Thursday, July 07, 2005

The second time I found a wormsnake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) under the famous black rubber mat was the first time I had tried going out at dawn.

I had started at the mind-blowing Menatico Ponds WMA. I’m not sure about the geological history of the place, but it looks like someone took the standard pine-oak woods of South Jersey and dug out ponds really close together with a giant icecream scoop. The sun hadn’t burned off all the mist yet, and I wandered around between these angelic little ponds on the ridges in between, marveling at the landscape and finding next to no herps. I caught a glimpse of a fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinatus) on a stump and saw one toad smooshed on a dirt road.

I decided to try my favorite WMA before I headed home, and on the way there I saw one large black racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor) DOR, and two box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) alive on the road. The first one I saw being helped off the road by a very nice woman. The second one I thought was a rock, but I turned around and came back just to be sure. I dropped it a few yards off the road in the direction it was heading [When helping turtles across the road, always take them in the direction they’re moving. If you don’t they’ll turn around and try to cross again].

When I got to the WMA I tried the usual trash and debris. I found the big wormsnake under the famous black rubber mat, and then spent a lot of time trying to flush a really big green frog (Rana clamitans melatona) out from a puddle to get a picture of it. Usually these guys dive to the mud at the bottom and you can’t find them anymore. This one had chosen a relatively small puddle, so I squatted there with my hands in the mud, feeling around like a raccoon. I grabbed it several times, but holding onto a wet frog in mud is not easy. I bought a small net a month ago just for this kind of occasion, but did I remember to bring it? Anyhow, I gave up, found some large tadpoles in another very large puddle, and then decided to head back to the car.

I was cutting back on one of the dirt roads that runs between the woods and one of the fields when I spotted this gorgeous beast – a black ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) –leisurely poking around some logs. I got my camera out and grabbed it by the tail as I took a couple of bad pictures. I got a much better more interesting series of shots when I let go and it climbed up a cherry tree. What a hunk of a snake. Most snakes get away from you in a panic, this one got away in no rush whatsoever, like it only wanted its privacy and didn’t feel like having its picture taken. I don’t know why a snake this beautiful wouldn’t want its picture taken, but I let it beat its dignified retreat up the tree.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

In the last post, I mentioned the wormsnake I had been expecting to see. It’s a big eastern wormsnake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus), which means it’s all of twelve inches long, and I’d gotten used to finding it under the same piece of trash (a large black rubber mat) every time I looked.

I’d found it three times, which now that I see it written out does not seem like much of a streak, but for snakes that’s pretty good. This wormsnake’s rubber mat home lies just into the woods along a field in a wildlife management area (WMA) in South Jersey. In my year so far living in Philly, I’ve been trying to find good places to go herping – reliable spots where I know that at least there are populations of interesting herps there, so the question is simply finding them.

Trash makes finding them easier. I know that dumping construction debris and other random trash out in the woods is a bad thing, and I would encourage anyone to take their boards of plywood, sheets of steel or aluminum, or old rugs to the dump rather than leave them in the Pine Barrens. Still, few things make me happier than rounding a bend in the trail to find that pile of boards. Snakes (and for that matter toads, frogs, salamanders, and all kinds of rodents and insects) really like hiding under this kind of debris. They especially like old boards (or sheets of metal) in the early Spring or late Fall, when they can get a lot of the heat of the sun through the boards without having to expose themselves to predators. Some people even lay out this kind of cover with the idea of finding critters later. When herpetologists do this with the proper permits, they’re called coverboards, and they’re used sort of as lures to survey herp populations.

Anyhow, on a recommendation of another herper I’ve been checking out the WMAs in South Jersey. On my second visit to one of the closest and largest WMAs, I came upon a whole bunch of old plywood boards and old shipping pallets lying in the woods near the fields meant to attract deer, and maybe thirty yards from a swampy area where I had just seen painted turtles and heard the squeaks and splashes of innumerable frogs making their getaways. I almost never get this lucky, I thought, as I started looking under boards. One of the first revealed an eastern wormsnake. Here’s a link to a decent picture (, since mine did not turn out. It was one of my target snake species at the time, so I was really excited to find it. A few boards later I found a young black racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor). Racers are not hard to find, but they're usually really mean and wriggly. This one, though, didn’t bite very much and posed calmly for a few pictures.

I found two more worm snakes on that trip, including the one under the now-famous black rubber mat. I’ll write about the following trips later this week.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Yesterday I had a decent outing to the Pine Barrens. I found no snakes, but I did find a box turtle, which can brighten up any trip to the woods.

I started off at my favorite wildlife management area in South Jersey. This was one of those times (my second) that I decided to wake up at 4 in the morning so I could be out in the woods and fields as the sun just began to warm the ground. Once we get to the summer, when daytime temperatures start climbing into the 80s, many snakes spend their days deep in secure hiding spots that I can’t find or get to, and only come out when it’s not as hot – at night or at dusk and dawn. So, I’ve tried going out before it gets too hot. This worked well the first time I tried it (more about that outing later), but this time I didn’t have a ton of luck.

It was beautiful, of course. There was a misty haze in the air when I got there, and the light was soft and colorful. I saw a rabbit just as I got out of my car, and I startled several white tail deer as I made my way across the first field. I got to watch them bound away into the woods. I don’t know the names of all the wildflowers, but there were a lot of them to stop and look at, and the bright purple thistles especially caught my eye, standing high above the meadow (stupid of me not to have taken a picture, now that I think about it).

I found nothing under the boards and other debris I flipped. I tried the amazing black rubber mat, under which I had found a large worm snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) three trips in a row, but this time the snake was gone. I did see some eggs floating in some of the larger puddles – I think they’re Fowler’s toad (Bufo fowleri) eggs, but I’m not sure. I’ll post the photos from the trip in a future post, and by then I hope I’ll have the eggs identified. After an hour and a half I went back to my car and started wandering. I ended up on a stretch of the Batona trail, where I was accompanied by some very persistent deerflies.

Even with the deerflies buzzing circles around me and biting my head, I stopped for the blueberries. The wild blueberries are really sweet and have a lot more flavor than you get in the store-bought blueberries. I had a fabulous time eating blueberries on an otherwise fruitless herping trip last August. I quickly got over the horribly city-boy fear that they were not blueberries but rather some kind of poisonous berry that looked and tasted exactly like blueberries, and I gorged myself. I'm glad to see they're in season again.

I found a couple Fowler’s toads, got some photos of some green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota) in a puddle, and just after the biting flies had convinced me to turn around and head back the way I came (stopping frequently for more blueberries), I found a box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina).

There might be nothing in the woods cuter than box turtles, and if you like them you had better enjoy the ones you see now, since they’re going extinct from habitat degradation and over-collection. Whatever you do, don’t take a box turtle home as a pet – they’re very hard to keep alive more than a year or two, and they’re going extinct partly because of all the people who take them home for pets. If you want one really bad, you can adopt one from a rescue or buy a hatchling from a reputable breeder.

Box turtles apparently can only find each other by sight. Thus they can only mate if they happen to run into each other. If too many get crushed by cars driving home to the new subdivision or if too many people take them for pets, population densities drop too low for enough males and females to find each other. Too few mate, too few eggs get laid, and the population spirals down to extinction.

You’ll still find the occasional adult crossing the road or in a puddle after a summer rain, but since they can live for more than thirty years, you’ll be seeing the last generation long after the population has been doomed. I don’t take pictures of every redback salamander or toad that I see – they’ll be around for a while – but I always take pictures of the box turtles.