Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I’ve been kicking around the idea of an ode to the redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus). It’s the herp I find most often, it’s a strikingly beautiful little critter that even normal people can find cute and appealing, and if you’re counting by numbers, it’s the dominant vertebrate predator in the Northeast.

Ever since I moved from Atlanta to Baltimore, the redback has for sure dominated my herping, but before then, when I was living in Atlanta, I didn’t see any. Of course I was herping mainly in the range of the redback’s close relative, the southern redback salamander (Plethodon serratus), but these are very closely related species (they used to be considered the same species), and to this day I’m a little miffed I hadn’t found any serratus while I lived in Atlanta.

The problem was that the southern redbacks like summer even less than ours do, and back than I was still thinking of herping as something I did in the summer while out hiking. That was great for finding streambed salamanders like the duskies (Desmognathus species), but really bad for finding redbacks, which spend the summer deep underground.

I’d almost forgotten that southern redbacks existed when Jen and I decided to look around her parents’ house the day after Christmas. It was a foul day, misty and thirty-eight degrees when we headed outside and into the wooded ravine behind the house at around four in the afternoon. We focused on the stream that runs through the ravine, and I’m proud to say we checked every rock that looked good, even though the icy water completely numbed our fingers.

I found one southern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata cirrigera) that way, and I was ready to head back inside, but Jen was stubbornly turning over rocks on our way back. I really couldn’t head back inside without her, and it was a good thing I didn’t, since after a minute she shouted that she’d found something.

My camera’s batteries had died, so I didn’t get any photos, but what she had in her hand looked exactly like one of our redbacks, maybe a little more slender. I checked the range maps again, and although it’s close, I’m pretty sure it was a southern redback – my very first, and not a bad Christmas present.

I have one other find to report: on the 23rd we headed to Calloway Gardens in Troup County, GA. They have a big Christmas lights show, but we got there in the afternoon to enjoy the grounds in daylight too. It was a beautiful sunny day in the low 60s, and I spotted a stinkpot (musk turtle - Sternotherus oderatus) crawling around the bottom of one of the ponds. If I hadn’t had to get back into the van with the rest of the family I would have jumped in after it.


December 23rd:

- 1 stinkpot

December 26th:

- 1 southern two-line salamander
- 1 southern redback salamander

Sunday, December 17, 2006

"The other day I saw a bear, a great big bear, oh way out there, the other day I saw a bear, a great big bear oh way out there! He said to me, why don’t you run because you ain't got any gun…”

It wasn’t exactly the other day, but the 'way out there' part sure was true; I had a meeting starting in Dubois, Clearfield County, at 10 in the morning on May 3rd, and I managed to get out of my hotel room around 6:30am to spend some time in a nearby State Game Land.

The bear might have been saying to me “why don’t you run,” since I sure didn’t have any gun, I didn't even have my cultivator, but I don’t speak bear. I didn’t even know it was a bear that I was hearing at first.

You’d think a bear would make some kind of deep growling or roaring noise, but what I heard as I was walking through the field sounded more like a pig – a kind of grating, squealing noise. If I were the bear I'd be a little embarrassed. I figured it was probably raccoons or possums tussling back in the woods, and I didn’t think much of it.

A lot of these fields in State Game Lands are cut up by long hedge rows, and this long field had several of them running crosswise. I rounded the end of one of them a few minutes after I’d heard all that squealing, and I looked across the field to see a black bear looking right back at me.

The sun was just burning through the morning mist, and the air had a bright, hazy quality to it that stretched that instant out, so I recall it now as a long, mutual contemplation, even though it probably only lasted one second.

I thought to get my camera out as the bear was dashing off into the woods, and of course I missed capturing that absolutely amazing image. The woods were close, and no matter how big and clumsy bears look, they can haul ass when they want to.

That bear’s speed made very clear to me that bears do not make a habit of attacking people. I’ve seen black bears before, and I know they almost never attack humans, but man, if they wanted to eat people we’d have no chance at all of getting away from them.

I had been planning to head just where that bear had headed, and even knowing all I knew about how timid black bears are, and even though it had acted terrified of me, I decided to head in the opposite direction.

So, I headed up along a recently clear-cut slope looking for something to look under. I tried some branches and stumps and found nothing. I wanted to head deeper into the field to try more of the stumps and branches, but the field was thick with brambles, and I was hoping for better ground to cover further up the hill.

I found some nice looking loose rocks near the top of the ridge, but nothing under them but dirt. My time was winding down if I wanted to get back, shower, and make the meeting on time, so I decided to try one more pile of logs before giving up.

That’s where I found this skink. I wasn’t sure what species at first, but I suspected coal skink (Eumeces anthracinus). You don't see coal skinks too often, not because they're rare, but because they live in the middle of nowhere, which closest to us means up in the mountains of central PA. I submitted the capture record with the photos to the PA Herp Atlas Project, and I was relieved that they confirmed the ID.

The temperature was around 55 degrees.


- 1 coal skink

Sunday, December 10, 2006

I’m going to start posting about some trips I took over the summer. I guess posting weekly on this blog makes the most sense if I take one herping trip per week, but it’s hard to keep that pace up over the winter. Over the summer, though, I sometimes managed two or more trips, especially if I count little explorations while I was on the road for work. So I’m hoping that the trips I’ve stored up will carry me through to some trips we’re looking at early next year and then into the spring.

We took a ride up to western Massachusetts to visit some cousins in August. Jen’s cousins live in Conway, while I’ve got some in North Adams. I posted a little about this trip on August 24. This is the one where I had had a fabulous time swimming in a rural pond, chasing after adult, aquatic newts, and I couldn’t wait to try swimming with turtles (and don’t worry – I’m still obsessed with this; those turtles better look out this summer.).

Here’s the pond.

I zeroed in on a rocky brook leading into it, and we found a two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) right away. We spotted a green frog in the reeds.

Here is a pile of branches that I found completely uninteresting.
Jen’s cousin Jeff said, “what about those sticks?” and I, the dismissive expert, said, “Sure, you can look if you want.” He found three newts (Nopthalmus v. viridescens) right away.
Here’s Jeff with our little cousin Zach, who was delighted by the newts.

I couldn’t figure out why adult newts were hanging out on land until it hit me that they were efts transforming into adults.

Red spotted newts have a three-phase life, starting out of the egg as aquatic larvae, then transforming into terrestrial efts, the bright red ones you sometimes find walking around the forest floor after a rain storm. After a few years the efts mature into adults and head back to the water.

The countryside around Conway is a mix of woods, fields, small farms, and houses. It’s pretty, but pretty well kempt as far as I could tell (in other words I couldn’t find any trash piles). I found a very pretty redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus) on a morning walk.
I also found a couple two-lined salamanders in a rocky creek on a run – one of those times I’m jogging, I see something I should check, I run by it, and I have to turn back and look.

All those salamanders were about what I expected. The weather was a little wet and cool, even during my aquatic frolic with the newts, which is another way of saying amphibian weather. We got a little sun in the afternoon on the day we went to visit my cousins Ben, Alice, and Ethan.

After a mind-blowlingly rich brunch of French toast stuffed with cheese and maple syrup, we went for a walk in the Hopkins Memorial Woods, located way up in the corner with Vermont and New York. We walked a nice little loop through the woods. As we went we looked under a lot of logs and found a couple redbacks – what I’d expect.

On the way back to the car, though, we passed through a meadow with an old shed and some rusty, antique farm equipment leaning against it. I looked at one flat piece of iron sitting there on the grass next to the shed, and I had an inkling; you know what I mean. It’s hard to say how accurate those inklings are, since I probably forget all the times I’m sure I’ll find something and don’t, but I lifted that up and saw a garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis).

I didn’t grab fast enough, and it slipped away under a rock that I thought I’d be able to lift. I turned to Jen that I’d found something, and when I looked down I saw a couple wasps flying out to see who had picked up the roof of their house.

I see these long, skinny wasps (hornets?) pretty often. Every time I’ve been able to put the piece of cover back down and step away in time, and I’ve had my legs and feet covered enough to shield me from any stings. This time, though, I had on my sandals, and damn if one of those wasps didn’t tag me on the top of my foot.

Totals for our Massachusetts:

- 50+ newts
- 4-5 redback salamanders
- 3 two-lined salamanders
- 1 garter snake
- 1 green frog

Sunday, December 03, 2006

I’ve been thinking about that garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) we found last weekend, the one that we pulled out of the pond. I did what I should have done last week and looked up the normal seasonal activity for garter snakes, and I found that they’re active later into the season than most snakes.

More interesting to me, though, was that they sometimes hibernate submerged in water. The obvious question is how do they breath all winter if they’re under water? The answer is that they don’t have to, apparently they can get enough oxygen and get rid of enough carbon dioxide production through their skin to keep themselves alive.

In some ways that is less remarkable than it sounds. Snake metabolisms, and thus oxygen use and carbon dioxide production, slow down with the cold. Down in the 30s or 40s they’re not using very much oxygen or producing much carbon dioxide. Snakes also have a lot of skin relative to their mass thanks to their long, stretched-out shapes.

Still, I’m impressed. I’ve had it so firmly in my head that vertebrates with lungs breath air and those without lungs live in water and use gills that this fact about garter snake aquatic hibernation blows my mind.

I’ve had a few of these revelations over the past few years: you know all those redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) I find? They, and all their plethodontid relatives are also known as lungless salamanders. They get all the oxygen they need and get rid of all their carbon dioxide through their skin. How do all those water turtles survive under the ice in the winter? They also can get by submerged in water. They ‘breath’ by pulling water into the mouth and into cloaca and exchanging gasses that way.

I’ll close with some garter snake photos from when my digital camera was broken. I had been looking for milksnakes (Lampropeltis t. triangulum) in Roxborough, and a garter snake crawled directly into the side of my foot, as if surprised to find me standing there (

Here’s a photo of the little guy, along with a couple of the street on which according to the locals (seen at the edge of the photo of the snake), garter snakes are really common. In case you were wondering, that's my trusty steed in the foreground of the second photo.

Here’s a photo of another a few feet away that didn’t make it to the sidewalk.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

They might be flipping kingsnakes in Florida, and rightly so, but this isn’t Florida. Here in Philadelphia at the end of November we’re supposed to be staring out the window and pining away for the herping of spring.

Since there’s not much to find, Jen and I have been going out on hikes and nice walks out in the woods, the kind of trips that are supposed to be more about exercise and enjoying the landscape than about finding critters. These are the kinds of trips we take when we’ve given up hope, otherwise I’d be up a mountain somewhere upstate, deep in the Barrens, or poking around for milksnakes in Roxborough.

Today (Sunday the 26th, temps in the mid 50s and cloudy) we took a drive up to the Schuylkill Environmental Center ( The landscape is basic Piedmont woodlands, but they’ve got some ponds that are chock full of frogs, and it’s a nice change of pace from the Wissahickon Valley.

I had been expecting to find redbacks (Plethodon cinereus) in the woods and maybe some two-line or long-tail salamanders (Eurycea bislineata and E. longicaudia) in the streams, but we didn’t see any salamanders at all.

We stopped at three ponds on our walk. Two were almost hopping with tadpoles, which I assume will be hibernating in the water and metamorphosing next year. This wasn’t all that surprising or exciting. I like tadpoles, don’t get me wrong, but I figure they’ll be swimming around as long as the ponds aren’t frozen solid.

Here’s Jen catching tadpoles.

I did smile at the green frog (Rana clamitans melanota) Jen spotted. At “Cattail Pond” last summer we had a great time watching big male green frogs, who were flashing their bright yellow throats - breeding colors, call to each other and occasionally interrupt their concerts to leap up and catch mating dragonflies.

These guys were sitting placidly in the shallows, drab and cold, just trying to catch what little sun could squeeze through the clouds.

What amazed me was the garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) Jen spotted in the water. It was stretched out at the surface right near Jen’s perch on an observation platform. I yelled “grab it!” but it dove before she could get her hand on it.

What was that garter snake doing in the pond in this weather? I’m sure it hunts tadpoles and frogs there all spring and summer, but even if it nabbed something, how could it digest it at 57 degrees? I’ve seen plenty of accounts of garter snakes basking near den sites, so maybe it planned on hibernating in a burrow right near there.

We walked around the shore a little more, looking for more frogs and speculating about where the garter snake might have gotten to. We had given up on the snake and were putting away the camera when Jen shouted again.

I have no idea how she spotted it (this kind of thing makes me wonder how much I don’t see when she’s not with me), but the garter snake was right there, a few feet away from where it had been before. It was peeking up from its hiding spot in the leaves at the bottom of the pond. Can you spot it in this picture?

Here are two zoomed-in shots.

I managed to catch it this time, but I took a moment before grabbing it to relish the view of it elegantly stretching up towards the surface and flicking out that scarlet and black-tipped tongue under the water.

It seemed a little uncoordinated and spaced-out. I figure it was just cold, but it also looked a little thin to make it through the winter. I hope nothing was wrong with it. We let it go back where we found it after I had gotten a few pictures of it (including the classic bite-the-camera shot) and it had thoroughly smeared me with musk.

So, at what point should we give up on finding snakes? Maybe it’s not worth looking when there’s a lot of snow and ice on the ground, but as long as we get these days in the 50s, I think we should be out there looking, no matter what the month on the calendar.


- 100+ tadpoles
- 3 green frogs
- 1 garter snake

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Some people wonder what butterflies do in rainstorms; I wonder about the salamanders. To be more specific, I wonder about the streambed salamanders. The redbacks (Plethodon cinereus) and the other woodland salamanders probably have a great time, the soaking freeing them to leave their hiding places and wander around where the ground had been too dry just minutes before.

The streambed salamanders, on the other hand, can find themselves suddenly in the middle of a torrent. I’ve mentioned before that I usually find two-lined salamanders (Eurycea bislineata) under rocks that are a little in the water, a little out of the water. I imagine they risk getting flushed away when all that rain water turns the edge of the stream into the middle of the stream.

At the end of the summer of 2004, a series of major storms flooded the Wissahickon Valley, causing millions of dollars of damage. Rock slides blocked Forbidden Drive, and flooded streams washed out bridges and trails. The streams running down the steep sides of the valley into the Wissahickon were already rocky and damaged from routine runoff upstream in the surrounding streets, sidewalks, and roofs, but the storms send tons of rock smashing through, not just scouring but completely remodeling the streambeds. Imagine a three inch creature so fragile as a salamander in that kind of tumult.

How we found two species of streambed salamanders (two-lines and longtails, Eurycea longicaudia) last year is beyond me, but it’s brought us back flipping rocks in some of the most polluted and degraded streams running in the region two or three times since.

We were on a walk in the Wissahickon last week (Saturday the 11th), and while we were due to hang out at my grandparents’ apartment, we still had to stop to see if we could find anything. We checked a lot of rocks, but we just found one salamander.

Catching two-lines can be a bit of an adventure. You pick up dozens of rocks and find nothing. Then you pick up one rock and see the flash of wet motion that you barely saw well enough to be sure what it is. You pick up the next rock, and there it is again, but it’s gone again under another rock before you can grab it. Then it’s gone under a whole pile of rocks, and you’re faced with a real excavation if you want to catch it. Of course getting under the rocks is just part of the struggle; you also have to grab a wet, slippery little salamander out of the water, similar to catching a minnow barehanded.

I was upstream from Jen when I heard her shouting and cursing. I scampered down, and watched her go from rock to rock. It took at least eight tries, but she finally got her hands on this little guy:

Not much, I know, but a lot of fun for November.

Conditions were sunny and 68 degrees a little before 3pm.


- 1 two-lined salamander

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The salamanders are what’s happening these days. I haven’t gone back to the great door of brown snakes (Storeria dekayi), since I don’t want to disturb them any more than I already have, but I have been looking around other brown snake haunts to see if I could find any similar hibernation parties.

I’ve looked on chilly days, and I’ve looked on a few of the beautifully warm days we’ve had lately, but I haven’t found any snakes.

The redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), however, seem to have been enjoying the weather. I just checked my records, and I’ve found redbacks in every month of the year except for July, and almost always in temperatures below 80 degrees. These little critters stay underground in hot, dry weather, but give them a cool, moist hiding spot near the surface and they’ll use it.

A week ago, on the 5th, Jen and I went to the Mount Moriah Cemetery in SW Philly to check for brown snakes. It was sunny but chilly (low 40s) in the late afternoon, and I’d been thinking that the right piece of cover might possibly reveal some basking snakes, but what we found was salamanders:

I went back midday yesterday (the 10th), another sunny day, but again found only salamanders. I need to stop saying “only salamanders,” since these are some beautiful salamanders. They were also pretty meaty looking for redback salamanders. Maybe they’ve been laying down fat for the winter, but they’ve lost a little of the slender grace I like so much in redbacks.

Of course maybe I've developed a really strangely critical eye for redback salamanders after finding so many this fall, and these look pretty normal. I'll let you be the judge.

Here’s one other salamander, a two-lined (Eurycea bislineata). We were hiking with some friends in Somerset County, NJ, on a sunny day (the 4th) in the high 40s. Jen checked a rock in a stream, and she found this very muddy looking guy:

Two-lined salamanders live in streams. You’ll find Redbacks anywhere in the woods except for streams, but two-lined salamanders stick under rocks in very shallow water or just at the edge of the water. I usually find them under rocks that are resting partly on the land and partly in the water. I think they like to be out of the water but want to be able to jump in if they need to make a speedy getaway.


November 4th:
- 1 two-lined salamander

November 5th:

- 4 redback salamanders

November 10th:

- 6 redback salamanders

Monday, November 06, 2006

On Halloween we went to Centralia, PA. This was entirely by coincidence; Scott had been talking about going to Centralia all summer, but as an exploratory trip to a place where we figured we wouldn’t catch anything, it kept getting pushed back for more likely-productive trips.

Why Centralia? At first Scott was attracted by the idea of an abandoned town and all the abandoned structures and piles of trash that implied. I immediately thought of the strange temperature dynamics of an area of land heated by below rather than from above (by the sun).

Centralia was a very typical small coal mining town in Central PA (southern Columbia Country) up until the 1960s, when a trash fire in the town dump ignited a coal seam. The underground coal fire has burned every since. It undermined the main road running through town (Rt. 61) with smoking cracks in the asphalt, it caused hot, stinking sink holes in backyards, and it filled houses with carbon monoxide.

A few years ago the state and federal governments got together to buy out the remaining residents and condemn the town for safety reasons, although a few people still live there, and the postal service recently revoked the town’s zip code.

I had fantasies of blocks of collapsing houses and debris everywhere, surrounded by forest, and seething with cold-blooded creatures who could stay active longer into the winter because of the extra heat. Maybe they’d avoid the actively smoking cracks in the earth.

When we (Scott, Josh, and I) got there, though, we found an oddly neat abandoned town. There were a few well-maintained houses sitting by themselves, two very well-maintained cemeteries, and a few-blocks’ worth of very sterile-looking sinkholes (that were actually crawling with crickets). There really were smoking holes in the ground, which was kind of cool, but nothing about them suggested herp habitat.

Whoever’s been cleaning up in Centralia has done an excellent job of clearing away debris as the houses have come down, and we only found a few trash piles to look through, yielding only a few redbacked salamanders (Plethodon cinereus).

So, after lunch in a diner-type restaurant in the neighboring town of Ashland, we headed to Blue Mountain to see if we couldn’t stumble on any rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) dens.

The sky was blue and the temperature was in the low 60s, making for wonderful hiking as we scrambled over boulder fields and rocky outcroppings. We found absolutely no snakes, in spite of our heavy hiking, however.

When it was time to head home, we cut up to a dirt run running through the state game land. We had some fun in a feed plot, where game managers plant corn to boost deer and other game populations. These can also indirectly boost populations of large snakes, since rodents also love corn, and lots of snakes love rodents. Josh and I tried the corn, but it was a little dry.

We did hit a little luck in a puddle next to the road. We were shocked to find tadpoles still in the water. How they’ll survive the winter in an exposed puddle on top of a ridge, we have no idea. We also found some newts in the puddle, but they’re a lot more mobile than the tadpoles.

I don’t think we’ll return to Centralia, but I had a great time, which once again steers me away from the Pine Barrens. I had a fabulous time hiking, and I was impressed by the prospect of driving around backroads in rural, economically-depressed Pennsylvania, flipping trash, and hiking in beautifully hilly countryside.


4 redback salamanders
4 red-spotted newts
20+ mystery tadpoles
2 mystery frogs

Saturday, October 28, 2006

What did I want to do on my birthday? Several people asked me that question last week, but I didn’t say “herping,” because that would have made me look a little obsessed, and I’m trying to put a damper on that. Also, I had to go to work, so I had planned to spend some time looking for brown snakes (Storeria dekayi) on Sunday the 22nd.

Unfortunately I ended up getting sick that weekend and was only just getting better on Wednesday the 25th, my birthday. I was still kind of under the weather that afternoon, but I managed enough energy to get in the car and drive to one of my favorite brown snake spots in West Philly for a brief bit of herping around 5pm.

The temperature was only about fifty degrees, but with partly cloudy skies there was enough sun to imagine something basking or catching some heat under the right piece of surface cover.

Rock after rock, and board after board revealed nothing but worms, crickets, ants, and dirt, however, and after twenty minutes I wondered if I was just wasting my time. Sometimes finding nothing under a rock means you’ve tried the wrong rock. Sometimes, though, it means that the critters that day aren’t hiding under rocks; they’re deeper underground or out in the weeds.

I headed up and over one little rise in the field and decided to try a few more trash piles before giving up. Finally I tried an old door, and I found why there weren’t any brown snakes under the other rocks, boards, and logs.

They were all under the door! I’d never seen anything like it! I have dreams like this, where I’m looking at more snakes than I could count, let alone catch, but I needed to take a picture or no one would believe me. So the first thing I did was put the door back down as gently as I could so I could get my camera out. When I lifted the door again, the snakes were starting to move. Some around the edges were starting to crawl off into the weeds, so I started clicking to get pictures of as many as I could.

I wanted to disturb them as little as possible, so after pulling one out for a close up, I left the door. Once I was back at home I counted about thirty snakes from the pictures.

I tried a few more piles of debris and I struck gold again here, a few yards away from the door. There were ‘only’ ten snakes under this one, about half babies born this year, as you can see here.

Brown snakes will hibernate wherever they can squeeze down below the frost line, but when you’re this small, all kinds of stump holes and old cracked foundations with decent southern exposure will do. Still, they often gather together to hibernate, and I’m pretty sure I found a den site. Forty or so brown snakes had crawled over from the surrounding fields, were hanging out at their hibernation site and had spent the warmer part of the day soaking up the heat closer to the surface. Now I know where to look for them first thing in the spring.


40 brown snakes

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The heat came on in our apartment a week and a half ago. Leaves are changing colors and in the suburbs they’ve had frost in the morning, but for us the radiators clanking and heating up are the clearest sign of the slide into winter.

Herpers get sad at the signs of winter. In the spring we run around crazy as cold-blooded life wakes up and spreads out around us. By summer we’ve settled into routines: we cruise reliable stretches of dirt roads and we budget time to follow rumors of rattlers and pine snakes. As the days shorten we get a little frantic and try to fit in one more trip after one more trip before all our scaly and slippery friends make it back to their winter dens.

I’ve given up on the Barrens for the year, I’ve given up on finding timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) in the hills, and the water’s probably too cold by now for swimming after turtles.

Now that it’s cooling down, Jen and I have planned some hiking trips with friends. By that I mean trips just for hiking, that’s it. The summer’s okay for hiking too, but I make a terrible hiking partner when there are critters to be found. In colder weather, though, I can walk for more than ten minutes without stopping to check this log or that rock or hopping into a stream to scrounge for salamanders.

But all this cooling down doesn’t mean I’m giving up completely.

My cousin Tim was up visiting from Delaware on Sunday (October 15th), and when we decided to go for a walk, I guided us towards the Mount Moriah Cemetery.

We were there for walking and talking, so I tried to exercise some self control, but Tim did put up with me checking some choice pieces of cover as we went.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in the high 50s, and there was a party going on for the redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) under the trash and debris. Really, I didn’t look under very much stuff, but I still found twelve salamanders, and I found them in a lot more of the cemetery than where I had found them in the spring – pretty much spread throughout rather than just around the wooded fringes.

I also found three brown snakes (Storeria d. dekayi), all of them small (under eight inches). Two looked like they were about a year old, and one looked like it could have been born this year. Here are two I found cuddled together under a board. How cute is that?

Snakes are usually thought of as loners with no social inclinations besides to seek each other out for sex in the mating seasons. More than once, though, I’ve found little snakes together like this (for example the redbelly snakes, Storeria occipitomaculata I found in July). Maybe that one nook under that one board was the optimal spot for hanging out that afternoon, leading them to end up curled together without any regard for each other, but I like to think they get some comfort from the company.


12 redback salamanders
3 brown snakes

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Who says “leave no stone unturned” is just an expression? I did just that on Sunday the 8th on a rocky hillside in the Wissahickon.

I was looking for an eastern milksnake (Lampropeltis t. triangulum). It was a little late in the season, I think, but I figured it was worth a shot. The weather was about right (sunny and rising from the mid fifties into the low 70s by 2pm or so when I quit).

I had started at a different spot in Roxborough that morning but did not find any snakes there. I did find a small patch of redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). Along with one I found at Cobbs Creek a couple weeks ago, this means they’re back in force. Here’s a leadback phase redback I found there under a rusty can.

The redbacks mostly retreat underground during the heat of the summer, but they come back towards the surface in the fall. As long as the ground is a little moist, you'll find them.

I found 36 of them on my hillside in the Wissahickon. They’re beautiful little creatures with their slender, graceful build and sparkly speckles. Still, they get kind of old when you’re looking for something else and you keep having to pick them out of the way so as not to crush them when you put their rock-shelters back down.

I found no milksnakes on Sunday, but I did have some pleasant surprises. I found some kind of mouse, who took off with her four little furry babies latched on for the ride when I picked up her rock. I also found a northern ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii), which was my first for the Wissahickon. That ringneck made amazing sense after all those redback salamanders. Northern ringneck snakes feed almost exclusively on salamanders, so that hillside is like a huge, all-you-can-eat feast for this little guy.

The mice and the ringnecks were cool in their own right, but they’re also food for milksnakes – the mice for the adults and the smaller snakes for the babies. They give me just enough hope to keep looking in the spring.

I gave up after I looked around and saw that I had reached the bottom of the slope. I had turned over nearly every stone I could lift, and it was time to hike back to my bike and ride home.

Here are some turtles I saw basking in the Schuylkill under the Falls Bridge on my way home. I think they’re red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans).


41 redback salamanders
1 northern ringneck snake
4 mystery turtles
1 DOR brown snake (Storeria dekayi)