Thursday, September 21, 2006

I made my summer’s last early morning trip into the Pine Barrens last Sunday, September 17. I don’t mean that as a trick statement, since next weekend is past the autumnal equinox. I could again wake up before dawn and be in the Barrens by 6:30am to cruise over the sand roads, burn through a third of a tank of gas and flip the same boards, but I won’t.

Why not? For starters I’m starting to feel like I’m neglecting Pennsylvania. I haven’t gone herping around Philadelphia much lately, there are spots in Bucks County I’d like to check out, and I haven’t been up in the mountains since the spring.

I am also tired of feeling delighted by a couple cool finds, but then looking at how long I spent out there (nine hours on Sunday) and feeling deflated by how much time and energy went into finding so little. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy my Pine Barrens trips, but I’m feeling like I can probably find as much and have as much fun in other places, all in less time and using less gasoline.

On Sunday my most notable cool finds were a dead eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos) and a live spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata).

Of course the hognose snake was less cool for being dead. It was pretty recently run over, in fact, but hognose snakes are cool enough that even a dead one was interesting. What most motivates me to find a hognose snake is their defensive behavior. They are harmless and almost never bite, but they are famous for flattening their necks and hissing like little cobras. Then, if that doesn’t scare you off, they go the opposite route; they flip over on their backs, stick their tongues out, and play dead. I’d be really impressed if they could shoot their guts out of their mouths and vents like the DOR one I found.

As their name implies, hognose snakes have a funny little upturned nose which they use to dig up toads. You can sometimes find hognose snakes crawling around in the morning, but they are very difficult to find under boards or other cover. With all the Fowlers toads (Bufo fowleri) in the Barrens, I would expect to find hognose snakes swarming all over the place, but I haven’t seen a live one yet.

The Spotted turtle was a nice antidote to the hognose snake. I saw it by the side of the road at a small creek crossing, and I thought to myself, ‘that’s a little too flat to be a box turtle (Terrepene carolina).’ I backed up, hopped out of the car, and sure enough it wasn’t a box turtle; it was a spotted!

Spotted turtles are, in my opinion, the cutest of our turtles. They don’t get much bigger than five inches and they have shiny black shells marked with bright yellow polka dots. I was delighted to find this guy (concave shell and long tail, so I’m thinking it was a male) alive, and I helped him across the busy two-lane road. [If you ever find a turtle crossing a road, always help it go in the direction it’s headed. If you bring it back it will just try to cross again; turtles are stubborn that way.]

I would love to show you a picture of him, but my camera broke. I can’t get it to focus, and half the time the zoom doesn’t work, so I need to send it in for repairs. Wish me luck.

To wind up my day I spent some time on foot in an area of pygmy forest. The pygmy forest refers to sections of the Barrens where the pines and oaks don’t grow much taller than five feet. It’s a bizarre landscape, with the white ‘sugar’ sand and the shrubby trees all around. It would make for some cool photos, but like I said, my camera wasn’t working.

I started by smashing up a cantaloupe and throwing the pieces into a pond near where I parked. Doesn’t that sound nutty? I thought so, but Scott claimed it was a great way to attract turtles close to shore, so I gave it a shot.

I left the melon in the water and went on a hike. All I saw was one Fowlers toad, but it’s behavior is worth describing in more detail. Up until now I’ve found these toads hopping around on the surface, but this one was underground. I was walking along, enjoying the scenery and scanning ahead for hognose snakes and pine snakes (Pituophis m. melanoleucus). Suddenly a spot of sand in front of me boiled up, and out hopped this fat little toad.

After an hour of wandering around after that, I headed back to check the cantaloupe. I was surprised and impressed to see a painted turtle (Chrysemys p. picta) scoot away as I approached. Another three watched me from the water at a safe distance. Next time I’ll know to go in from the water on my belly to catch them more by surprise.

On Sunday it was sunny or partly cloudy the whole time I was out. The temperatures started off in the low 60s at dawn and rose into the high 70s by the time I headed home.


1 DOR hognose snake
1 spotted turtle
1 Fowlers toad
4 Painted turtles
4 Southern leopard frogs (Rana sphenocephala)

One last note: My cousin Jeff let me know that the MacArthur Foundation made David Carroll a fellow. These fellowships are often called “genius awards,” and consist of $500,000 to use however the fellow sees fit over five years. [If any of this blog’s fans are nominators, feel free to submit my name – I’d drop anything else to herp for five years and get paid just to write about it] Carroll is a great naturalist, artist, and author who focuses his attention on turtles, especially on spotted turtles, and their habitat. Check out the links below for more information, and read the Year of the Turtle to immerse yourself in the world of the spotted turtle.{792DF754-B774-4C09-A2B3-B93BD9071661}&notoc=1