Sunday, December 30, 2007

On Thursday (December 27th) I called Scott to see how his herping expedition with Josh to Florida was going. “Did you bag your indigo snake yet?” I said, almost entirely joking.

Indigo snakes (Drymarchon corais) are one of the most highly-sought-after snakes on the continent. They are big snakes, growing to over eight feet, and beautiful at any size. Their name refers to their deep, shiny blue-black color, often highlighted with a rose chin and throat. Indigo snakes are also rare. They’re federally listed due to a combination of their demand in the pet trade and their basic incompatibility with human civilization – a large diurnal snake is an easy mark for anyone who wants to kill it, and with a range of several hundred acres, an adult indigo has to dodge a lot of traffic to survive. Finding an indigo snake will make your day if not your month (… if not your year).

Scott had invited me along on his Florida excursion sometime in early December, long after our plans had been set (and plane tickets bought, vacation arranged at work, etc.) to spend Christmas with Jen’s family in Roswell, GA. Scott has a habit of inviting me on trips when it’s too late for me to change plans to come along. This isn’t his fault; he frequently learns his work schedule a few weeks out, making long-range herping trip planning difficult. Still, it would have been nice to have been roaming Florida, and as much as I was enjoying the holidays in Georgia, I was a little miffed at missing out on another expedition. So there were a few layers of meaning packed into my sarcastic, “Did you bag your indigo yet.”

I was talking to him on my cell phone in a movie theater lobby (we had just seen Charlie Wilson’s War – quite good) with mediocre reception, and so I didn’t quite understand his reply or believe the most likely interpretation of the crackling. I asked again, and he repeated what I thought he’d said: “Well yes, actually we did.” It was a young indigo at just three feet, but still Josh apparently jumped into Scott’s arms with joy. I sighed and recounted the previous day’s herping success in Roswell, which suddenly sounded pretty lame.

Atlanta has been experiencing one of its worst droughts in history (this weekend’s weather will determine whether they beat their driest year on record), so I can’t be too grumpy about the rainy weather that kept me inside most of the time I was there. In fact the moisture probably helped us find the salamanders we did uncover.

We worked a couple streams in the Island Ford Park section of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area. It was partly cloudy and in the low 50s that afternoon, so we concentrated on stream-bed salamandering. We worked our way upstream and uphill in one stream flowing into a pond, and I figured we’d start seeing our familiar duskies (Desmognathus species) and two-lines (Eurycea species) once we hit the rockier stretches.

The first salamander we found was this half-grown lifer, a three-lined salamander (Eurycea guttolineata). These used to be considered a subspecies of our longtailed salamander (Eurycea longicaudata), and when grown up have a similarly slender build. I dig the bold black stripes and the silver and black mottling on the belly.

When I looked these guys up back home I learned they stick more to the flatter, boggier sections of streams instead of the rockier sections dominated by their two-line relatives, meaning my strategy was dead wrong and I probably would have found more downstream, not upstream. Jen soon flipped this tiny salamander, a baby slimy (Plethodon glutinosis) under a log just uphill from the bank.

Jen had been to our second stream a week earlier (she had come down to Atlanta before I did) and had reported large dusky-type salamanders. It only took a few minutes to catch two of these:

These were about five inches long and beefy. Their backs were a dark purplish gray/brown color with only a vague pattern, and their bellies looked to be a uniform medium gray. I had a similar experience IDing duskies in Georgia last year, and I’m pretty sure these are seal salamanders (Desmognathus monticola), since everything but the color is typical. Seal salamanders are supposed to have light backgrounds and distinct patterns with white bellies, but old individuals in the southern portion of their range (where we were) can get uniformly dark, including their bellies.

The last find was a DOR southern ringneck snake (Diadophis p. punctatus) we found walking back to our car. Late December is not when you usually expect to spot a snake, even a dead one, but it must have been run over just a couple days before.

This might be my last blog post of the year. I know other folks have been posting Best of 2007 posts, but I’m going to wait until the year is definitely over (and I’ll probably get in a New Years Day trip) and I’m stuck in a deep cold snap to assess and review the year.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

I can get a little obsessive about scouting. Of course I enjoy the actual hunt, the direct contact with reptile and amphibian species, and communing with nature, but a lot of what I enjoy about herping is the research that backs up the finds. Sometimes another herper tells you a spot and that's all there is to finding good habitat, but given two routes to getting my hands on a spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata), a scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinae), or a spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus) – getting a tip or finding the spot myself – I'll take the triumph of starting from scratch and finding my way to the site and the animal myself.

I use the term "scouting" loosely. For the most part it refers to getting out into the woods, fields, swamps, what have you, and seeing if you can find good habitat. That might mean finding a vernal pool in the forest that looks good for spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum). It might mean finding the perfect rocky outcropping for timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus), and it might mean finding a decrepit, abandoned building with sheets of tin and plywood scattered about in the weeds. I also include electronic searching when I talk about scouting. Google and other companies can show you satellite images down to a few feet of resolution, and I use these to spot things I can't see from the ground.

The satellite images do have their shortcomings. A few feet of resolution can show you a tree, but it can't show you a two-inch-wide fence. The images might be a few years old and lack recent buildings. Also, for reasons I don't understand, the images are inconsistent in their resolution. I might be able to get better resolution if I paid for it, but the free services have horrible resolution for most of central and northern Pennsylvania. You might be able to see a large rocky outcropping, but good luck finding a small vernal pool. In southern New Jersey, however, the resolution is good, and I've focused my electronic scouting there.

I started by finding some known vernal pools and using their appearance on the screen to guide my scanning. Some of the smaller pools could be mistaken for shadows of trees, but the bigger ones were notable as dark spots or holes in the texture of the surrounding forest. In a funny side note, the carpet in the hallway where I work is green with a dense pattern of raised, wormy spots on it – a lot like a satellite images of forest. A couple weeks ago I found myself doing double takes at stains on the carpet, dark spots that had all the appearance of vernal pools seen from a satellite.

My early results on actual satellite images surprised me. I examined some territory I thought I knew pretty well – not back of my hand well, but I'd been through a few times exploring. I'd found marbled salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) there and since marbled salamanders only breed in seasonal wetlands, there had to be the vernal pools nearby (here's one of my 'stock images' of a marbled salamander):

I'd looked on foot but had never found pools. The satellite images showed a couple obvious pools to check out, however, and I almost couldn't believe I hadn't seen them before on the ground.

Chris "Kid Chelonia" and I met up early on Saturday (December 15th) to investigate. We struck off in the direction of the pools, but stopped at some permanent ponds I already knew about and checked them out for egg masses,on the slight ( extremely slight) chance tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) were in the area and had bred in them. We saw no evidence of tigers, but we did see something plop in the water right in front of Chris. We looked at each other in surprise and befuddlement. That's just what you'd expect a frog to do, but it was cold. Sure it was sunny, but the thermometer showed 31 degrees. We continued our examination of the pond and then checked out this small pool next to the main pond. You can see that the surface is iced over.

The ice was only a quarter inch thick at most, so we could still see through well enough to see the leaves on the bottom. Somehow Chris spotted a frog under the ice. By the time I made it over, the frog wasn't there anymore, but he quickly spotted another. Can you see it?

Here it is a little closer in.

We're pretty sure it's a southern leopard frog (Rana utricularia).

We hiked on, and when we got close to where the hidden pools were, I pulled out my handy GPS unit and my notes with the coordinates. We went a little farther, and then I announced that it was time to take a turn off the path and into the woods. There was nothing obvious marking that point of the path; the woods looked about the same as they had to that point. Chris shrugged and followed, and after a few dozen yards of normal woods we started hitting briars. These weren't the rose that you can find just about anywhere but the less wicked variety you often find at the edge of wetlands in Jersey. A few yards more and we'd found our pool.

It was dry (a little concerning, but consistent with the dry weather at the end of the summer and into the fall), but the sparse brush and mossy bases around the trees and stumps told us that the spot indeed floods by the spring. Here is a picture to show what I'm talking about:

It isn't too far from a creek, which means the water-loving herps that live in the creek (ribbon snakes – Thamnophis sauritus, garter snakes – Thamnophis sirtalis, water snakes – Nerodia sipedon, spotted turtles, etc.) probably hop on over to eat the amphibians that breed in it come March and April.

The same thing happened with the next spot I had noted. We found an actual pond, and it had the added benefit of connecting to an acre or so of forest that looked like it floods in the spring as well.

I was feeling pretty full of myself at this point, and we drove off into the nearby Pine Barrens to confirm five additional ponds and pools – all hidden by trailside vegetation or just a little too far off into the woods to be visible. These were all off trails I've walked three or four times with no clue of what was back into the woods.

Chris and I kept on exploring for a couple more hours, and we racked up two more clusters of seasonal wetlands elsewhere in South Jersey (I think we ended up covering 4 counties). The only downside was the lack of water (the two photos above are permanent ponds). Although they call them 'vernal' pools, the pools actually fill up over the fall and winter, so we need water in them soon to have all the fun we're planning in March through May.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) were laughing at us on Monday. I'm not sure where they were exactly – probably deep in rotten stumps and old root holes – but they must have been laughing at Scott and me bushwhacking our way around the dark woods in the rain Monday night.

I'm glad we could give them something to laugh about, because they're probably not very happy about their breeding season so far. Tiger salamanders need shallow bodies of water in which to breed, and out in our area that's usually vernal pools. Although the rain was just right to put them in the mood, and although they usually breed in December, Scott and I firmly demonstrated that there is no water in the vernal pools in that corner of the Delaware Valley.

I can only imagine how frustrating that must be for the salamanders. It's the right time of year, it's a nice rainy night, but no water in the pools.

Remember these salamanders only mate one time per year. They wait all year for some action. The females are ready to burst with eggs; they can barely walk. Mid December rolls around, the rain pitter-patters all around them, but the water's not there. They might have to wait until January or February, horny as hell and hoping for storms.

Early on I knew something was odd when I couldn't locate several small pools that should have been near where we parked. I'd hyped the spot to Scott as a wonderful series of pools and ponds in the woods, and it was frustrating to find nothing of what I'd promised on the ground.

We hiked on towards a larger pair of pools, but all we found were high-and-dry shrubs that should have been sitting on little islands in the middle of the water.

I should also emphasize the difficulty of navigating in only-moderately familiar woods at night. These pools, surrounded by saplings and brush, are sometimes tricky to spot in broad daylight, and I've only been there a couple times. We found ourselves wandering and reading the slope of the landscape around us to find where they should have been. After two hours of that in hip waders (we really thought we'd be in water), we were tuckered out.

It's rare to get skunked so thoroughly. I usually find a redback salamander ( Plethodon cinereus) or some kind of frog or toad. All we saw were warm blooded animals. Scott almost stepped on a rabbit, and I noticed the eye shines of a group of deer just off the trail. That's a little eerie – to look to your right and see six sets of disembodied eyes glowing at you from off in the dark. The strangest find was the turkey roosting in a tree above us. We never actually saw it. We had stopped so Scott could take off his sweater (we had dressed for cold and wet, but we worked up a sweat hiking around) and then heard a whooshing and crashing noise in the tree tops above us. We tried to catch whatever it was in our flashlight beams, but it was always one noisy jump ahead of us. It was too loud and clumsy for an owl, and it did make a little clucking gobble noise that made me wonder. Yesterday a friend confirmed that turkeys do roost in trees, so now I'm pretty sure that's what it was.

Our season's first failure in the bag, the next step will be checking out some other spots to see if they've got any water. In the meantime let's pray for rain.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I’m planning a tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) run tonight. Again there’s a possibility the weather might not cooperate, but it looks like the best odds this week, so we’ll give it a shot.

I’ve been focusing my herping energy in a couple other directions lately: I’ve been working on an essay on herping for a writing competition, and I’ve been scouting from my laptop. By that I mean I’ve been trying to use Google Earth to identify vernal pools from satellite images. There aren’t as many as I had expected, but I think I’ve found a couple promising areas to explore.

Scott came over yesterday afternoon to join me in looking at satellite images and matching promising sites to the NJ road atlas I use in the car. He is also feeling a little cabin fever, and we’re hoping the tiger run helps with our condition. Even if we find nothing, the big to-do of it all (getting out of work early, packing special equipment like nets and flashlights, driving out of the city, wandering around the woods in the dark) should use up some energy.

Next weekend I think I’ll try a local stream bed salamandering. There’s a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) spot in the city I’d like to investigate a little more. Wish us luck.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

We were disappointed by the weather on Monday. I had come in early to work so I could leave early, and when I left for work it had been raining, just as I had hoped.

A few days before I had noticed the Monday forecast for rain all day and into the night. I’d been keeping an eye out for that kind of weather, so I had emailed the regulars to see who might be up for a tiger hunt. We wouldn’t need any elephants or rifles, just flashlights, ponchos, and sufficient herping drive to wander around at night, in the woods, in the cold November rain.

Last year I missed the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) breeding season, and this year I’m determined to hit it. Chris reminded me that the tigers were breeding at our target New Jersey site last Christmas and that when he had recently been to the site, the vernal pools in which they breed were still dry. Still, I figured a solid day of rain might fill the pools a little and bring a few of them out. (there's also a possibility of visiting a site in Delaware where the tigers are known to breed in December).

That rainy day was not to be, however. After the morning rain the fog rolled in over my Center City office and, according to three different internet weather sites, over our tiger site. It rained again in the evening, but we agreed to call off the trip and keep our hopes up for some rainy spells in December.

Since then, I've managed to read a few academic articles about tiger salamanders in New Jersey, and they're supposed to breed more in January than November, so I think Chris is probably right - that we should be especially attentive as we get into December and that it's a little early right now.

While I’m on the salamander theme, at least I’ll highlight an interesting find while we were out at Scott’s cabin the second weekend in September, making this the third and final installment on that trip.

A rocky creek runs through Scott’s family’s property, and when Jen thinks herping, she thinks of flipping rocks in a creek for salamanders and frogs. Scott and I were probably overly focused on finding timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) and wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) out in the state game lands, because Jen landed the only lifer of the trip for us just in back of the cabin.

We were finding a bunch of two-lined salamanders (Eurycea bislineata) and mountain dusky salamanders (Desmognathus ochrophaeus) along the creek bed – over thirty of each for the trip. They actually look kind of similar; both are small salamanders with yellow backs. For a day I thought we were just catching only two lines at first, but then I took a closer look at one and noticed the eyes bugging out a little too much, the more muscular cheeks, the back legs that were a lot bigger than the front legs, the shorter body, and I said, “you know what…” Here are the mountain duskies. They're not the flashiest of salamanders, but dig how they sparkle in a camera flash:

I’m embarrassed to say I don’t have many photos of two-lined salamanders. These are photos from past herping seasons. Note the more slender, elongated build and the rounder head with the shorter snout and smaller-looking eyes.

Like redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus – of which we also found dozens), I see them so often I think “no need for another photo of a two-line” when that’s not the case. I only notice that I hardly have any pictures and that they’re all crappy when I’m writing up the blog post later.

Jen reported finding another type of salamander, though, a much bigger salamander that she chased from rock to rock for a few yards before it got away under something she couldn’t lift. My mind shuffled through the few possibilities, and I decided she must have seen a spring salamander (Gyrinophilus p. porphyriticus). These are big (up to 9 inches) salamanders that live around creeks and springs (no surprise there) and that feed on salamanders and other amphibians. All those two-lines and mountain duskies are dinner for the big one that got away from Jen.

The morning after Jen reported the big salamander we were both out there hunched over and scraping our knuckles chasing salamanders when Jen shouted out that she had another big one. This one didn’t get away, and she handed it over to me in a plastic container we prefer to use when handling amphibians. This was not as big as the one that got away, but it was still a big salamander at around six inches.

It got me wondering about the lunker salamander that’s still out there in the creek, gobbling up the little salamanders and taunting the clumsy humans. We’ll get him next year.

I'll end with a few photos of other species we found. There were lots of frogs hopping into the creek and into a couple ponds on the property. Some were bull frogs (Rana catesbeiana), some were northern leopard frogs (Rana pipiens), some were probably pickerel frogs (Rana palustris), and some were green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota). Here's a small green frog I found near the creek.

Here's a small slimy (Plethodon glutinosis) salamander Jen turned up.

Last, here's an oddly colored redback I found. It looks like it's missing its red pigment, so it's more like a yellowback. It's a crappy photo, but as the only salamander I've seen like that, I figured it was important to post it.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

I checked my new brown snake (Storeria d. dekayi) spot in the Woodlands Cemetery yesterday and today, but for the first week in the last five I found no snakes. There were centipedes, there were a few worms, and a slug, but no snakes. I did find another redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus), however, but they won’t call it quits until July.

Is this the official sign of winter? The brown snakes have given up on a great basking spot and have retreated into their den.

My thoughts do turn to the next event on the winter herping calendar: the breeding of the tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum).

I’m a little worried I missed them already. Every time it rains I wonder if I should be heading out into the wet night with my poncho and headlamp, but each time it’s rained I’ve had plans already. I need to keep a closer eye on the weather and plan ahead.

Until that mild, rainy night when I finally witness a tiger salamander orgy, I guess I’ll post about some trips from the summer. In particular I’ll pick up where I left off on my reports about our early September trip to Scott and Caroline’s cabin upstate.

Part two is about a fruitless timber rattler (Crotalus horridus) trip Scott and I took into a nearby state game land. I’m getting the part about fruitless searching for rattlers out of the way to focus on one of my favorite herping techniques: Flipping rocks along dirt roads in State Game Lands. The rocks I’m talking about usually sit up on the ridge of packed earth along the dirt roads. I assume that they get tossed up there along with the earth when the roads are graded.

It’s barely worth naming this as a technique since any herper walking along a dirt road in the woods, in a meadow, in a marsh, wherever, will be unable to resist flipping at least some of rocks on the way, even if s/he is cruising along pretty quickly.

That said, I’ve learned it’s important to keep from ignoring the rocks along the way as one hikes to the destination Clemmys/Glyptemys spot or south-facing rocky outcropping. So far I’ve found small snakes and salamanders pretty regularly.

I’m probably not going to find large snakes this way, but since some of the snakes I’m still really itching to find are small and secretive, that doesn’t matter so much.

On a recent stop on my way back from a trip for work (October 4th, 2007), I went for a little hike. It was a nice hike but a lame herping trip. It was humid, more cloudy than sunny, and in the high 70s. By the time I turned around to go back to the car I had found all of one redback salamander and had observed some impressive piles of poop that could only have been dropped by a bear (proving that bears indeed…). I finally gave up on herping, thinking of the ride back into town and the traffic on 76. I booked it back towards my car, but I kept trying the larger rocks along the road.

I was finally rewarded with this cutie – a northern ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii). Isn’t the color on his belly fantastic?

Here’s the rock I found him under and a shot of the road.

A month before then, on September 8th and with very similar weather conditions, Scott and I picked up rock after rock as we looked for a rocky slope dropping off sharply to the south that we never found.

What we did find in about an hour of flipping were five garter snakes (Thamnophis s. sirtalis), three of which were new babies, three ringneck snakes, and five shed skins. Here are some of the garter snakes, one of them on its rock, and a shot of the road. Note the loose skin on the adult. I’m pretty sure she had recently given birth, and there’s a chance those babies are hers.

I’ve heard about some other SGLs with supposed populations of redbelly snakes (Storeria occipitomaculata) and smooth green snakes (Opheodrys vernalis), and I plan to take this technique there too in the spring.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I don’t know about everyone else, but we’re still finding snakes. True, they’re all brown snakes (Storeria d. dekayi), but it’s still fun.

Then there are the redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). We turned up around twenty last weekend (on the 4th of November), one of those in the Woodlands Cemetery.

That Woodlands salamander was a big deal for me. The salamanders of the genus Plethodon are often referred to as ‘woodland’ salamanders. They lay eggs on land and hatch out terrestrial babies, so they don’t need to breed in water. This fully terrestrial lifecycle enables them live deeper into the forest than most other salamanders, but they still need moist soil and leaf litter, so they stick to the woods.

I expect to find redbacks in woodlands or at the edge of woods; the Mount Moriah Cemetery, with forest on the slopes on the edges is a case in point. The same goes for the wooded ravines and slopes around the Belmont Plateau and Lemon Hill in Fairmont Park, not to mention the wooded valleys of the Wissahickon and Cobbs Creek.

The Woodlands Cemetery, by contrast with the above locales (and its own name), is more of a savannah. There are plenty of trees, but they’re well spaced out with grass in between. There is a little bit of woods along the edges, but only a few yards deep.

We found two of the brown snakes under that same board in the back of the Woodlands. I saw them when I was running Sunday morning (sunny but chilly, probably in the low 40s), and Jen and I came back and saw them again in the afternoon (low 50s and sunny). I was thinking I might take one home if we could find more than just those two, but the way they were sitting next to each other, I had the gut worry (entirely irrationally) that the one would miss the other, and I felt a little uneasy about taking two from a population that doesn’t seem very big to me.

After that, we drove over to our other favorite cemetery, Mt. Moriah, way on the other side of West Philly. I didn’t think we’d find much but redback salamanders, and for the first twenty minutes I was right. I’m pretty sure I know where most of the brown snakes spend the winter up there, but there’s no cover to look under. I think they’re back in between boulders that make up a stone retaining wall and deep in vines and vegetation in some plots above that wall. I made a comment to the effect of, “they’re back in there, but there’s nothing for us to look under.”

Jen, ever the more observant one, walked over to a tire at the base of the wall, picked it up, and said, “Here are two snakes.”

They were both young of the year (YOY), and they were so tiny they made me wonder if the YOY I found on October 17th was actually a year old. One was missing most of its tail, and I decided right there that we’d keep them for the winter. I declared that the one missing its tail would be known as “Stumpy,” and Jen then stated that of course the other one would be called “Ren.”

A lot of times we (or at least I) forget that hibernation is possible the most dangerous thing reptiles and amphibians do. There’s the risk of freezing to death, there’s the risk of dying of dehydration, there’s the risk that a mouse or shrew will dig them up, and they’ll be too groggy and slow to get away. I bet the one recovering from the recent loss of its tail wouldn’t make it, and the other one was right there, so we popped them in an empty water bottle.

After a little more looking, we came home to watch the Eagles get whupped by the Cowboys, and I set the two little guys up in a custom-made hibernaculum. One challenge of keeping such small snakes is finding small food, but this isn’t a problem if they’ll be hibernating. The other challenge is moisture: keeping them from drying out, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, getting some kind of fatal skin infection from excessive moisture. I set them up with damp vermiculite on one half of the box and relatively dry mulch on the other. I put in a glass coaster for something to hide under (placed right in the middle, with half on the moist side and half on the dry side) and a shallow water dish.

I don’t have high hopes for our being able to find them food in the spring, so we’ll probably release them once we’re past the last frost of the spring. They’ll spend the next few months in the draftiest spot I could find in Scott’s basement, and I figure they’ve got a pretty good chance of at least making it alive through the winter.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

As much as I rail against road cruising, against the Pine Barrens, and against road cruising in the Pine Barrens, there are probably a couple times of year I can be dragged out there: late spring, and late summer.

I’ve written a little lately about hibernacula (hibernation dens) where snakes and many other herps spend their winters. Timber rattler (Crotalus horridus) populations, for example, spend the winter together. In the highlands they choose rocky outcroppings and cliff faces on south-facing slopes, and in the Pine Barrens they den up in holes in stream banks. Even if a species does not den up with a lot of its friends and family, individuals do have safe locations where they hide from the killing freeze of the winter. Box turtles (Terrepene carolina) might head for some corner of their territory with deep leaf litter and soft, damp soil they can burrow down into, and snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) in a pond might burrow down into the mud close to an inflowing stream, where the water will stay liquid and oxygen levels high.

The overall result is that a lot of herps are on the move as they’re heading towards their hibernation spots or in the spring as they’re heading out. They might spend most of the year safely away from roads, but if where they hibernate is on the other side of the street, they’ll need to cross it.

So, on the morning of September 26th when Scott called me at work to see if I wanted to go road cruising with him and Frank, I went right into my supervisor’s office to ask to get out early.

We started off around Marleton, NJ and charted a course for the heart of the Pine Barrens. We took a circuitous route through the suburban/forest interface as the sun set and got in position just as it got dark.

Road cruising can be incredibly boring if you just ride back and forth on the same stretch of road, but that’s what works if you know you’ve got a particularly productive stretch of blacktop. What makes a stretch of road productive? It has to lie between two places where your target herps want to be. In early summer you might find a lot of turtles by cruising between water and upland nesting spots. (That’s also how all those terrapins – Malaclemys t. terrapin – get slaughtered on the Garden State Parkway). You might pick a road that has wetlands to one side and forest to the other to catch kingsnakes (Lampropeltis g. getula) that might hang out in the woods during the day but hunt frogs around cranberry bogs at night.

As we drove, Scott and Frank regaled me with stories of how exciting road cruising is down South on a humid night, when every hundred yards brings another snake on the blacktop. After many such storytelling sessions on uneventful road cruising nights, I’ve learned not to point out that we’re in Jersey, not South Carolina.

Another reason I complain about road cruising is how all the dead animals get me down. But if there’s anything more depressing than a dead animal, it’s a dying animal.

We were approaching our primary cruising destination when we saw a large snake on the shoulder. “That’s a timber,” Scott declared, and Frank nodded.

Sure enough it was a timber rattlesnake. It was coiled in an unnatural position (I’m not sure how to explain that more clearly, but somehow after you’ve seen a few hundred snakes, you get a sense of how they like to sit) and it did not so much as flinch as we got close. Frank collects specimens for a local museum, so he shrugged and started back to the car for a plastic bag.

I know a rattlesnake is probably the last snake most people want to see, but get past any ophidiophobic squeamishness or fear of envenomation, and you’ve got one of the most majestic beasts of the forest. It’s sad to see anything dead on the road, but there’s something particularly tragic about seeing something so powerful and beautiful killed by a tire.

As we gazed sadly at the snake, Scott nudged it gently with his snake stick. What surprised us was that the snake responded with movement. Sometimes freshly killed snakes writhe around reflexively, but this one seemed to be moving purposely, pulling away from Scott and starting to crawl feebly towards the edge of the shoulder. It dragged and pushed its head and front quarter of its body, I assume because of broken ribs, torn muscles, and massive internal injuries.

In some cases like this, many field herpers (myself included) would kill the snake right there to put it out of its misery. When it’s a state endangered species, and a creature as beautiful as this, however, you try to talk yourself into some hope that it could pull through and survive. After the photo session we moved it gently onto the grass off the shoulder and got ready to say goodbye.

That’s when a guy in a blue pickup truck pulled over. I initially worried that we’d be accused of hurting the snake, but no, the guy wanted to know whether we were dumping the snake there, since he lived nearby and didn’t want people dumping rattlesnakes near where he lived.

I was pretty confused, trying to imagine who drives around dumping endangered and dangerous snakes in the countryside, but we assured him that we’d found it there. As soon as he’d driven away, we moved the snake further off the road, into the underbrush where it would be harder to find in case our local friend came back to finish it off.

We headed on down the road, documenting a couple DOR ribbon snakes (Thamnophis sauritus), on our way to the primary cruising stretch for the evening. We made our turnoff and then promptly slammed on the breaks for a pretty eastern kingsnake (a.k.a. chain king). I'm a huge fan of their faces, jet black with those bright white markings on each scale.

It was refreshing to find a live snake after the heartbreak of the timber rattlesnake, even if we next found a squashed baby northern water snake (Nerodia s. sipedon). There were a few Fowler’s toads (Bufo fowleri) and green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota) hopping around, but nothing like the hordes that cover the road in mid summer.

We found one more live snake that night, a baby black rat snake (Elaphe o. obsoleta). Is anyone tired of me talking about how much I love black rat snakes? I’m not. What great snakes! There’s nothing impressive about the babies, but they’ve still got that oafish, friendly quality to them that I find so endearing. I’m sincerely relieved we found it alive and not smashed on the blacktop.

When road cruising you there’s often one hour out of the whole night that you find everything moving. Everyone waits for darkness to fall, and then there’s a temperature below which everyone settles down for the night. For us it was from 7pm to 8pm, with the temperatures falling through the mid and low 70s. We pulled back off our main road cruising strip and on the way home found a recently run-over baby pine snake, (Pituophis m. melanoleucus).

On our way back we stopped be where we found the rattler to take the GPS coordinates, since we had forgotten to when we initially saw it. We checked around the underbrush off the road, but we couldn’t find it. I still bet that it died later that night, but if it had the energy to drag itself deeper into the woods, who knows, maybe it made it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Here’s a quick post to remind everyone to keep heading out there even if it’s starting (finally) to get chilly.

On Saturday (10/20/07) afternoon with sun and temps in the high 60s, Jen and I decided to explore another section of FDR Park in South Philly. It’s an ugly, scruffy strip of woods and railroad tracks, with trash, boards, and stagnant puddles that stank, some like urine, some like something had died and been stewing in them a while. I don’t think this will be a routine stop for me, but it’s probably worth checking out a couple times a season. We found this baby garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) under some roofing tin.

We spotted a mystery turtle basking at the edge of one of the ponds (note all the algae on the pond) and a bunch of mystery frogs (Rana species) hopping in around us. I’d like to think the turtle was a redbelly (Pseudemys rubriventris), but it was just as likely an exotic, invasive red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans).

Then on Sunday I did some volunteering up in the Wissahickon. I don’t want to come off as self righteous about this, but I’d like to encourage everyone to do something to support the public lands you use for herping. I used to be a more regular park volunteer, but I still try to get out a few times a year to plant trees, pick up trash, maintain trails, and hack at the exotic invasive plants in Cobbs Creek and the Wissahickon Valley. There’s almost surely a volunteer group for the parks where you are, and I bet that they do a lot to keep your parks pleasant places to look for critters, just as here in Philadelphia.

Anyhow, after a few hours of hard labor, I spent a couple hours seeking after the ever-elusive eastern milksnakes (Lampropeltis t. triangulum) of the Wissahickon. I know they’re back there and some day I’ll find them, but Sunday (67 and sunny) was not the day.

I did find salamanders on a little side trip – a few redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) and then a little surprise. I looked under a board near an old springhouse and turned up a couple longtailed salamanders (Eurycea longicaudata). These were youngsters.

They aren’t exactly rare, but they’re not the most common of our salamanders – their cousins the two-lined salamanders (Eurycea bislineata) are what you find a lot more often, so the longtails are always a little special for me.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A lot of people on the herping forums are lamenting the end of summer. ‘The season is over,’ they write. ‘This is the last snake I’m going to find all year.’

Whatever they say, the weather is still herping-worthy. I haven't quit yet, and I'm trying to pack in as much as possible before the weather actually does shift. For now the sun’s shining and temperatures are staying in the 60s (and even the 70s!), and that’s good enough for most snakes.

The challenge of finding most snakes this time of year is finding where they plan on hibernating. Even though the temperatures right now are just fine for snakes, their instincts guide them to be near their hibernation dens (hibernacula) because the weather could change any day.

Snakes that have been spread out all over parks and cemeteries are now bunched up near vital holes in the ground or cracked foundations, stone walls, or rocky outcroppings facing the south. They’re enjoying the sun, packing in an extra meal or two before the long sleep, but staying ready to dash back to their safe place for the winter.

I’ve been finding brown snakes (Storeria d. dekayi) at the back edge of the Woodlands Cemetery. I found the first one on my Sunday morning run. It was a massive brown snake (or massive for a brown snake – a foot long and chunky) with a beefy head. I came back after work on Monday with my camera and I found two more: one baby (a 'young of the year' or YOY) and one very pretty adult. The baby jumped around like a cricket. It would stay still for a few seconds and and then jerk into the air and out of my hand. The adult was docile and calm right until I got my camera ready, and then it pooped.

I wondered why they were hanging around in a patch of shady woods and not in a sunnier, warmer place. Yesterday it finally occurred to me where they must be hibernating. The railroad lies downhill from the cemetery and to the southeast. The bare or at least barely scrubby slope down to the track is perfect. I figure the snakes I've been finding are just a few yards away from just the right hole in the ground on the other side of the fence.

Some herps don’t congregate quite so densely during the winter. Redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) just dig a little deeper as the temperature drops to stay ahead of the frost, and so far it hasn’t been cold enough for them to go anywhere. In fact this weather suits them well. For the first time since the spring redbacks have been easy to find. This is good because I’ve had to take lots of pictures of them for an article, although they usually don’t stay still enough for a clear shot. I found that handful of salamanders (six total) all under one log in Cobbs Creek.

The forecast calls for 70s and 60s for at least the next week, so don’t hang up your snake stick yet.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The hunt continues for the turtles of Cobbs Creek. Each time I’ve decided I’m not going to find them, I run into someone who assures me that they’re in there. It feels a little like the plot of a fantasy novel. The quest looks pointless, but the plucky hero runs into another unlikely wise man who encourages him to keep on questing.

The first wise man was Scott. I had spent a few hours by that point walking around in hip waders north of City Line, where a snapper (Chelydra serpentina) had been spotted by a reader of this blog. I found a lovely little northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon – around 4:00pm on August 18th, with overcast skies and temps in the high 60s) north of City Line, but no turtles.

I called Scott to talk strategy, and he told me that back in high school he had pulled a snapper out of Cobbs Creek near the Spruce Street bridge. Scott’s sage words of advice? “Snappers can live anywhere. There’s probably a snapper in your toilet.”

I spent another hour or so walking the edge of the creek around Spruce Street with my handy polarized sunglasses on. I saw bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana), several kinds of fish, but no turtles.

On the way back to my car, I ran into a man, a teenager, and a dog. The huge, burly dog looked like an akita, and it sported one of those brutal-looking collars with the metal prongs that jut inwards at an angle into the dog’s neck. The man was also large and burly, and he was dressed more for hunting than for a walk in the park, with boots and a camouflage vest. The third member of the party was his nephew, a teenage boy who might have been the second coming of Steve Urkle. He carried a small stack of Magic cards, and he looked uncomfortably out of place both in the woods and with his super-tough, ultra-masculine uncle and dog.

The man saw my net and asked what I was catching. We then proceeded to have a lovely conversation about the herpetefauna of the park. He had grown up nearby, and as a boy he had caught garter snakes, lots of frogs, and (of course), lots of turtles. He recommended the deep pools around the Spruce Street bridge.

Two wading and watching trips later, I still haven’t seen any turtles. I’ve seen yet more bullfrogs, a garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis), but still no snappers.

Sunday (October 7th) Jen and I ran over to Cobbs Creek to take a few habitat pictures for an article on redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). Three boys on bicycles asked me if I was a photographer and gave me a warning. “There are snakes here.” I looked at them with new interest, and we started talking about the snakes. One of the boys doggedly insisted there are water moccasins in the creek, but I insisted just as doggedly that they were harmless northern water snakes. I asked them about the frogs; we could all agree on bullfrogs, although the boys claim to have seen toads (Bufo species), which was especially interesting to me because I’ve always wondered why there aren’t toads back there.

Finally I brought up the topic of turtles. “You guys see any turtles in the creek?” Of course they saw turtles! They held up their hands to show the sizes of the turtles they’d seen. One had brought one home a turtle the size of a salad plate, another had seen turtles the size of a silver dollar. One even claimed to have seen one the size of large snapper, judging by how he held his arms out.

These boys were in fourth and second grade, and although eight and ten year old boys are often the best source of information about local herps, they are also prone to exaggeration. Still, they seemed to be telling the truth. There were no grins, no uncertain glances back and forth; they just told me matter-of-factly about the turtles they saw. I asked them to take me to where they saw the turtles, and they took me to a couple “lakes” upstream. What they call lakes are pools in the creek, in fact pools I’d suspected as snapper homes.

My unsettling conclusion is that I need to go in there with my mask and snorkel. There are few bodies of water in which I am less eager to immerse myself, but I’m not sure there’s another way to find the snappers. Other turtles bask above water and spend a lot of the rest of their time swimming near the surface. Snappers, however, hang out at the bottom and bury themselves in the sand and mud at the bottom. Sometimes they bask by floating at the surface, but they usually just take a breath here and there by just barely sticking their noses above water. They inhale, and then they dive again.

Of course with temperatures falling, this is a quest I might not conclude until the spring, but wish me luck.