Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Why are there no Christmas herp counts? I heard a talk show discussing the Christmas bird count, a nationwide survey of birds that takes place around Christmas every year. We herpers probably couldn’t canvass the entire country, but we could cover a lot of ground. Of course the time of the year would have to be changed to a warmer time of year. So an Easter herp count? A May Day herp count? The spring might be better, but I did go herping on Christmas this year, as well as the day after. I came out okay, so maybe the Christmas herp count isn’t completely implausible.

I was back in Roswell Georgia at the in-laws’, eating very well and taking part in the festivities. For Christmas I got Whit Gibbons’ Their Blood Runs Cold to add to my herping literature collection as well as some nice topographical maps for PA State Game Lands 106 and 110. I’m not getting lost again out there. I also got money, some of which I quickly spent on The Herpetology of China, by Kraig Adler Zhao, and a gift card to Barnes and Noble, which I exchanged towards Henry Fitch’s A Kansas Snake Community: Composition and Changes Over 50 Years, a classic work on herpetological ecology. Wow, all this really could give someone the impression that I’m obsessed.

Anyhow, I popped outside on Christmas to check out the ravine behind the house. The ravine is densely wooded and cut by a couple small brooks running down to a pond at the bottom.

It is home to a surprisingly large variety of herps, including American toads (Bufo a. americanus), southern two-lined salamanders (Eurycea cirrigera), midland brown snakes (Storeria dekayi wrightorum), southern black racers (Coluber constrictor priapus), eastern box turtles (Terrepene carolina carolina), and northern ringneck snakes (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii). The housing subdivision is relatively new (built in the last ten years or so), so I’m not optimistic about the future herp diversity there, but for the time being it’s worth poking around.

I worked the rocky sections of the two brooks.

I say ‘rocky sections’ because the two brooks are heavily silted by runoff from the pavement and lawns above – one reason for the pessimism I mentioned above.

I was nearly finished and figuring my winter salamandering luck hadn’t flown south with me when I checked out a rock at the start of my last section of un-silted rocks. I saw a stocky, dark salamander dart out. I reached for it, but it made it into a clump of leaves, and I think from there into a crevice or hole in the bank since I had no luck sifting through the leaves. By the size, shape, and where I found it, I am pretty sure it was some kind of dusky salamander (Desmognathus species).

The day after Christmas I went for my run at the park I mentioned in my post on November 22, 2005. I decided not to bring my camera. This was a hard decision. It’s a pain in the butt to carry my camera while running, but I’m superstitious enough to believe that not carrying it will guarantee seeing something I’ll want to photograph, in the same sense that forgetting your umbrella makes it rain.

I love the running back there. After about a half mile warm up out of the subdivision and through the Super Target strip mall parking lot, the 2.25 mile trail is a lot of fun, twisty, up and down running. I stopped twice to look for herps.

The first stop was at what looked like a vernal pool in at a low-lying spot in the woods. I wondered if I might poke around for amphibians at the edge of the water, but I sank into the mud before I got very close. I don’t like running in water-logged sneakers, so I turned back, and tried one soggy log before getting back to the trail.

Sure enough, there was a frog under that log – a small (one inch) green frog (Rana clamitans melanota). It was so cool and so calm. I felt kind of sorry for it. They must be so helpless when raccoons or foxes find them like that. I put it down next to its soggy log and ran for another mile and a half. Towards the end of the loop the path runs across and then along a small stream. I had meant to finish the trail and run straight back to the house. Wasn’t one find enough for incidental herping?

No, not when the stream was right there. I just hopped the bank, and there I was with perfect rocks all around me. I peeked under no more than four or five before I found a small (about 1.25”) dark salamander. It hid in some leaves at the bottom, and I gently scooped up the leaves in my hands to take a closer look at it. It had a dark brown back and no pattern. I was sure it was a young dusky, but these can be tricky to tell apart, so I was looking for any clues that could help. I checked its belly and saw right through to its internal organs, a scene dominated by a red blob that I think was the liver. It had a sharply keeled tail, but that’s all I could tell right there and then. I let it go next to its rock, and kept moving up.

I jumped up to another stretch of the stream and soon found something even more exciting: a group of smaller (.75”) larvae clustered together under a rock. This rock was not immersed, but rather lay at a 45 degree angle with a sheet of water trickling beneath it along the sandy bed. The little guys scattered. There was a small pool beneath in which I spotted a crayfish as I tried to fish out one of the little guys. I finally got one in hand and checked the back. This time I did see a pattern. I made out four pale spots on each side of its back on a dark brown background.

It was somehow poetically correct to find a big adult a few feet away. I turned over the rock and saw a salamander head retract into a hole. I dug my hand into the sand about six inches behind, and scooped up a five inch dusky. But what kind of dusky was it? I can never remember everything I should be looking for (and believe me, it gets really detailed, like whether the bottom of the base of the tail is wider than it is tall, how sinuous the line of the mouth is, how many costal grooves), so I checked what I could remember: the pattern and the keel on the tail.

Its back was a solid dark brown – no pattern I could make out except just above the belly on each side where there were rows of pin-point white dots. I checked the belly and found heavy dark gray mottling. The tail was sharply keeled with the keel starting about one-third down.

Back at the house I checked my herping bible, Reptiles and Amphibians, Eastern/Central North America by Conant and Collins. By range I narrowed it down to three desmognathus species: the seal salamander (D. monticola), the spotted dusky (D. fuscus conantii, or the mountain dusky (D. achrophaeus). The mountain dusky has a round tail, so that one was out. I had a hard time between the other two, and I could be wrong here, but I went with the pattern on that one larvae as the kicker. Mountain dusky larvae have their spots laid out in a zig zag along a lighter center stripe, while seal larvae have their spots in neat, symmetrical rows of four and a dark background, which was exactly what I had found. The pictures of seal salamanders in my books have bold squiggly patterns on light backgrounds, but my Conant and Collins do confirm that at the southern end of the range they tend to have fainter patterns and that older adults can be dark, solid, purple/brown and have white bellies mottled with gray and brown. James Petranka’s Salamanders of the United States and Canada mentions the keel starting one-third of the way down the tail of the seal salamander as well, making me surer of the identification.

Totals for December 25-26, 2005:

- 1 mystery dusky salamander
- 6 seal salamanders
- 1 green frog

This weekend I mean to herp in the New Year, this time back in the tri-state area.

Here are a couple more discoveries:

Someone just turned me on to the Center for North American Herpetology’s publications page, which has tons of great PDFs of journal articles for free downloading. This is a great resource for herp enthusiasts like me are out of school and miss the easy access to journal articles. I’ve added the CNAH’s website to the links to the right.

I also just discovered an organization called PARC, a public/private partnership that promotes herpetological conservation best practices by governments as well as by private individuals. I’ve added a link to their site as well.

Happy holidays, and have a Herpy New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Still leery of this whole winter salamandering idea? I admit I was too. Part of my problem is that I don’t know too many vernal pools, and I certainly don’t know if any within half an hour of my apartment. I keep meaning to drive over to South Jersey and visit some possibilities, but I haven’t had the time yet.

I did have time to visit the Wissahickon Valley section of Fairmont Park on Sunday (December 18, 2005) afternoon, though. The sky was sunny and the temperature was somewhere around 40 degrees. The stubborn three inches of snow that had stuck around since the last snow storm had been melting for a few days, so the sun had had a chance to warm the ground a little.

We started with a streambed in which we’ve found two-lined salamanders (Eurycea bislineata) and longtailed salamanders (Eurycea longicaudia longicaudia). We tried a lot of rocks and found nothing, not even the worms and other invertebrates that usually hang out under rocks in streambeds. We gave up and walked around a little. It was a beautiful day to wander around in the woods.

On our way back down towards Forbidden Drive and the parking lot, we decided to work a southwest-facing hillside next to the path. Almost all the snow was gone, but in this picture you can see a few patches.

The photo is blurry, but it serves to emphasize that it was not all that warm out. Still, this was the warmest patch in the woods just then, so we gave it a shot.

The hillside was littered with flat rocks, and we focused our efforts on flipping them over, and, of course, putting them back how we had found them. We saw lots of beetles, roaches, and some centipedes – all encouraging. We worked up and up, keeping our eyes on the shadow of the opposite hill rising to overtake us as the sun set. After ten minutes Jen shouted that she had found something, and I ran across the slope to see.

It was a redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)!

It was slow and groggy, all understandable given the temperature. We hassled it for a couple shots before returning it to its rock, which you can see in this photo.

We kept looking for twenty minutes, but gave up once the sun had fallen out of sight and the shadow had completely covered the slope. It was only one salamander in an hour of looking in perfect habitat, but it was my first winter salamander.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Yesterday (December 17, 2005) I went out to check for salamanders in a Philadelphia city park. I found nothing. This was not entirely a surprise; the temperature was in the low 40s, and the ground had been covered with snow a couple days before. The salamanders I was looking for are redbacks (Plethodon cinereus), and I haven’t read many accounts of finding them in winter.

Other species are active in winter, such as the ambystomids (remember the marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum)) actually breed in the winter or on cold fall or spring days. Many stream salamanders remain findable if not exactly highly active during the winter, and I’ve read on the herping forums that one can find them if one looks.

Here is where I found nothing – a steep incline where I’ve found redbacks on cool, but not cold, spring and fall days. Here is an action shot of a redback I found in the spring at Valley Forge.

I am going to be going winter salamandering this winter. Winter is not highly rated for herping, but, as the sage said, herp activity records often reflect the activity patterns of herpetologists rather than herps. You’ve heard that line, haven’t you? So in the next few months I’ll be looking for critters on days that really don’t look like they should be good days for the critters. Wish me luck.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Somehow with all the worm snakes (Carphophis amoenus) I've found this summer (5?), I hadn't managed to get a good picture until the last three on October 1 in Winslow WMA in New Jersey. The first picture is of one sitting just how I saw it when I lifted the board.

The next picture is of the worm snake caught seconds before and a few feet away. Note two things. One is that these guys are small. This is a full grown worm snake. The other is that they are very squirmy when you catch them. They do not stay still, but constantly dig their noses at funny angles around your fingers and twist out of your grasp. I can't blame them, but it does make it hard to take quick pictures of them.

This was my most special find of the day: a marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum). The first picture is of the salamander just as I found it under its log.

In the second picture you'll see it starting to get into its defensive posture, with head down and tail up (not quite yet, but it's taking a second to strike the pose). If you compare these to the other salamander pictures I've posted, you'll notice how pudgy it looks. The marbled salamander is from a different family, the ambystomids, than the others I've found this year, all plethodontids.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Why all the in-situ photographs? It was a chilly morning, and I credit the low temperatures for leaving the hiding frogs and salamanders cool and slow. I didn't have to restrain them to take my pictures, since they just sat there for a few moments before trying to get away.

These are from my September 24, 2005 trip to a State Game Land along Jordan Creek in Berks County. It was, as you can see in my post about the trip, a REALLY productive day for the amphibians. It had been a dry month, and they were concentrated along the bank under the flat shale rocks that are so perfect for flipping over.

Now that I look at all the pictures, I realize I should have taken one of a rock before flipping. You can see their outlines in the dark, damp imprints around the frogs or salamanders. Here is a picture of the creek. Not a bad spot to spend a morning.

The most common were smallish (1.5 to 2 inches) pickerel frogs (Rana palustris).

They grow to about twice the size of the ones I was catching, which does make me wonder where all the big ones were hiding. Were they under bigger pieces of cover? Are they less vulnerable to dessication, and thus not so powerfully driven to the edge of the water by the drought?

Most started off a little buried into the gravel and mud. You can see that in this before and after pair.

I found a few green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota) - again about half as big as what I usually count as adults.

I found a lot of salamanders too. I'm kicking myself for not taking pictures of the two-lined salamanders (Eurycea bislineata), but I did get one of this longtailed salamander (Eurycea longicaudia).

I wandered up a dry stream bed from the creek and looked under some logs. I found this redbacked salamander (Plethodon cinereus), one of the first of the fall.

Here's someone who was hopping right out in the open. This is a Fowlers toad (Bufo fowleri). I find lots of these, and this is one of the most yellow I've seen. Maybe it's dirty, I didn't wash it off to check, but I'm curious about how much they vary by substrate.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

It’s picture time again! Yes, this means I’m still taking my time on getting the Brazil stuff posted, but these are some cool photos. I’ll start with my September 10th trip to Valley Forge. Here is a really pretty longtailed salamander (Rurycea longicaudia longicaudia). This was not the brightest one I’ve caught, but I hope you get a sense of how pretty these guys are.

Next are two pictures of pickerel frogs (Rana palustris). The first one is not the best picture I’ve ever taken, but the second one struck me as kind of nice on its log. Both are frogs I followed into the water, through a couple of ricochets, and then back out.

On a different topic, I just got (or, to be more precise, the Walkers got me via a gift card for my birthday) Snakes of the United States and Canada by Ernst and Ernst. I have wanted this book for a while, and now that I have it, I think I’ll be reading it on every commute for the next year. It has an account of every single species of snake in the United States and Canada, and summarizes everything known about each. It's not much use to ID catches, but it is perfect for reading up on what I've found once I get home.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

It’s late now on the night of November 21st that I’m writing this. I haven’t posted in a while, and it feels good to be writing. Our living room is full of boxes and disassembled furniture – my possessions from my old apartment waiting to be unpacked and put together here in our new apartment. One of those boxes contains my herping bible: Roger Conant’s A Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of Eastern & Central North America. This is important because I don’t know what species of slimy salamander I found on October 28th. I did find a possibly weightier opinion on the matter in a book I did locate: James Petranka in Salamanders of the United States and Canada does not recognize all the different species of plethodon glutinosus that Conant does. “My view is that formal taxonomic recognition of genetic subgroups of P. glutinosus is premature and should be deferred until detailed studies of contact zones provide evidence that will lead to a stable nomenclature. Here I do not formally recognize these 13 groups as species, and I refer to all as P. glutinosus.” Who am I to argue with James Petranka? I’ll write it down as glutinosus.

I found the salamander under a chunk of a log in a field in Roswell, Georgia. The log was in a pile of logs about ten yards from the woods in a Roswell city park. I had decided to go for a walk while I waited for my family to show up in Georgia for the rehearsal dinner that night. The park is great for a simple walk in the woods. There’s a 2.25 mile, very hilly trail that, along with the walk from Jen’s parents’ house (past the Super Target), makes for some exercise outdoors when you’re feeling bottled up at your in-laws-to-be deep in the suburbs of northern Fulton County. I had spotted that pile of logs from the trail. Even though it had been a cold night and it was still chilly (55-60 degrees?), the sun was shining. I figured it was worth checking.

I looked under one piece of bark and saw something thin and dark snap back into a hole before I could grab it. A snake? I don’t know. I guess it could have been a worm, but I’ll call it a snake. I tried a few more logs and uncovered a groggy-looking salamander about seven inches long. It was black with white spots, and it left a very sticky secretion on my hand after I had put it back. It was a slimy salamander.

I feel ashamed that I only wrote it down in my database tonight. The sooner I write up my finds the better for remembering the details. I feel just as bad that I haven’t written up my finds in Brazil, but I’m waiting for a CD with several of our photos to be mailed up from Roswell, and I need to have negatives for other pictures scanned (The explanation for this whole mishigas would be long and involve camera failures, disposable backup cameras, and internet access problems back in Philly, but the whole affair has spurred us to finally purchase a digital camera, so this should be the last time I have to wait for photos.). Then I can start asking people what it was that I saw.

I also have a roll of film from a few trips at the beginning of the Fall getting developed, so as soon as we have everything unpacked and put away (sometime after Thanksgiving), I should have the makings of a good series of posts. Until then, enjoy the holiday, and if you don’t already own Conant’s A Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of Eastern & Central North America, get it on your Christmas/Hannukah lists, and never pack it where you can't find it.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Hello. I’m back now from Atlanta and Brazil. I will be moving over this week, so I might not get to the Brazil posts for a week or two. Our idyllic spot on the beach was not the herping wonderland I had hoped for, but it was a fabulous place for a honeymoon, and we had a great time. We did spot a few critters down there. I’m not sure of what a few of them were, but I’ll be working on identifying them. I’ll also be working on what to do for the winter, so please let me know if you’ve got any ideas.

Monday, October 24, 2005

This will probably be my last post for a few weeks. When I return I hope to have lots of stories and pictures from Brazil. I also have some pictures I need to post from the last trips of the late summer.

Even though I am sad that winter is arriving, I am very happy that this blog has accomplished at least one of its goals - getting me in touch with some of the Philly-area herping community. A few people have written me already to share their observations, and I hope to follow some of their recommendations and post the results.

I would like to invite anyone who is interested to post comments or write me. Herpers are often reluctant to post specific locale information in public places (as am I), but I welcome comments at your comfortable level of generality or specificity. I would also invite non-herpers to post their comments as well.

With that, have a great next few weeks, and I look forward to the next post.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Part II begins with me in a similarly dumpy mood to what I drove home in on Sunday. I was driving in my car towards the northwest, and I was wondering if my driving out early in the morning on my day off to hike in cool, pissy weather and find nothing under hundreds of rocks was pathological.

Onward I drove, thinking about gas prices and orange barrels, until I got to State Game Land #___. I had been wondering whether it and the nearby State Game Land #___ (both several square miles of wooded hills) would be good places to find timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) dens – also known as ‘hibernacula’ – or my number one target species right now: northern redbellied snakes (Storeria o. occipitomaculata).

The temperature was in the 50s at that point, and the sky was totally cloudy, but a splash in a puddle next to the parking area gave me a spark of hope. I watched for a moment, and a green face poked out from the middle of the puddle to look around. It was a green frog (Rana clamitans melanota). I find green frogs all the time, but I took it as an indication that the weather was fine for the amphibians if not the snakes.

I started up a dirt road, climbing as I went (from about 500 feet to about 1400). I flipped a couple rocks along the road, and one revealed a smallish redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus). It was almost as long as my hand was wide and was pretty calm thanks to the cool temperatures. I smiled a little to myself.

I was looking for a south-facing hillside. I checked my compass as I went. My own sense of direction is horrible, and Jen got me the compass to keep me from getting lost. Now I was using it to figure out which slope offered the best basking and thus the best habitat for snakes. The road I was on rounded the hill to the left, carrying me in a more westward direction. That made for a south-facing slope, and I descended to investigate.

The area along the road to the left of me – the top of the ridge – had recently been thinned, and piles of logs and brush lined the road to my right. I say ‘thinned’ because there were still some trees standing, though there were patches that were totally cleared. The other side of the piles to my right also looked like it had been thinned, but maybe last year. Tall, gangly oak trees that had obviously grown up in a forest stood every twenty feet or so, but there were some small oak and sassafras saplings growing in between. The floor of this sparse forest was covered by rocks and logs. I went a little ways down the hill, turned to an uphill angle, and started my way back to the road, looking under rocks and logs as I went.

I have read that redback salamanders might be the most numerous vertebrates in the forests in which they occur, and days like last Monday make me believe it. Almost every-other rock or log I turned over sheltered a redback.

I go through a standard series of reactions at finding lots of redback salamanders: First, I’m blown away by how pretty they are. The rich red of their backs stands out beautifully against their lead-grey sides, and the whole ensemble is flecked with tiny sparkly spots. Second, I am amazed that I am finding so many. I find a redback every couple yards and then I look across the hillside, look over the valley at the next wooded hillside, and I realize I’m looking at over several million of the little guys. Third, I am tired of redback salamanders. I wish that they would take a rest and let someone else get found for a change. Fourth, they are a chore. Each must be moved out of the way before putting its rock or log back in order to avoid smashing it. I curse the more active ones that keep scrambling out of my reach, thus delaying the next flip.

After about ten on that hillside, though, I saw something new. It was a small salamander, and I almost thought it was a leadback phase redback, but its spots where bright white dots instead of sparkly flecks. Its tail was too short as well, and I knew it was a slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosus) by the time I had my hand on it.

I have caught these before, so I was aware that ‘slimy’ is a horrible misnomer. ‘Superglue’ salamander would be a better name, since they leave a sticky secretion on the skin that is extremely difficult to wash or rub off. I checked my records just now, and the last time I found one was in 2002. Each of my records back in 2002 and 2001 has a note something like “Wow, these guys really are sticky.” Their adhesiveness is well-known, but it really doesn’t sink in until you’ve spent five minutes trying to pick off bits of a dead leaf that has been cemented to your finger.

The critters were a little more mixed up after that – I found only four more redback salamanders before the next non-redback, this time a wood frog (Rana sylvatica) that bounded ahead of my hands for a few long leaps before totally disappearing into a pile of sticks. I like wood frogs – they’re cute with that little robber’s mask, but they’re not worth the effort of tearing apart piles of much of anything.

Another redback was followed by two slimies as I neared the road. I continued along it, turning over rocks to take a break from walking as I went and finding more and more redbacks under those rocks. From time to time I remembered my original reasons for going to SGA #___ – finding rattlesnake dens and redbellied snakes. I descended south-facing hillsides to investigate rocky outcroppings a couple times, but I found no snakes there, and I was discouraged by the cool, overcast weather. I also looked around a small pond I came by, but I found nothing there except more redback salamanders.

I finally found a snake after my twenty-second redback salamander. It was a northern ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii), quite apropos since about the only thing northern ringneck snakes eat is salamanders. I took a couple pictures of the pretty little snake as it crapped all over my hand, and then I let it go next to its rock. I walked on with a little more spring in my step after the snake, though after it I found only more salamanders – about a dozen or so.

To be fair to myself, I gave up on herping once I realized I was pretty lost. This happens to me a lot; I get lost almost every time I try somewhere out for the first time. I almost invariably go in with an inadequate map and quickly lose myself on it. I usually have a general sense of where I am and what direction I need to head in to get back to the road or parking lot. Now I have the compass so I was able to set myself in that direction back to my car, but the forecast that day called for a greater likelihood of rain later in the afternoon, and I was supposed to be back in time to pick Jen up from the airport. The big unknowns were how far I had gone south before turning east, and how far east I had then walked = no sense of how long it would take me to get back.

I knew I was not where I thought I had been heading. There was a dirt road heading east on the map, but the contour lines were going in all the wrong directions, so I was certainly not on the hillside that road was on. I decided to keep going straight until the first trail to the north, ideally northwest. I continued at a fast pace until I hit just the kind of intersection I had been looking for. I headed back towards the general direction of the parking lot.

I want to point out that this is beautiful country I was lost in. It is not the Andes or the Rockies, but the view out over the wooded hillsides and across to the next ridge was sublime if not breathtaking. I had also never appreciated the beauty of boulder fields. I’m not sure if I’m using that term correctly, but there were sections of hillside that were just acres of tumbled boulders with trees growing out every ten yards or so. They came out as trunks – bases and roots were hidden under the boulders somewhere, giving me the impression that they could continue below indefinitely.

I was now in a darker, denser, wetter forest on the north-facing side of the hill. I had ended up on a path that I was sure was taking me back to my car. I was heading in the right direction and down the right kind of steep slope, with a stream to my right, just where it was supposed to be. Still, when I heard some voices behind me (a little spooky after hours of hiking by myself), I took the moment to drink from my Nalgene until the man with the moustache and the woman with the ponytail caught up. I waved cautiously; they waved cautiously. I said hello; they said hello. I asked for directions, and we soon realized we were heading for the same parking lot.

It was slightly awkward at first – I felt like I was crashing a hiking date – but as we chatted I learned that the man is a fisheries biologist for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which just so happens to be the agency that regulates herp collection in the state. He is not a herpetologist, but he knew a lot about the salamanders of the area and said I could find red salamanders, spotted salamanders, and newts, as well as my more familiar streamside species in that SGA. He mentioned some general areas in that part of the county where there were rattlesnake dens, though I did not ask for specifics and he did not offer any. It's poor form to be pesky about where one can find populations of rare and frequently-poached wildlife.

It was a good trip. I found only one snake, but I scouted a potentially fruitful new area, and I’m planning to go back at least once more this Fall to look for more salamanders and see if I can’t find any snake hibernacula while I’m at it.

Trip Totals:

Green Frogs: 1
Redback Salamanders: 30
Wood Frog: 1
Slimy Salamanders: 4
Northern Ringneck Snake: 1

Monday, October 10, 2005

Columbus Day Weekend Part One:

So, the herping season is drawing to a close. It hit me with a kind of panic when I realized it’s October, the next couple weekends are the two weekends before my wedding (busy with wedding stuff), and the following weekends are the wedding, honeymoon (not that I won’t be herping there. Look out Brazil, here we come!), and then I’ve got to deal with moving in with Jen, which could kill the rest of the weekends in November.

I’m not the only one bumming about Winter coming. I’ve seen posts on the major herping forums from other people in temperate climates lamenting the end of the season. One guy in central Missouri, though, mentioned that he keeps on going out even though it’s cold, and that several times he’s seen snakes basking outside their dens on cold but sunny days in the winter. I’ll give that a shot, but it still feels like I’ll be locked up until March.

So, I went herping twice this weekend. The weather did not cooperate. I had plotted trips back up to northern Berks County, PA and to the Glassboro WMA in Jersey, which is right near the Winslow WMA. All week I had been obsessively checking the weather forecasts in Port Clinton, PA and Glassboro, and by Friday night they were pathetic – cool, overcast, and wet. All this Tammy moisture was great to get things wetter, but I was really pulling for some sunny weather this weekend to make things perfect.

On Sunday I headed for Glassboro. I was not thrilled with the WMA. They do a much better job picking up trash there than at Winslow (which, of course, is a good thing), and the surrounding area seemed yet more suburban than ten miles west. I found one leadback-morph redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus). That was it.

I tried the Winslow WMA, but even checking all my favorite trash I found nothing at all. I drove home depressed.

(Stay tuned for the uplifting Part II!)

Redback salamander: 1

Sunday, October 02, 2005

I need to clean the windshield. I also need to do something about the windshield wipers. Are they dried out? I was driving directly into the rising sun on Saturday morning, and when I hit the windshield washing fluid, the wipers just smeared it into a hazy glowing field that totally blocked out Chestnut Street. By the time I was in New Jersey my angle had changed and the windshield had dried, but it was pretty hard to see for a while.

I learned that there are rattlesnakes near the Winslow Wildlife Management Area. I learned this from a bow hunter I met on the dirt road off the parking area. When I pressed him on whether he had seen a rattle or just had heard a rattling noise (plenty of harmless snakes will rattle their tails in leaf litter to sound like a rattlesnake) he swore he had seen the rattle up in the air. That made me feel like I was further into the barrens than I had thought I was.

The fact that he was walking around with a bow and a whole lot of arrows made me feel good about that bright orange cap I bought last weekend. He assured me that bow hunters take a good bit of time pulling back and aiming, so if someone shot me it would be intentional.

It was a beautiful morning. I had thrilled at the weather forecast – sunny with a low the previous night in the low 50s. If it had rained the night before it would have been perfect, but I was pretty pleased with things as they were. I reached my favorite area after walking a half mile, and I started looking underneath boards. I quickly found two eastern worm snakes (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) about four feet apart.

What a delightful way to start a trip. Both were quite cool to the touch, and neither made much effort to get away. As you will see in the photos once they’re developed, the first one did not squirm very much in the hand, while the other stayed curled up in its sleeping position for thirty seconds and let me take a picture in situ.

I walked on to the famous black rubber mat. After an imagined drum roll I lifted it up to find… a few roaches and maybe a dozen termites milling about aimlessly. Whatever streak I thought I had going there is unmistakably dead.

I was thinking about heading straight back to the car to try some other areas, but after a little going back and forth in my head I decided to try out a patch of woods that is a major dumpsite – boards, old buckets, unidentifiable metal equipment chunks, vinyl flooring material, tar paper, plastic sheeting, and heaps of sections of old telephone poles.

I found absolutely nothing out there in twenty minutes of peeking, but on the way I did stop and look under some logs. I picked up maybe the third section of log with that ripping noise that tells you it’s been sitting there a long time, and I shouted: A marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum)! [I didn't shout the scientific name, just the marbled salamander part]

All these years I’ve been catching salamanders, all have been from the same family. Correction: I have caught newts before, but besides the newts (I mean no disrespect to newts; I love newts), all were from the same family – the plethodontids. Hell, I’m talking about only three genuses in the same family: desmognathus, plethodon, and eurycea. All were fine salamanders, but until Saturday I had never found a salamander from the other really big salamander family for the woods of the eastern USA: the ambystomids. They are not rare, and that is one of the things that has driven me the most nuts: that the ground beneath me is studded with these guys – under stumps, under logs, under leaf litter, under possibly everything I haven’t looked underneath. I’m probably looking at the wrong time of year. A lot of these guys actually mate when it’s really cold out. They wait for rainy nights in the late Fall, early Spring, or even the Winter, and they make long trips over hill and dale to temporary ponds in the woods to mate, lay their eggs, and then schlep all the way back to their hole in the ground to spend the rest of the year where I can’t find them.

The plethodontid salamanders have the same basic shape – long, slender, and sleek. Ambystomids, by contrast, have always struck me as pudgy. They have ridiculously rounded features that make them look like cabbage patch kid versions of real salamanders. Marbled salamanders are some of the pudgiest. If you can get past the fact that they look like cartoons, they are also some of the most beautiful salamanders out there. The one I caught was jet black with broad white bands across its back. I picked it up for another photo, and then I let it go next to its log.

I walked several more miles in the woods on Saturday, and I looked under a lot of trash. The only other luck I had was another worm snake, this time under a tire. There are a lot of tires out there. If I learned anything, it’s that any dirt road leading off a paved road in the Winslow Wildlife Management Area is going to be lined with trash, especially old tires. Is it really that hard to properly dispose of tires?

I also learned that I was right to leave my snake bag in the car. It is illegal to collect herps in Jersey, so there’s really no point in bringing snake collection equipment. I once saw a reference to getting arrested for carrying a snake bag in New Jersey, so all I had in my backpack were my camera, notebook, pens, car keys, compass, and wallet.

This gave the very nice conservation officer no reason to arrest me when he looked in my backpack. He thought it was a little strange someone would drive all the way from Philadelphia to walk around a WMA in Jersey. I owned up to photographing reptiles and amphibians when he asked me if I was collecting any. He said he could respect that, and after checking my bag he wished me well.

I guess I have no complaints about the interaction. He was perfectly respectful, even friendly. I guess my complaint is with the rules he is enforcing. I have the same complaint that most herpers have about blanket collection restrictions: we can get in trouble for taking home one little worm snake – a species at no risk whatsoever from overcollection - while no one seems to care about the millions of herps getting paved over or turned under for development every year. I completely agree that some species benefit from collection bans – box turtles (Terrepene carolina carolina) or pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus) – or that collection should be subject to strict permitting and tight bag limits, but this kind of blanket ban on collecting just wastes the time and resources of the enforcement personnel and alienates a group of wildlife enthusiasts who are otherwise staunch conservationists.

Trip Totals:

Eastern Worm Snakes: 3
Marbled Salamander: 1

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Here are some photos from the September 4th trip to Blue Marsh Lake.

First, here's a shot of Jen in the streambed at a small waterfall.

Here are two pictures of a big, relatively darkly spotted longtail salamander (Eurycea longicaudia longicaudia). We only found these at the mouth of the stream.

Here is a smaller longtail. Most I have caught look more like this one, with brighter yellow and less spotting.

Here is a two lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata). We found these from the base of the stream as far up as we looked.

Here is a tiny (1/2 inch) northern dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus). It was so tiny and delicate I hated to handle it even to take a picture, but you can see how beautiful it is.

Here are a couple adult northern duskies Jen found under a rock together.

Here is the pickerel frog that caused so much excitement. The first picture is of the frog in the stream bed, and the second is of the frog in the container - we were trying to snap the picture before it could jump out.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Today I bought myself a fluorescent orange baseball cap. It’s so bright it hurts to look at. Jen laughed hard when she saw me put it on in Dick’s Sporting Goods. She said she’s glad there are still several weeks until the wedding so she can think about it, now that she’s seen me in that cap.

I bought it on the advice of a man I met on Saturday at State Game Land #205 in Lehigh County. He wore a similarly orange strap around his shoulder and waist, and his hound wore a collar of the same orange and a small bell. When I met him on a dirt road bordering one of the food plots at the edge of Jordan Creek, I had just noticed some spent shotgun cartridges on the ground. He carried no gun, but I asked him if anything was in season. I had looked this up a couple weeks ago when I had decided to explore the State Game Lands nearest to Philadelphia, and I didn’t think anyone was supposed to be out shooting anything. He replied that groundhogs are always in season (long distance shooting, at two or three-hundred yards - easy to make mistakes at long distances), that there are always some idiots running around shooting other things out of season, and that I really should wear some orange to “take away any of the guess work.”

I don’t think I look like a groundhog, but I don’t think I want to get shot either, so I spent the two dollars on the cheap orange cap to wear when I’m out where people are running around with guns.

Jen said she doesn’t want to look for critters anywhere near where people are running around with guns (her reason for declining my offer to buy her a cap too), but I think these State Game Lands are fabulous. A fellow herper from Jersey recommended their Wildlife Management Areas, and like the WMAs, State Game Lands are areas of ‘wild’ land maintained by the state for fishing and hunting. They tend to attract relatively few hikers, they are crisscrossed with dirt roads that are easy to walk along, and, if they're like the WMAs, they are chock full of illegal dumping sites.

The one problem is all the shooting. These State Game Lands often have shooting ranges. Men (haven’t seen any women yet) will also just set up in the parking lots and shoot skeet. I’ve been careful to choose routes well away from these men with guns, but I still flinch every time I hear a shotgun blast from a quarter mile away.

I found no snakes on Saturday when I went out to #205 (I had tried another one in Chester County last week with no luck whatsoever), but I hit it really big in frogs and salamanders. I worked the banks of Jordan Creek and some of the neighboring hillsides. It was a beautiful morning (partly cloudy, low 60s) and a beautiful setting. The creek winds in long curves, and the hills come out steep from the banks. The leaves have just started to fall, so the trees rise out of a thin orange carpet to a still-dark canopy.

The hillsides are shale, which makes for fabulous rock flipping. The dark, flat rocks are great shelter for critters and are really easy to lift up. The smaller rocks are great for skipping in case you want to take a break.

There were stretches where I was finding something under every-other rock. I am not exaggerating. It got to where I was making a special point of stepping only on patches of very small stones, since I had to assume that the larger rocks were home to somebody.

The first critters I found were small (about one inch) green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota). I found one gorgeous red back salamander (Plethodon cinereus) maybe sixty yards up a dry ravine from the creek, I found a few very bright long tailed salamanders (Eurycea longicaudia longicaudia) along the banks, and one small, unusually yellow Fowler’s toad (Bufo fowleri) hopped across my path. The big winners of the day were the pickerel frogs (Rana palustris) and the two lined salamanders (Eurycea bislineata bislineata). Maybe they were concentrated along the water’s edge by the dry weather, but these guys were under almost every rock.

They were docile too. The low temperature the night before had been in the 50s, and most were still cool to the touch, which is why I think they let themselves be handled so easily. Not that I handled them very much – mostly just to pick them out of the way before I put the rock back down. That’s an important herping rule, but the way: always put the piece of cover down first, and then release the animal next to it. They’ll find their way back underneath, and you don’t want to risk crushing anyone.

The frogs tended to be well pressed into the gravel beneath the rocks, but the two lined salamanders frequently retreated into crayfish burrows. I saw a few of the crayfish. There’s something very cute about how they retreat backwards into their holes with their little claws raised and open. I wonder if they share space with salamanders or whether the salamanders just move in when the crayfish leave.

I tried an area near another parking lot at #205, but it was just some dry fields and scrubby forest I couldn’t hack my way through. I looked at my road map of Pennsylvania and decided to try a patch of state forest off of I-78 near Port Clinton. I took route 61 north off the interstate, made the sharp right turn onto the dirt road off of 61, and then started to climb all the way (about 700 feet) to the top of the ridge. I parked my car at the head of a trail starting down the south slope of the ridge and paused to read a sign stapled to a dead tree.

I swore out loud to read that they were conducting a study of reptiles and amphibians in that patch of state forest, and no herps were to be collected, molested, or even touched. Rock formations were also off limits since they were important to the study. On a certain level I was glad about the study, and the survey itself seemed to validate my hunch that this would be a good place to go herping. The thought of looking under their cover board arrays did cross my mind, but I respect their study, and I gave up the hunt.

Now while I was pissed off to have driven an extra half hour and climbed seven hundred feet up a steep gravel road in the Ford Contour to find my intended activity forbidden, I was intrigued by the mention of the formations. There are other state forests and state game lands on ridges in central PA, and they can’t all be closed to herping. I think next week I might drive out to the nearest I can find and try the south slope early in the morning. In my relatively brief life of herping I have seen no wild timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), and now is the season for them to be gathering back at their dens for the winter.

Trip Totals:

Green Frogs: 5
Pickerel Frogs: 14
Fowlers Toads: 1
Long Tailed Salamanders: 3
Red Back Salamanders: 1
Two Lined Salamanders: 15

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Last Saturday I headed to Valley Forge to catch northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon sipedon), queen snakes (Regina septemvittata), and copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen). I found no water snakes, no queen snakes, and no copperheads, but I did find lots of salamanders, and I think I’ve gotten the hang of telling pickerel frogs (Rana palustris) from the local leopard frogs (Rana pipiens and Rana ultricularia) – a minor personal victory.

I started off looking to turn over rocks in the scree fields (I love that term) on the south and east-facing slopes of Mount Misery, where I understand there is a population of copperheads. I did turn over a lot of rocks, but the scree fields were really big, the rocks were heavy, and I gave up to work the streams (again I was too lazy to keep after the snakes).

I had a lot of salamander luck in the streams. I started with a couple redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). I remembered how beautiful redbacks are. These are small, slender salamanders with rich orange/red backs and sparkly lead-grey flanks. There is a common variation called the leadback salamander that is sparkly lead-grey all over. They are probably the most common terrestrial vertebrates in the Northeast. They live under nearly every rock and log in Pennsylvania forests, but during dry, warm weather they tend to stay deep in cracks underground, and you see them most often in Spring and Fall when the weather is cooler and damper. Jen and I found over forty in a couple hours near Green Lane Reservoir in April, but I haven’t seen any since May. Like every beautiful thing I see everywhere, I’m only startled when I haven’t seen them in a while.

I followed the redbacks with several two-lined salamanders (Eurycea bislineata) along the same creek, and then headed for Valley Creek, which runs between Mount Misery and Mount Joy to the east. I was looking for water snakes (very common snakes that eat mostly frogs and fish) and queen snakes (rarer snakes that only eat crayfish that have recently molted – isn’t that the strangest diet you’ve ever heard of?).

I flipped rocks in several spots along the waters edge (some day I’m going to count rocks I flip), and I quickly found a couple frogs that I think were green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota – they got away before I could get a good look), two large and pretty longtail salamanders (Eurycea longicaudia longicaudia), and a pickerel frog (Rana palustris). I didn’t know it was a pickerel frog at the time; I initially noted this frog that hopped away into the stilt grass was a northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens).

I took a few minutes to study tadpoles. There were scores of little (1/2 inch), fat tadpoles in a pool off the side of the creek, and since I had brought the net, I decided to use it. I fished out a couple of them and dropped them into my plastic deli container. As so often happens, I decided they were beautiful. From overhead in the pool they look like swimming dots. At eye level five inches in front of your face, though, you can see the gold and bronze squiggly spots all over their sides.

It was getting warm, so I gave up on finding snakes and headed across the Schuylkill to the north bank. I had never been on that side, and I have to say it was pretty boring hiking – flat featureless woods. I turned back after about a mile and decided to go home. There was one little brook on the way back, though, ugly, windy, and carved deep into the ground. I needed to check it out, in the sense that I walked over the bridge and past it, but felt nagged with curiosity increasing with each step beyond. I turned back, headed up the brook, and approached the edge where it looked easy to hop down.

I was greeted with a ‘meep,’ splash, and then several meepless splashes. I drew my net and jumped in.

The first frog I caught was a dead one. It was resting belly-up in the shallow, slow-moving water. I fished it out to take a closer look – if I could positively ID this one, I could infer the identities of those I didn’t catch with greater certainty. Its back was marked with blocky blotches arranged in broad rows, and the insides of its thighs were a light yellow. This indeed was a pickerel frog, and since it looked a lot like the one that had hopped away in Valley Creek, I switched my earlier identification.

It took me a lot of time to catch the next frog. The net did not work as well as I had hoped on live frogs, the reason being that pickerel frogs do not stay put on the bottom after they jump in. It took me a few fruitless fishings around at the bottom to figure this out: pickerel frogs jump into the water (with no meep), then ricochet off the bottom at sharp angles at least twice, and then climb out five or six feet away. If you look for them at the puff of silt at the bottom, they won’t be there, and if you look for them along a straight line extended beyond that puff of silt from the point on land from which they jumped, they won’t be there either.

Eventually I was able to fish one out with the net and see that it looked identical to the dead frog I had examined. I watched several more do their jump-bounce-bounce-and-out routine, and I got pretty good at finding them at the end of their dives.

There were a couple frogs that I did not see but did hear jump in with meeps, and I assume they were green frogs. I saw a couple small toads that I thought were American toads (Bufo americanus americanus), and in flipping some more rocks (hello? Queen snakes? Where are you?) I found a small longtailed salamander, which, perhaps due to its youth, had the shortest-looking tail I’d seen so far on a longtailed salamander.

Now for a rant: Valley Forge is a mess, and I don’t think I enjoy herping there. It’s near Philadelphia, and there are herps there, but the place is overrun with people and with deer. The deer don’t get in the way as much as the people do, but they do wreck the forests – eating all the native vegetation and facilitating the spread of the exotic Japanese stilt grass. I know I can’t begrudge all the people using the park. I am, of course, no more entitled to enjoy it than they are, and I’m not someone who seeks out ‘pristine’ landscapes devoid of humans (such landscapes are a romantic myth). I just don’t think you see as many snakes and other critters wandering around on their own with that many people. Not that I see lots of snakes just wandering around in front of me, but I do think of that big black rat snake I spotted in New Jersey a few months ago. I don’t think I would have found it if I hadn’t been the only one walking around there that morning.

Totals for the trip:

Pickerel Frogs: 12 (including one dead)
Longtailed salamanders: 3
Green Frogs (?): 3
American Toads: 2
Redback Salamanders: 2
Two-lined Salamanders: 3

Thursday, September 15, 2005

It's picture time!

Here are some photos we took in August at Carl and Elsie's wedding in MA.

Can you find the green frog (Rana clamitans melanota) in this picture?

How about this one?

Can you spot the American toad (Bufo americanus) in this picture? Jen did.

Here it is in her hands. Adorable, no?

Here's another American toad she spotted, a grown up.

Finally, something I found: a garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis).

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Jen and I had a really good amphibian trip on Sunday. It didn’t start out as an amphibian trip, but, like a lot of my trips out into the hills during the summer, it turned into one. On one level it feels like wimping out – that I’m not smart enough, I’m not persistent enough, or I’m not tough enough to get up early enough in the morning to find snakes, so I fall back on flipping rocks in streams.

But I really do enjoy finding salamanders and frogs. I don’t think I enjoy finding salamanders as much as finding snakes, but when the snakes don’t come easy or I’m not out at the right time of day and year for snakes, I’ll settle for a good time with the amphibians.

We found three salamander species on this trip: longtail salamanders (Eurycea longicaudia longicaudia), two-lined salamanders (Eurycea bislineata bislineata), and northern dusky salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus fuscus).

Longtails are my newest friends. They are beautiful salamanders. They are a bright buttercup yellow with black spots, and they have a very graceful look to them; they indeed have long tails, and they have slender bodies with distinct, almost cartoonish heads.

The two-lined salamanders are old friends. I caught lots of them in Ohio, I caught two of the southern two-lined species pretty regularly in northern Georgia (the blueridge two-lined salamanders, Eurycea wilderae, are gorgeous – a really bright orange yellow with stripes), and near Baltimore there was one stream where I found them under nearly every rock I flipped.

I’ve caught northern duskies only a few times, in Ohio, but the genus has several representatives in northern Georgia, and I’ve had a really good time going after blackbellied salamanders (Desmognathus quadromaculatus) up there. The problem with the duskies is that they all look pretty much the same. The blackbellied salamanders are bigger and have the black belly to ID them, but most of the rest can be really tricky if you’re where their ranges overlap. The guidebook has very lucid instructions for telling them all apart, but I invariably find myself at the edge of the stream with a muddy salamander with a vague pattern down the back, and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to be looking at – whether it’s the latter third or latter half of the tail that’s strongly flattened? Luckily for me, Berks County only has one species, the northern dusky. Still, that one species is supposed to look a little different than what I was catching – they were supposed to be lighter than they were, and the baby that I caught was supposed to have yellowish spots on the back, not dark brown.

We were hiking around the southern edge of Blue Marsh Lake. I think the area merits much more exploring, and we only checked out a couple streams. I’ll focus on the second stream for this entry.

We started at the mouth of the stream, where it fans out and leaves a pile of driftwood at what on the map is a wavy tentacle of the reservoir. We immediately found several longtails and two-lines. I was a little surprised by how pretty the two-lined salamanders were. At eye-level they are simply little yellow salamanders with two dark lines setting off a darker yellow back. Seen from above, though, they are black and yellow brushstrokes, parallel lines swept into a graceful curve against the brown gravel. The smaller longtails were equally striking, but with a totally different geometry. They were almost the same colors (the two-lines are a tad greener), but, with the black dashes and slightly more enunciated features, they fit in more with the texture of the substrate if not its palette.

Most of the longtails were on the smaller side, about two and a half inches, and several of these were sharing space under logs with two-lines. Two were bigger, and of those one was a giant, at least five inches long and darker than most.

We started working our way up, climbing a small waterfall and flipping rocks in the ledges the stream descended on its way to the reservoir. We saw no more longtails once we moved past the mouth, but the two-lines stuck around. I was just thinking to myself, ‘I wonder why there aren’t any duskies,’ when I flipped a rock and saw a tiny little gem: a half-inch little dusky salamander. Its pattern was a pretty brown on brown – the row of twin large spots down the back, a greyer brown on the redder brown background. I still have to get the film developed, but I’m hoping the pictures turn out. I’m still getting the hang of my macro lenses, but it’ll be cool to compare this little guy to the two Jen found next.

These were older duskies. They were sharing a rock and were not too hard to catch (or Jen is really good). One was fatter than the other, but both were about three and a half inches long. They were dark brown with their backs indistinctly set off as a lighter brown. If the Eurycea salamanders are miniature masterpieces of yellow and black, these duskies were like animated mud. I’ll argue the beauty of most salamanders, but these guys were just dumpy.

We ended the trip with a frog. I had decided to take a break on salamanders, and I climbed up the hill on one side of the stream to look under logs. I was quite a way up this very steep slope when Jen started hollering that she had found something. I turned and headed straight back down the hill about as fast as it is possible to move down a very steep wooded slope, and arrived in the middle of the stream covered in burs and spider webs but otherwise intact.

The frog had taken refuge under some roots at the edge of the streambed. We could see its white throat lifting and dropping with each breath. Jen crouched down and reached, figuring the frog could either hop deeper under the roots, in which case we were in the same situation (looking at an uncatchable and unidentified frog), or the frog could hop out, in which case I could get a good look at it and possibly catch it.

Out it leapt. It made three long jumps and then froze. I stopped to study it before trying to grab it. I noticed the squarish look of its blotches, and I thought ‘pickerel frog’ (Rana palustris). I have trouble telling the pickerel frogs from the leopard frogs, probably from having little experience getting a good look at either. I’m really bad at catching frogs, so I usually just get a glimpse as they make their getaway. Leopard frogs (both species – the northern Rana pipiens and the southern Rana ultricularia) look kind of like pickerel frogs. They’re all medium sized, slender, brown and greenish frogs with blotches. What distinguishes a sitting pickerel frog from the leopards is the shape of the blotches: squarish instead of round.

I went for it after getting in my good look. Maybe it was tired, but I caught it pretty quick and dumped it into the container. I stared at it some more through the translucent plastic and tried to take a couple photos with the lid a little lifted up to get a good shot without letting it out. We will soon see how well I succeeded at that.

We let it go, sat for a little while on a footbridge, and stared at the beautiful little valley stream we had been exploring. I love these streams, where the water cuts a deep path down rock ledges and the trees are like pillars holding up the nearly solid canopy above.
When I got home I read that the way to tell a pickerel frog from the rest is the color of the concealed surfaces of the legs: yellow or orange instead of white. Next time I’ll check.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

[I meant to post this a couple weeks ago]

Weddings are not for frogs. Weddings are for dancing, long toasts, and seeing friends you haven’t seen since graduation. Weddings are not for herping. I did not go to Carl’s wedding with herping in mind. If he had gotten hitched in the most herpless place on earth (I don’t know, Iceland?), I still would have gladly attended. Carl got married in the countryside near Harvard, Massachusetts, however, a place much cheaper to get to from Philadelphia than Reykjavik, and with many more herps.

The green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota) at the wedding stayed off the dance floor. They were content to stay hiding in the longer tussocks of grass on the hill below the Fruitlands museum. That hillside was also the site of the guest group photos, and the frogs had to get out of the way of some two-hundred people trying each to stay in view of the photographer’s lenses. Jen pointed one frog out to me as I nearly stepped on it. It made a few hops straight into the path of a group of guests descending from the ceremony, and I grabbed it to get it out of the way. It was not the greenest of green frogs – mostly bronze, but the species is the same even if the common name is an occasional misnomer.

I heard shouts of another frog uphill, but I’m not sure what happened to that one. I hope it didn’t get trampled.

Carl and Elsie reserved a hostel for their friends from out of town. The place charged a lot for old twin beds and showers with no hot water, but at least it had frogs and snakes.

We found the first hostel frog at the ‘afterparty’ – when we sat around in the kitchen of the hostel catching up with old friends and eating leftover cake. Jen had stepped outside for a moment and spotted it next to the door to the patio. Another green frog, it sat in the middle of a water-filled tray from a plant pot, soaking and looking up at the moths bumbling about in the light on the side of the building.

The next morning we headed out to the woods behind the hostel. We were driven back out of the woods by hordes of mosquitoes and the realization that we were wading through poison ivy. We did see and hear an absurd number of green frogs crying ‘meep’ as they hopped and leapt back into the water. I’ll post the pictures once they’re developed.

A tiny toad was the next find. We had eaten as much fruit salad, bagels, and quiche at the brunch as we were going to, and we headed outside for a short walk. The toad was barely big enough to not be toadlet anymore – about half an inch. It hopped away in the grass of the hostel’s front lawn, and chirped when we caught it. Jen held it for pictures (also coming soon), and then I checked its belly to see what kind it was. American toads (Bufo americanus americanus) look a lot like Fowlers toads (Bufo fowleri). My favorite way to tell them apart is the belly: American toads have black wormy blotches on a white belly. Fowlers toads have a blank white belly instead.

We found another American toad on a walk out behind the hostel towards the garden about an hour later. This one was bigger, maybe two inches, and it tried to bury itself in the sod as Jen grabbed it - a move neither of us had seen before. Like its younger neighbor, it too chirped to be put down. Jen obliged.

Massachusetts is rightly not known as a hotbed of herpetofaunal diversity. It is no Everglades, and it is no Big Bend, but with next to no effort, we saw nearly twenty herps of three species.

The third species was looking for the first outside the brunch. We had stepped outside to begin our goodbyes. Elsie, the bride, was out on the patio saying goodbye to departing family members and friends, and I had the camera around my neck taking shots of people (for once). I spotted the garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) basking on a rock just off the patio deck. I got in a picture before it darted under the deck. It was a beautiful garter – dark background with grayish tan stripes. I got another picture of the snake sticking itself back out to poke around the groundcover, and then it shot away again. We said goodbye to Elsie and took a picture of her. We went inside and took more pictures of friends we then bid farewell to, including Brynn, a friend from college who now studies environmental science in Wisconsin. She gets a mention for introducing me to the USGS online frog call quiz ( and doing a dead-on American toad. I now have absolutely no excuse for not knowing what kind of frog I’m listening to.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Thursday we had abut forty five minutes to kill before we had to retrieve a truck full of Jen’s belongings from my aunt’s driveway and move it all in to her new apartment. My aunt lives in Chestnut Hill, and Jen suggested stopping by the Wissahickon Valley section of Fairmont Park. The weather was beautiful, dry and sunny and only about seventy degrees at ten-thirty when we entered the forest.

Someone had recommended a good salamander stream last weekend, and I wanted to try it out. We had searched for stream-side salamanders in the Wissahickon Valley before, but had found none. I assumed that the streams were too polluted, but my source assured me that there were supposed to be something like seven or eight species in the park, not just redbacks (Plethodon cinereus) - not that there's anything wrong with redback salamanders.

We started up a path along the stream, and I had a hunch about a rotted log next to the path. I have hunches about logs, rocks or other debris all the time. I see something and I say, there’s gotta be something under this one. I’m right probably less than five percent of the time, but I still feel like a genius when I find something.

This log I flipped over, and my faith in my herp hunting abilities was confirmed; there was a bright yellow salamander sitting there next to a monster earthworm. The salamander dodged under the log again. I stood very still and called to Jen to get me the plastic deli container and the camera. I wanted the container to scoop up the salamander and hold it for the picture (salamanders are very delicate and it’s best to avoid handling them), and I wanted Jen to take the picture with the camera.

I was extremely excited to immortalize the moment. I had never seen this kind of salamander before. It was a beautiful buttercup yellow with black spots. It had a long, slender tail, which, as later confirmed by my guidebook, indicated it was a longtail salamander (Eurycea longicaudia longicaudia).

Jen turned the camera on and laughed. The camera had no film in it. It may shock the readers to learn that I do not have a digital camera, and it infuriated me to realize I had forgotten to bring film and had screwed up an opportunity to record a beautiful salamander in an improbable location.

We saw no more longtails, though we did see and fail to catch four two-lined salamanders (Eurycea bislineata), a more-familiar streamside species for me. I’ve found these guys almost everywhere I’ve lived. I’ll write more on how to hunt for streamside salamanders later, but I was gratified to see the streams in the area could support these salamanders, and I was yet again delighted to find herps so close to home and within the limits of the fifth-largest city in the country.

To see some pictures of the salamanders I was too spaced out to bring the film to photograph, follow these links:

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

At least I was in town last weekend. I’m done with flying and driving around the country for showers, bachelor parties, and weddings, at least until my own in two months. I had little time for herping, however. Jen is moving this week, so the weekend was for packing. I managed some volunteer trailwork in the Wissahickon, and although I got some good recommendations for salamander streams, I had no time for flipping rocks. There’s a three day weekend coming, though, and I’m looking forward to spending at least some of it hunting.

On Friday evening we did manage a little walk around Cobbs Creek. We found no snakes and no toads. I mention the toads because it seems like a place for American Toads. There are salamanders, two species of snakes, and bullfrogs; there should be toads.

The bullfrogs were out. We walked south of the environmental center around the wetlands they built at Naylor’s Run. There were actually people fishing where the tributary emerges from underground. With the smell and color of the water there, I pray that they were just doing catch and release.

Jen led the way (fifty yards?) along the stream to where it joined Cobbs Creek. I was starting to complain that we weren’t going to find anything – let’s just go for a walk and get some exercise – when there was a loud splash, like a brick launching itself into the water. I’ve been seeing and hearing so many green frogs lately that the sound confused me. It was too heavy. There was no ‘meep.’

It was a bullfrog (Rana catasbeiana)! I perked up. The trip was suddenly worth it. Jen spotted another one across the stream, sitting like a fat, round, chunk of mud on a rock. I’ll grant some grace to the green frogs with their thinner lines and pretty pattern, but the bullfrogs are just fat and green.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I was not expecting to find anything last weekend. In fact I was a little glum about yet another weekend with no critters. We flew into Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up and where my parents still live, for a shower for Jen, and I was resigned to another herpless weekend.

That’s not to say I didn’t have fun in other ways. On Saturday we drove about an hour and twenty minutes east to the Wilds. It’s an endangered animal breeding and research center, and visitors get to ride around the pastures in buses and get close to all kinds of large mammals, my favorites being the three-ton white rhinos and the Bactrian deer. They could use some space for tortoises, of course (no one’s perfect), but to their credit they are trying to study herp diversity at the site – we were warned not to disturb any sheets of metal we might see on the ground because they’re part of a reptile sampling study.

On Sunday we drove out to New Albany for the shower. New Albany used to be a small, unremarkable farming town outside Columbus. About ten years ago, though, Les Wexner, the insanely wealthy founder of the Limited clothing stores, decided to start a housing development there. New Albany is now home to golf courses and huge, Georgian-style houses. Our friends who were throwing the shower live in one of these, and after a lovely brunch (during which I chilled in the basement with the other few men there) and present opening session, Jen walked out to the back yard to make a cell phone call. She came back in to report frogs in the back yard. I perked right up and ran out to look.

I could have mistaken it for a statue – an excellent imitation of a green frog (Rana clamitans melanota), with stripes on the legs, and the back and front painted maybe a touch too bright a green.

The back yard is as much garden as grass, and in the middle of a patio area just behind the house is a small fish pond. In the middle of the pond is a pyramid-shaped island with a fountain in the middle. The frog was sitting at the edge of the island in the middle. Jen swore she saw it breathe, so I circled the pond to get a better look at it. A flash of movement and a splash signaled someone jumping from the plants next to the pond into the water, but the frog on the island stayed still. I leaned in closer, but it still did not move. Finally, I took off my sandals and started to swing a leg over into the pond, and it jumped. For a few seconds, I was satisfied with myself for making it move. I realized, though, that I had just blown a chance to take a good photo of a frog in an unlikely location.

Anyhow, the moral of the story is that herps can be anywhere. Even if you’re out in the suburbs and stuck at a party with twenty five of your mom’s friends and stacks of new kitchen implements that you have no clue how to transport home to Philadelphia, you should keep your eyes open and your camera handy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Even though it was way too hot to be moving outside (mid 90s, excessive heat warning, unhealthy air rating), I went out on Saturday to the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum to try out my net.

Every previous trip to the wildlife refuge had been highlighted by hordes of frogs hopping into every body of water as we passed by. This is the frustrating thing about frogs: most of the time you don’t know they’re there till you hear them getting away. You walk to the edge of whatever they hopped into, you stare at a swirl of mud at the bottom, and you think, “There’s my frog. If only I had a net.” So, several weeks ago I bought a large aquarium net – big enough to extend my reach into large puddles and small enough to put in my backpack.

I am sure the officials at the refuge would not approve, but there are a lot of frogs in the water there, and the likely suspects – leopard frogs (Rana ultricularia), pickerel frogs (Rana palustris), green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota), wood frogs (Rana sylvatica), and bullfrogs (Rana catasbeiana) are all extremely common there and elsewhere. The diligent rangers should know that I am not planning on keeping the frogs. I’m not even planning on handling the frogs very much – just enough to figure out what they are and take photos of a few of them.

I started my trip at the visitor center, which is a beautiful, modern structure worth stopping into whenever you visit. This time they had a frog display out with photos of the resident frog species and brochures on maintaining your property in a frog-friendly way. One section of the center is built over a small marshy pond, and I walked out onto a boardwalk that circles that pond. There’s a group of large green frogs that like to hang out in there (I didn’t plan on catching these). I was not sure that the frogs would be active. Had I been a frog, I would have been down in the cool mud at the bottom.

I am not a frog, though, and these apparently had no problem with the heat. I spotted one with its head at the surface in the shade, and as I moved closer to look at it two others hopped into the deepest part of the pond with the ever-cute “meep” cries.

At the refuge there are two large basins as well as a body of water (I think one single connected body) that runs along the side of the refuge that flanks I-95. I have little hope of catching the frogs that hop in these unless I want to put on hip waders. The ones I think I can catch are the ones that hang out in the temporary puddles that form on or along the path. I soon discovered, however, that those puddles were all dried up, and the only frogs I heard or saw were the ones hopping and splashing out where I couldn’t get to them.

I spotted at least seven turtles. None was basking, there being no need to bask in such heat. I could see them as round shadows when they came to the surface to breathe. They stuck their heads out of the water to look around, spotted me, and then dove with a swirl if I was too close. The turtles I have spotted there basking in the past have been painted turtles (Chrysemys picta ssp.), red bellied turtles (Pseudemys rubriventris), and maybe some released red eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). I assume the swimming turtles were of the same species. There are other species at the refuge, but I wouldn’t bet on those hanging out at the surface.

I had an unexpectedly good time with fruit on this trip. I knew that black cherries are edible if not delicious, and I decided to try some since they were ripe all along the path. I found that they are okay – sweet and with a good cherry flavor, but tart and with a bitter aftertaste. The blackberries (an exotic invasive) were much more reliable. I was relishing a mouthful of these when I saw the only snake of the trip: a greenish garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) that crossed the path into some thick bushes before I could get to it. I hadn’t been expecting to see any snakes in that heat, but there goes another assumption and another excuse for not going out herping.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

I was not expecting to find anything last weekend. In fact I was a little glum about yet another weekend with no critters. We flew into Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up and where my parents still live, for a shower for Jen, and I was resigned to another herpless weekend.

That’s not to say I didn’t have fun in other ways. On Saturday we drove about an hour and twenty minutes east to the Wilds. It’s an endangered animal breeding and research center, and visitors get to ride around the pastures in buses and get close to all kinds of large mammals, my favorites being the three-ton white rhinos and the Bactrian deer. They could use some space for tortoises, of course (no one’s perfect), but to their credit they are trying to study herp diversity at the site – we were warned not to disturb any sheets of metal we might see on the ground because they’re part of a reptile sampling study.

On Sunday we drove out to New Albany for the shower. New Albany used to be a small, unremarkable farming town outside Columbus. About ten years ago, though, Les Wexner, the insanely wealthy founder of the Limited clothing stores, decided to start a housing development there. New Albany is now home to golf courses and huge, Georgian-style houses. Our friends who were throwing the shower live in one of these, and after a lovely brunch (during which I chilled in the basement with the other few men there) and gift opening session, Jen walked out to the back yard to make a cell phone call. She came back in to report a frog in the back yard. I perked right up and ran out to look.

I could have mistaken it for a statue – an excellent representation of a green frog (Rana clamitans melanota), with stripes on the legs, and the back and front painted maybe a touch too bright a green.

The back yard of our friends' house is as much garden as grass, and in the middle of a patio area just behind the house is a small fish pond. In the middle of the pond is a pyramid-shaped island with a fountain in the middle. The frog was sitting at the edge of the island in the middle. Jen swore she had seen it breathe, so I circled the pond to get a better look at it. A flash of movement and a splash signaled something jumping from the plants next to the pond into the water, but the frog on the island stayed still. I leaned in closer, but it still did not move. Finally, I took off my sandals and started to swing a leg over into the pond, and it jumped. For a few seconds I was satisfied with myself for making it move. I realized, though, that I had just blown a chance to take a good photo of a frog in an unlikely location.

Anyhow, the moral of the story is that herps can be anywhere. Even if you’re out in the suburbs and stuck at a party with twenty five of your mom’s friends and stacks of new kitchen implements that you have no clue how to transport home to Philadelphia, you should keep your eyes open and your camera handy.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Since I haven’t been getting out to go herping much in the Philly area, I’ve been fantasizing about Brazil. We’re going to Brazil for our honeymoon. We cashed in one hundred and fifty thousand frequent flier miles between us, and as soon as we had secured our tickets I ordered the only guidebook I could find for reptiles and amphibians of the region: Reptiles and Amphibians of the Amazon, by R.D and Patricia Bartlett. Luckily we are planning on spending a few days around Manuas, otherwise the guide would not be quite so useful. The rest of the time we’re planning on being at the beach in the northeast of the country, probably around Salvador, and I have no idea what we’ll be finding around there.

I’m not sure what I’ll see in the Amazon either, but I’ve been flipping through this guidebook like it’s a catalogue, as if I get to order up five puffing bird snakes (Pseustes species), two eastern forest striped pit vipers (Bothriopsis bilineata bilineata), fifteen clown tree frogs (Hyla species), a variety pack of anoles (Anolis species), and one of those really weird Amazonian egg eating snakes (Drepanoides anomalus).

A far more experienced herper than I once told me that the rainforest is disappointing for herping. You expect the trees to be dripping with boas and a bushmaster (Lachesis muta) chilling next to every stump, but it takes effort and luck even down there. The Bartlett’s claim that they see forty species of herps on average on their guided herping trips down there. We’re not going on a guiding herping trip, so does that mean twenty species? Fifteen?