Sunday, October 02, 2005

I need to clean the windshield. I also need to do something about the windshield wipers. Are they dried out? I was driving directly into the rising sun on Saturday morning, and when I hit the windshield washing fluid, the wipers just smeared it into a hazy glowing field that totally blocked out Chestnut Street. By the time I was in New Jersey my angle had changed and the windshield had dried, but it was pretty hard to see for a while.

I learned that there are rattlesnakes near the Winslow Wildlife Management Area. I learned this from a bow hunter I met on the dirt road off the parking area. When I pressed him on whether he had seen a rattle or just had heard a rattling noise (plenty of harmless snakes will rattle their tails in leaf litter to sound like a rattlesnake) he swore he had seen the rattle up in the air. That made me feel like I was further into the barrens than I had thought I was.

The fact that he was walking around with a bow and a whole lot of arrows made me feel good about that bright orange cap I bought last weekend. He assured me that bow hunters take a good bit of time pulling back and aiming, so if someone shot me it would be intentional.

It was a beautiful morning. I had thrilled at the weather forecast – sunny with a low the previous night in the low 50s. If it had rained the night before it would have been perfect, but I was pretty pleased with things as they were. I reached my favorite area after walking a half mile, and I started looking underneath boards. I quickly found two eastern worm snakes (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) about four feet apart.

What a delightful way to start a trip. Both were quite cool to the touch, and neither made much effort to get away. As you will see in the photos once they’re developed, the first one did not squirm very much in the hand, while the other stayed curled up in its sleeping position for thirty seconds and let me take a picture in situ.

I walked on to the famous black rubber mat. After an imagined drum roll I lifted it up to find… a few roaches and maybe a dozen termites milling about aimlessly. Whatever streak I thought I had going there is unmistakably dead.

I was thinking about heading straight back to the car to try some other areas, but after a little going back and forth in my head I decided to try out a patch of woods that is a major dumpsite – boards, old buckets, unidentifiable metal equipment chunks, vinyl flooring material, tar paper, plastic sheeting, and heaps of sections of old telephone poles.

I found absolutely nothing out there in twenty minutes of peeking, but on the way I did stop and look under some logs. I picked up maybe the third section of log with that ripping noise that tells you it’s been sitting there a long time, and I shouted: A marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum)! [I didn't shout the scientific name, just the marbled salamander part]

All these years I’ve been catching salamanders, all have been from the same family. Correction: I have caught newts before, but besides the newts (I mean no disrespect to newts; I love newts), all were from the same family – the plethodontids. Hell, I’m talking about only three genuses in the same family: desmognathus, plethodon, and eurycea. All were fine salamanders, but until Saturday I had never found a salamander from the other really big salamander family for the woods of the eastern USA: the ambystomids. They are not rare, and that is one of the things that has driven me the most nuts: that the ground beneath me is studded with these guys – under stumps, under logs, under leaf litter, under possibly everything I haven’t looked underneath. I’m probably looking at the wrong time of year. A lot of these guys actually mate when it’s really cold out. They wait for rainy nights in the late Fall, early Spring, or even the Winter, and they make long trips over hill and dale to temporary ponds in the woods to mate, lay their eggs, and then schlep all the way back to their hole in the ground to spend the rest of the year where I can’t find them.

The plethodontid salamanders have the same basic shape – long, slender, and sleek. Ambystomids, by contrast, have always struck me as pudgy. They have ridiculously rounded features that make them look like cabbage patch kid versions of real salamanders. Marbled salamanders are some of the pudgiest. If you can get past the fact that they look like cartoons, they are also some of the most beautiful salamanders out there. The one I caught was jet black with broad white bands across its back. I picked it up for another photo, and then I let it go next to its log.

I walked several more miles in the woods on Saturday, and I looked under a lot of trash. The only other luck I had was another worm snake, this time under a tire. There are a lot of tires out there. If I learned anything, it’s that any dirt road leading off a paved road in the Winslow Wildlife Management Area is going to be lined with trash, especially old tires. Is it really that hard to properly dispose of tires?

I also learned that I was right to leave my snake bag in the car. It is illegal to collect herps in Jersey, so there’s really no point in bringing snake collection equipment. I once saw a reference to getting arrested for carrying a snake bag in New Jersey, so all I had in my backpack were my camera, notebook, pens, car keys, compass, and wallet.

This gave the very nice conservation officer no reason to arrest me when he looked in my backpack. He thought it was a little strange someone would drive all the way from Philadelphia to walk around a WMA in Jersey. I owned up to photographing reptiles and amphibians when he asked me if I was collecting any. He said he could respect that, and after checking my bag he wished me well.

I guess I have no complaints about the interaction. He was perfectly respectful, even friendly. I guess my complaint is with the rules he is enforcing. I have the same complaint that most herpers have about blanket collection restrictions: we can get in trouble for taking home one little worm snake – a species at no risk whatsoever from overcollection - while no one seems to care about the millions of herps getting paved over or turned under for development every year. I completely agree that some species benefit from collection bans – box turtles (Terrepene carolina carolina) or pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus) – or that collection should be subject to strict permitting and tight bag limits, but this kind of blanket ban on collecting just wastes the time and resources of the enforcement personnel and alienates a group of wildlife enthusiasts who are otherwise staunch conservationists.

Trip Totals:

Eastern Worm Snakes: 3
Marbled Salamander: 1