell. Each radio emits a beep on a certain
frequency, and as you turn the antenna towards the radioed turtle, the
receiver picks up the signal and the beep gets louder and louder the
closer you get.
Here you can see one
of the small devices attached to a Blandings Turtle. They are glued on with a
rubber epoxy and eventually fall off if the battery wears out and the signal
We've already found a lot of
really cool and surprising information on the life habits and wanderings of
these ancient Turtles. The data is still being entered into the state natural
heritage data-base and more info will be available as soon as we know more.
In the Spring of 2006,
I returned to scanning the wetlands of SW Minnesota for
Amphibians. (After spending the previous 4 Spring seasons in Eastern South
Dakota.) "Scanning" means driving around from sundown till 2 or 3 in the morning
listening for the mating calls of Frogs and Toads. It was great fun until it got
really expensive. Fortunately, I just finished up the latest contract with the
DNR just at about the time when gas prices hit $ crazy! Lately I've been doing a
lot of field research from the seat of my bicycle.
Anyway...There is a list of "target species" that we concentrate on looking for.
These are the ones that are classified as somewhere between "not quite so
common" to "critically endangered". For example: Garter Snakes, Painted
Turtles, and Leopard Frogs are still fairly abundant so I don't stop and take a
photo of every single one of those I find. (I do however, keep track in my
journal, of every single Reptile and Amphibian and other critters that I encounter)
The Blandings Turtle, of course, is on this list. And there are several other kinds of
Amphibians that we are monitoring including these two:
Gray Tree Frog
and the Great Plains Toad
Tree Frogs are small, about an inch and a
half long and can change color from gray to green to match their surroundings.
They are extremely difficult to see although their call can be heard from quite a distance, and kind of sounds like a short
metallic "belch". They live in groves of trees for most of the year and during
the breeding season, travel (sometimes great distances) to pools of standing
water. Breeding season lasts from early May through June. Although Tree Frogs
will occasionally call 'just for fun' all the way thru summer on warm muggy
Tree Frogs seem to absent from the six SW Minn. counties. They are abundant in
Watonwan, Brown and Martin counties wherever there are trees and standing water. I have
been gathering evidence since 2006 that Tree Frogs may be expanding their range
farther west. They seem to be colonizing the corridors along the 3 branches of
the Watonwan River and Elm Creek.
spring I heard them calling in several places 2-3 miles farther west than last
year and the year before. They seem to go only so far, then go silent even tho
there is favorable habitat farther to the west. (This is a long term project and it is way too soon
to announce these findings officially.) This has become my own pet project and I
am already looking forward
to next year so I can "pick up the trail" once again. I absolutely Love
these weird little things! It's just about the closest you can get to actually
meeting a little buggy-eyed space alien!
This past June, after those heavy rains we had, I heard more Tree Frogs
than ever before,
calling from nearly Every damp portion of the landscape!!! (Flooded fields,
backwater areas along creeks and even road-side ditches!)
say...Spring 2008 was Great for Amphibians!
And those heavy June rains produced another big surprise: On the
evening of June 7...Great Plains Toads
(Bufo cognatus) were heard calling in Watonwan county!!! The very first time
this species has ever been documented this far East!
are a little different than our more common American Toad: They have big dark
circular blotches on their back. (Common Toads are a lot more speckled) And
while American Toads have a nice sweet sounding "tinkly" kind of trill that
lasts from 5-20 seconds at a time...the Plains Toads emit an ear-shattering
metallic jack-hammer like trill that lasts from 20 seconds to a minute long.
sound can be truly deafening at close range!!!)
are fairly common in the western states and, in the past, have been documented
in every SW county in Minnesota. However...During the last 2 years (2006 and
2007) the Minnesota County Biological Survey failed to find any of them in the
areas where they were previously documented. The conditions have to be just
right for these Toads to call and reproduce: Intense heavy downpours and
temporary standing pools of water. ('06 and '07 were Not good years for this) So
it was a huge (and pleasant) surprise when the flooded fields of my own
immediate neighborhood produced not only favorable conditions...but the Toads
that went with it! I have been scanning this area since 1997 and have Never
heard a Plains Toad around here.
Now all of a sudden within a space of one week I found at least 18 different
locations where Plains Toads were heard calling! Where they have been hiding all
this time and how they can survive so many long years without reproducing is
still a mystery. And to add to the puzzle: almost every single one of those
flooded fields completely dried up in just 2 weeks or so. Not barely enough time
for the eggs to hatch, the tadpoles to 'morph' and for the baby toads to leave
the water. (The tiling and drainage of the cropland is proving most effective as
our society favors Corn over Toads)
Still...It would seem that a
considerable number of Great Plains Toads have beaten the odds and are still
here among us. One thing's for sure: I'm gonna be hittin the brakes and stopping
to closely look at Every single tiny Toad that crosses my path from now on. You
just don't know when the next totally unexpected surprising thing will pop
September is Salamander month!
The cool Autumn rains bring the Salamanders out and this year I am happy to
announce I saw a Lot more than last year!
I didn't get much of a chance to scan as much of Watonwan county as previous
years but instead concentrated around an area of ponds and wetlands not far from
There was one particular stretch of gravel road where up to 3 at a time could be
seen out walking around! Usually only one or two were visible at a time...and I
made it a point to stop and look at each and every one. There seems to be Huge
portions of the landscape where they are simply not seen anymore...but in
certain areas where conditions are favorable...they are still fairly abundant.
And BIG, too! This year I found 2 of the biggest and most beautifully colored
Tiger SalamandersI've ever seen!
And some of them even behave and pose nicely for the camera. How can anyone
resist a face like this?