Monday, October 17, 2005

Part II begins with me in a similarly dumpy mood to what I drove home in on Sunday. I was driving in my car towards the northwest, and I was wondering if my driving out early in the morning on my day off to hike in cool, pissy weather and find nothing under hundreds of rocks was pathological.

Onward I drove, thinking about gas prices and orange barrels, until I got to State Game Land #___. I had been wondering whether it and the nearby State Game Land #___ (both several square miles of wooded hills) would be good places to find timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) dens – also known as ‘hibernacula’ – or my number one target species right now: northern redbellied snakes (Storeria o. occipitomaculata).

The temperature was in the 50s at that point, and the sky was totally cloudy, but a splash in a puddle next to the parking area gave me a spark of hope. I watched for a moment, and a green face poked out from the middle of the puddle to look around. It was a green frog (Rana clamitans melanota). I find green frogs all the time, but I took it as an indication that the weather was fine for the amphibians if not the snakes.

I started up a dirt road, climbing as I went (from about 500 feet to about 1400). I flipped a couple rocks along the road, and one revealed a smallish redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus). It was almost as long as my hand was wide and was pretty calm thanks to the cool temperatures. I smiled a little to myself.

I was looking for a south-facing hillside. I checked my compass as I went. My own sense of direction is horrible, and Jen got me the compass to keep me from getting lost. Now I was using it to figure out which slope offered the best basking and thus the best habitat for snakes. The road I was on rounded the hill to the left, carrying me in a more westward direction. That made for a south-facing slope, and I descended to investigate.

The area along the road to the left of me – the top of the ridge – had recently been thinned, and piles of logs and brush lined the road to my right. I say ‘thinned’ because there were still some trees standing, though there were patches that were totally cleared. The other side of the piles to my right also looked like it had been thinned, but maybe last year. Tall, gangly oak trees that had obviously grown up in a forest stood every twenty feet or so, but there were some small oak and sassafras saplings growing in between. The floor of this sparse forest was covered by rocks and logs. I went a little ways down the hill, turned to an uphill angle, and started my way back to the road, looking under rocks and logs as I went.

I have read that redback salamanders might be the most numerous vertebrates in the forests in which they occur, and days like last Monday make me believe it. Almost every-other rock or log I turned over sheltered a redback.

I go through a standard series of reactions at finding lots of redback salamanders: First, I’m blown away by how pretty they are. The rich red of their backs stands out beautifully against their lead-grey sides, and the whole ensemble is flecked with tiny sparkly spots. Second, I am amazed that I am finding so many. I find a redback every couple yards and then I look across the hillside, look over the valley at the next wooded hillside, and I realize I’m looking at over several million of the little guys. Third, I am tired of redback salamanders. I wish that they would take a rest and let someone else get found for a change. Fourth, they are a chore. Each must be moved out of the way before putting its rock or log back in order to avoid smashing it. I curse the more active ones that keep scrambling out of my reach, thus delaying the next flip.

After about ten on that hillside, though, I saw something new. It was a small salamander, and I almost thought it was a leadback phase redback, but its spots where bright white dots instead of sparkly flecks. Its tail was too short as well, and I knew it was a slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosus) by the time I had my hand on it.

I have caught these before, so I was aware that ‘slimy’ is a horrible misnomer. ‘Superglue’ salamander would be a better name, since they leave a sticky secretion on the skin that is extremely difficult to wash or rub off. I checked my records just now, and the last time I found one was in 2002. Each of my records back in 2002 and 2001 has a note something like “Wow, these guys really are sticky.” Their adhesiveness is well-known, but it really doesn’t sink in until you’ve spent five minutes trying to pick off bits of a dead leaf that has been cemented to your finger.

The critters were a little more mixed up after that – I found only four more redback salamanders before the next non-redback, this time a wood frog (Rana sylvatica) that bounded ahead of my hands for a few long leaps before totally disappearing into a pile of sticks. I like wood frogs – they’re cute with that little robber’s mask, but they’re not worth the effort of tearing apart piles of much of anything.

Another redback was followed by two slimies as I neared the road. I continued along it, turning over rocks to take a break from walking as I went and finding more and more redbacks under those rocks. From time to time I remembered my original reasons for going to SGA #___ – finding rattlesnake dens and redbellied snakes. I descended south-facing hillsides to investigate rocky outcroppings a couple times, but I found no snakes there, and I was discouraged by the cool, overcast weather. I also looked around a small pond I came by, but I found nothing there except more redback salamanders.

I finally found a snake after my twenty-second redback salamander. It was a northern ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii), quite apropos since about the only thing northern ringneck snakes eat is salamanders. I took a couple pictures of the pretty little snake as it crapped all over my hand, and then I let it go next to its rock. I walked on with a little more spring in my step after the snake, though after it I found only more salamanders – about a dozen or so.

To be fair to myself, I gave up on herping once I realized I was pretty lost. This happens to me a lot; I get lost almost every time I try somewhere out for the first time. I almost invariably go in with an inadequate map and quickly lose myself on it. I usually have a general sense of where I am and what direction I need to head in to get back to the road or parking lot. Now I have the compass so I was able to set myself in that direction back to my car, but the forecast that day called for a greater likelihood of rain later in the afternoon, and I was supposed to be back in time to pick Jen up from the airport. The big unknowns were how far I had gone south before turning east, and how far east I had then walked = no sense of how long it would take me to get back.

I knew I was not where I thought I had been heading. There was a dirt road heading east on the map, but the contour lines were going in all the wrong directions, so I was certainly not on the hillside that road was on. I decided to keep going straight until the first trail to the north, ideally northwest. I continued at a fast pace until I hit just the kind of intersection I had been looking for. I headed back towards the general direction of the parking lot.

I want to point out that this is beautiful country I was lost in. It is not the Andes or the Rockies, but the view out over the wooded hillsides and across to the next ridge was sublime if not breathtaking. I had also never appreciated the beauty of boulder fields. I’m not sure if I’m using that term correctly, but there were sections of hillside that were just acres of tumbled boulders with trees growing out every ten yards or so. They came out as trunks – bases and roots were hidden under the boulders somewhere, giving me the impression that they could continue below indefinitely.

I was now in a darker, denser, wetter forest on the north-facing side of the hill. I had ended up on a path that I was sure was taking me back to my car. I was heading in the right direction and down the right kind of steep slope, with a stream to my right, just where it was supposed to be. Still, when I heard some voices behind me (a little spooky after hours of hiking by myself), I took the moment to drink from my Nalgene until the man with the moustache and the woman with the ponytail caught up. I waved cautiously; they waved cautiously. I said hello; they said hello. I asked for directions, and we soon realized we were heading for the same parking lot.

It was slightly awkward at first – I felt like I was crashing a hiking date – but as we chatted I learned that the man is a fisheries biologist for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which just so happens to be the agency that regulates herp collection in the state. He is not a herpetologist, but he knew a lot about the salamanders of the area and said I could find red salamanders, spotted salamanders, and newts, as well as my more familiar streamside species in that SGA. He mentioned some general areas in that part of the county where there were rattlesnake dens, though I did not ask for specifics and he did not offer any. It's poor form to be pesky about where one can find populations of rare and frequently-poached wildlife.

It was a good trip. I found only one snake, but I scouted a potentially fruitful new area, and I’m planning to go back at least once more this Fall to look for more salamanders and see if I can’t find any snake hibernacula while I’m at it.

Trip Totals:

Green Frogs: 1
Redback Salamanders: 30
Wood Frog: 1
Slimy Salamanders: 4
Northern Ringneck Snake: 1