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