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.