Monday, May 08, 2006

"Voices of the Night: Calls of the Frogs and Toads of Eastern North America" saved my trip to the Pine Barrens yesterday.

I had had yet another trip to the Pine Barrens that started with visions of beautiful pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus), cute spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata), and majestic timber rattle snakes (Crotalus horridus) and ended with the frustration of a few fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus), a squirmy worm snake (Carphophis amoenus), and frog calls.

It turned out in the end that those frog calls made the trip, but I had to get home and figure out what they were before I knew it.

I had headed towards some reputed pine snake dens in southwestern Atlantic County and adjacent Burlington County. I spent four hours walking sand roads and firebreaks, flipping every piece of trash or log I could find, and stopping to locate whatever kept running away into the leaves to get away from me.

Most of the time it was birds; robins and sparrows rustle leaves in the stops and starts that make me think ‘lizard!’ There were some actual lizards in there too, though.

I usually think of myself as really bad at catching lizards. I’m slow and too worried about squashing them to grab for them fast enough. On Sunday, though, I was doing something right. I think it was the blind grab: fence lizards like to keep a tree trunk or a log in between themselves and whatever at that moment is trying to catch them. When you hear that startled rustle of leaves and see the lizard dash off, as likely as not it has ended up on the other side of a tree trunk or log. If you move into its field of vision, it will move around the trunk or log to the other side.

Thus the best way to catch the lizard is to keep most of you hidden on that other side and then, as fast as you can, grab for where you think it is. Here's a female I caught; the male would have bright blue patches on its chest and under its throat.

I found one hot spot in my trip: a stream that had been partially dammed by the path and had spread out, shallow and boggy.

I heard a calamitous splashing as I got close – turtles that must have seen me before I had seen them and had jumped from their basking spots. I heard one green frog (Rana clamitans melanota) twanging from the edge, and I saw some really promising tar paper and other debris scattered on the ground near the water. I’m not sure if the debris had been left out to lure herps, since it looked like a great spot for eastern kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula getula), but I did find a worm snake that produced a lot more feces and musk than I expect from such a little snake. It just would not stop squirming for long enough for me to get a good photo (or I was not patient enough to wait long enough for it to calm down).

I checked this stream again after a few hours of fruitless wandering. I was hoping to sneak up on those turtles, but I didn’t even hear them trying to get away this time – there were just quiet, empty stumps and logs when I got there. After I had quietly stalking around for a few minutes, though, the frogs started up again. At first it was just a couple green frogs with their classic loose-banjo-string call, but then something else started honking in a middle/high pitch. Another few similar-sounding frogs joined in, and suddenly there were four or five of them going at it in a vociferous shouting match that just as suddenly stopped, leaving no noise but the wind.

I didn’t think much of it at the time – just that I needed to look up whatever those other frogs were on my frog calls CD. The tree frogs are at the beginning of the disk, and after I had eliminated other, more common, species, I tried the hard-to-find (indeed listed as threatened by the state of New Jersey) Pine Barrens tree frog (Hyla andersonii), and that was it! I tried the other possible candidates, but nothing else fit.

The temperatures on Sunday 05/07/06 ranged from the 50s in the morning to around 70 by mid-day. It was sunny throughout the day.

Trip Totals:

4 fence lizards
1 worm snake
2-3 green frogs (heard)
4-5 Pine Barrens tree frogs (heard)
? turtles (heard)