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.