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.