Thursday, July 13, 2006

So, I’m finally having some success in the Pine Barrens. True, this does somewhat undermine my identity as a luckless, long-suffering Pine Barrens herper, but I am trying to stay pessimistic, since, as my more-experienced herping buddies have assured me, success is not typical in the Barrens.

At the end of June it was the eastern kingsnakes (Lampropeltis g. getula); this past Sunday (July 9th) it was a northern pine snake (Pituophis m. melanoleucus). What’s next, a coastal plains milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum temporalis)? I need to be careful with that kind of joking or the Pine Barrens gods will curse me with bad luck again.

The northern pine snake is one of the iconic herp species of the Pine Barrens. It’s a pine snake, after all. These are big, powerful constrictors that burrow into sandy soil and chase gophers down in their tunnels. They can be beautiful snakes, with a cream background with black and deep brown spots.

Part of the challenge of finding pine snakes is that they spend most of their time underground. Even though you might be in the middle of a big population of them, you won’t necessarily know it since you can’t see them. They are also kind of rare; New Jersey classifies them as threatened. These big snakes need a lot of land, and since they’re big and don’t move too fast, they don’t do well crossing roads.

In hot weather they generally move on the surface early in the morning. So, early in the morning, so early it hurts me to think about it, Scott picked me up. After the obligatory Wawa stop, we raced the rising sun into Ocean County, New Jersey. There is a lot of Pine Barrens out there, but we were headed for a couple locations where Scott had found them before. Keep in mind that Scott has not found them with much frequency: he had caught 3 live pine snakes before Sunday, and he had seen only a few more dead ones on the road.

Our plan was to drive the sand roads of the pine woods and keep an eye out for pine snakes crossing in front of us. I’ll say quickly that this did not work for us. We found lots of dead snakes that way – garter snakes (Thamnophis s. sirtalis), eastern milk snakes (Lampropeltis t. triangulum), rough green snakes (Opheodrys aestivus) – and even some dead turtles – one box turtle (Terrepene c. carolina) and one common musk turtle (Sternotherus oderatus).

We found the pine snake after this strange looking guy (kind of a short, tattooed Jesus) with his large wife and little kid flagged us down to give them a jump. That’s an odd experience – coming across a stranded family early in the morning in the middle of the Barrens.

Anyhow, after the good deed of the morning, we drove on to where this promising sand road branched off and we parked. It turned out to be a short cul de sac, and towards the end of it I heard something rustle in the underbrush.

I heard it again, not far enough from the first rustle to be a fence lizard – this was something slower. I finally fixed on the motion and found a toad: a small Fowlers toad (Bufo fowleri), one of the millions and millions of Fowlers toads that rule the Pine Barrens.

They might look fat and clumsy, but toads have a habit of hopping right when you’re sure you’re about to grab them. I missed him a few times, and I was ready to try another grab when Scott called out from maybe thirty yards away. He had found some boards that looked promising. I looked at the toad, I thought about it a moment, and then I decided I could give up on that one.

I walked over and realized how cool this board pile was. I’m still not sure what it was originally, but what we found was several square yards of wood planks neatly lined up and mostly buried in sand, with some small plants growing in between here and there. The boards were set on cross beams, leaving some space between them and the sand below. I almost think it was the floor to an old structure, or maybe an old wall that had tipped over and was being swallowed up by the Barrens.

Scott worked with his Stumpripper and I with my hands (I can’t find my cultivator). We picked up a board and put it back down. We picked up the next to look and repeated. Suddenly I spotted something moving right in front of my face.

It was a pine snake! I shouted and grabbed it right away. I had kind of been hoping for a good defensive display – pine snakes are famous for rearing up off the ground and hissing really loudly – but this one was pretty placid. She hissed a little, but did not thrash around and did not bite. She also didn't hold still very well for photos, so here are a bunch of photos with us holding her.

Maybe she was worn out. A lot of the pine snakes we’ve heard of people catching in June were gravid females, and this big girl (at least four feet long) looked a little skinny. The timing’s right for her to have recently laid eggs.

Scott found a couple mouse nests in that board pile, and I found what we think was the pine snake’s shed skin.

We figure that board pile might be her home base, or at least she’s been hunting around it lately to eat and gain some of her weight back.

We didn’t find much else that day, but we didn’t need to. I went back and got my toad, and then a few more later on. We spotted some fence lizards, but that was it. One snake, a few toads and fence lizards, and zero turtles, salamanders, and frogs might not be a spectacular total, but when you spend months looking for something and finally find it, your high defies all usual complaints. Even the ticks didn't bother us too much, and there were a lot of ticks.

And of course there were the blueberries. It’s that time of the year again, when hungry Pine Barrens herpers can forgot about bringing snacks on the trip, because the snacks are growing wild all around them!

The temperatures started in the mid 60s, but were in the high 70s when we found the pine snake. It was sunny.


1 DOR eastern milk snake
2 DOR eastern garter snakes
1 DOR common musk turtle
1 DOR eastern box turtle
1 DOR rough green snake
1 DOR black rat snake (Elaphe o. obsoleta)
2 fence lizards
7 Fowler’s toads
About 7 calling green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota)
1 northern pine snake

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Evening road cruising is one of the most popular herping methods there is, and I had never done it before Frank, Dave, and Bill took me out last Wednesday (June 28). Out in deserts and other hot places where many herps are only active at night and hide deep in burrows during the day, it’s practically the only way to find anything. In the Pine Barrens it is also one of the most productive summer herping techniques. I’ve heard the stories of eastern king snakes (Lampropeltis g. getula) corn snakes (Elaphe g. guttata) and timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) and, in the rain, roads hopping with all manner of frogs and toads.

Sounds great, right? So why haven’t I gone evening road cruising before? I can think of a couple reasons. The first is that it always struck me as a little nutty. You drive around at slow speeds at night, and then jump out of the car into the road as soon as you spot something in your headlights. A herping acquaintance in Baltimore once explained that the real way to do it is to have someone up on the hood of the car so nothing gets away in the time it would take to open the car door.

The other reason is that it strikes me as a little too technological. I know it’s really time-efficient, and I’m no Luddite, but road cruising seems like a pretty perverse way to experience nature. I feel that we’re maximizing the number of finds to the detriment of the overall experience.

One of the main reasons I go out looking for herps is to access the wonder of the natural world through the objects of my particular obsession: reptiles and amphibians. I love to hike out to immerse myself in their world and observe how they fit into it. I like to get my boots dirty and see the critters in their habitats. A snake crossing blacktop is almost totally isolated. It is not the snake in its environment, it is the snake isolated and horribly vulnerable on an artificial surface, viewed through a windshield.

One of my favorite Pine Barrens finds of all time was a Fowler’s toad (Bufo fowleri) I found in the Pine Barrens sitting next to a small log from which a steady stream of winged termites was emerging. The toad was the most beautiful pale grey with sharp black spots, a pattern that blended in perfectly with the sandy soil, and it was ridiculously fat from all the termites it had already stuffed in its belly. We saw at least 130 Fowlers toads last Wednesday, but they all seemed a little out of place to me. [Here is one toad on the road]

Now that I’ve gotten all of that out of my system, I need to admit (a little guiltily) that I had a blast! Toads are nice and all that, but they’re not kingsnakes. I’d never caught an eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis g. getula) in the Pine Barrens, and we saw two. True, one had just been killed by another vehicle, but it was still thrilling. [Here is the live kingsnake. One of the best ways to get a picture of a squirmy snake is to hold it down for a few seconds, take your hands away, and snap the photo before it bolts.]

I also had a great time with my fellow road cruisers. I’d only communicated with Bill, Dave, and Frank by email before, but there’s something about sharing such a rare, nerdy passion that breeds instant familiarity. It’s clear right away that you’re among your own kind.

Road cruising also unifies observation in funny ways. When you’re out with other people hiking or flipping cover, you’re each looking at something different – multiple people searching independently. In a car, you’re all staring forward together, and when something herp-like (snake or stick? turtle or rock?) appears at the hazy edge of the headlights’ field of view, you all lean forward and stare together, you all hold your breath together, and you all lean back together once it’s obvious that yep, that’s a stick.

We headed out from Frank’s place in South Jersey and cruised around Burlington County and a little of Atlantic County. We saw those kingsnakes, the hordes of toads (mixed in with a few green frogs – Rana clamitans melanota), and heard a lot of frogs calling off beyond the edge of the road. Maybe next time I’ll come more equipped to charge off into the woods to spotlight the little guys. [Here is one of the green frogs]

We found two northern water snakes (Nerodia s. sipedon) also, again one live one and one recent DOR (dead on road) – its tail was still reflexively twitching even though its head was still and its guts were splattered out on the pavement.

I’m glad we ended with the live water snake. [Here is the live one, on the sand road and then suffering the indignity of being measured]

I know we had nothing to do with killing the two dead snakes, but it breaks my heart to see them dead like that. The kingsnake was the worse of the two – a gravid female with at least six shelled eggs in her, all ready to be laid. One had been shot out her vent by the impact of the tire that killed her, and most of the others had been broken inside her, so what oozed out of her was a yolky, bloody mess. [We pulled the dead female off the road for a closer examination]

I want to end (before the totals) by thanking Bill, Dave and Frank for taking me along. I learned a lot on that trip, both by watching them work (these guys probably have 100+ years of field herping experience between them) and by talking while we were driving. I had a great time, and I look forward to our next trip.

The weather was humid with temps falling from the high 70s into the high 60s

- 130+ Fowler’s toads (5+ heard calling)
- 20+ green frogs
- 2 eastern kingsnakes
- 2 northern water snakes
- 10 carpenter frog (Rana virgatipes) heard calling
- 3 Pine Barrens tree frogs (Hyla andersonii) heard calling