Monday, February 06, 2006

I was very excited about my herping outing on Saturday. I had seen posts on one of the herping forums about tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) migrating to their breeding pools in Illinois, so I was thinking that with the rain last week some might have started moving around in our neck of the woods too.

I had met Kyle on one of the herping forums, and he offered to show me a spot in Gloucester County, New Jersey where he has found tiger salamanders several times in the past. I met him and his son Konner in a Wawa parking lot (I wonder how many Wawas there are in South Jersey), and from there we drove for a few minutes to reach a collapsed house in the woods. It was little more than a pile of concrete, tar roofing material, and cinder blocks.

It looked really promising, but after searching under nearly everything we could lift up, we decided the tiger salamanders were not yet on the move, at least not right there.

From there we tried some boards at another spot and found only roaches. We checked out some downed trees and discussed the herping ethics of searching under loose bark on dead trees. We should always leave things as we find them, but when you look under a piece of bark it usually comes off the tree in your hand, irreparably altering the microhabitat you just inspected. We decided that one should peek without removing the bark whenever possible. If one does remove some bark, one should make sure to remove less than half the bark on the tree. We found nothing under the bark that we checked, but who knows what lurked under the bark we didn’t check? I guess my satisfaction with my own ethical standards will just have to outweigh my unrequited curiosity.

We poked around some vernal pools and found nothing. I have never gone looking for salamanders in their breeding pools, but the idea is to look for anything moving in the water as you approach or gently move leaves around at the bottom. We were startled by a small fish in one (I guess that qualifies the pool as a permanent pond), but otherwise nothing moved.

Our last stop was at a large dump site: countless tires, assorted car seats, a couple heaps of crab shells, and a large pile of construction debris in the middle of it all. By this point we had gotten the feeling that the tigers were still in their winter holes. It was also starting to rain; this would be our last stop. We did find one redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus). I’ve posted some photos of the more common red-backed phase that gives the salamander its name, but this one was of the also-common leadback phase. There’s no red and the sparkly dark gray covers the entire back of the salamander. It was very squirmy as Konner held it up for me to take a picture. I hope these two pictures, taken a split second apart, demonstrate how hard it was to get the little critter to sit still.

We found very little on our trip, but Kyle and I talked throughout. I learned a lot. Kyle’s been herping the region for a couple decades and seems to have found everything I want to find – even the supposedly really rare scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea), timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), the majestic northern pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus), and the gorgeous coastal plains variation of the eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum). It is no small favor to share the locations of your trusty herping spots (we all fear the day someone might come through and wipe out the old friends we visit and take pictures with every year), and I greatly appreciate Kyle’s trust.

A couple related points: I have recently signed up to take part in the New Jersey Herp Atlas project. This is a way to communicate your herping observations in New Jersey to the state so that the information can be used to support conservation. I have added a link to the Herp Atlas website to the links at the bottom right. If you would like to see pictures and learn more about the NJ herps I've discussed, see the other great website I've added to the right, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection's Online Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians.