Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A few days before New Year’s Day I got excited about the weather forecast. They were calling for rain starting New Year’s Eve and continuing through New Year’s Day. Maybe this was my chance for finding a tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), the largest of our terrestrial salamanders and one of the hardest to find.

Tiger salamanders spend almost their entire lives out of sight. They mostly stay under ground, and if they come out it’s at night. Once a year, though, they crawl out of their burrows and trek over hills, through fields and forests, to the right breeding pool to mate and lay eggs. These are truly epic journeys – hundreds of yards is quite a migration for a salamander.

I know of one supposedly reliable tiger salamander spot and it’s in Delaware (tigers don’t live in PA, are considered extremely rare by the state of Delaware, and are endangered in NJ). It’s a bit of a drive, but an interesting place with several Delmarva Bays, small seasonal ponds (a.k.a. vernal pools) that are amphibian hot spots in the spring.

Tiger salamanders in South Jersey and Delaware supposedly breed in December, but I didn’t notice much precipitation when I looked back at the weather history for December, so I figured they might be getting out to get it on over New Year’s Eve or the night of New Year’s Day.

The coolest way to herp breeding aggregations of ambystomid salamanders (tiger salamanders, like spotted salamanders, Ambystoma maculatum, and marbled salamanders, Ambystoma opacum, are part of the Ambystoma family, the ‘mole’ salamanders) is to head out at night and cruise the roads around the breeding pond or walk around the edges of the pond. Do that in the right spot at the right time and you can see hordes of these usually-secretive critters, all of them looking for love and some of them finding it.

You can still get lucky the next day, after all the salamanders have gotten lucky and a few are still hanging around the pool. You flip logs and other cover in soggy areas, keep an eye out for anyone hiding in the water, and maybe uncover a critter before it starts the long hike back home. You can also see egg masses in the water, the products of all that crazy amphibious sex.

I guess I was wrong about my timing, since I didn’t see anything besides tadpoles in the Bays. I looked under a lot of cover, got my socks plenty wet (extra fun when it’s 49 degrees out; at least it was sunny today), and didn’t even see any egg masses.

This wasn’t the greatest start to my 2007 herping year, but it did sort of validate some of my herping resolutions. So what have I resolved for herping 2007?

- First, I’m going to stay as local as possible and as urban as possible. I have as much fun finding common species in unlikely places nearby as I do finding rarer species after a miles and miles of driving. I would have had a lot more fun today finding long-tailed salamanders (Plethodon longicauda) in the Wissahickon

- When I do go far away – to the Pine Barrens, to the mountains, I would like to team up with other herpers as much as possible. Striking out with other people is more fun than striking out on your own, and more eyes and ideas make finding something after the long drives more likely.

- I’d like to get more involved with herping with kids. This fall and winter I’ve gotten requests from cousins, friends, and even someone who volunteers with local urban school kids to take children herping with me. I’d love to turn more kids on to the hobby, but more importantly I’d like to teach kids with limited access to Nature how to get their hands dirty and find wonder where they can find it.

- More turtling: I need to work on catching turtles, something that I can practice relatively locally and can combine with hot-weather activities such as canoeing and tubing. I'd like to master several techniques, including noodling, fruit baiting, netting, and leaping from shore.

That’s it: no species targets, no specific locales to hit – all that is secondary. Have a happy and herpy New Year!