Saturday, August 18, 2007

I thought a couple Thursdays ago (August 9th) would be a nice day to go looking for turtles. It was marginally cooler (80 in the morning up to the high 80s in the early afternoon when we quit) than the rest of the week, and I was planning on staying in the water or mud, where I wouldn’t care much about the temperature. So I called Chris.

Chris and I met up in Cherry Hill and drove from there to a promising pond on the edge of the Barrens. It was an old sand mine, which in New Jersey means a deep pit in the ground that filled back up to make a pond once they had reached the bottom of the sand. A few painted turtles (Chrysemys p. picta) slid into the water across the pond from us when we got up to the water, and I got ready to strap on my mask and snorkel and start exploring.

Before I could hop in, however, Chris said he spotted something small hopping in the weeds next to the pond. “Oh, they’re just toadlets,” (Bufo fowleri) I said. This time of year you can see a lot of tiny toadlets close to water, just having lost their tails and making the transition to a terrestrial lifestyle.

No, Chris said, I don’t think they’re toads. I crouched down for a better look, and sure enough, he was right. They were cricket frogs (Acris c. crepitans). These guys are basically terrestrial tree frogs (an odd sequence of words, but they’re related to tree frogs but live on the ground) that only grow up to about an inch long. We saw an adult later, but we didn’t have the patience to take a picture (hold it down, let go and try to snap the photo, the frog hops before you can take the picture… repeat - see the next photo for Chris watching a frog hop away before a photo).

These little frogs turned out to be the highlight of the trip. I guess cricket frogs are still common in some parts of southern Jersey, but they’re in general historic decline around our region, and these were the first I had ever seen.

These were tiny (a quarter inch) froglets. A week before, they were in the water with little tails and their brand new legs. Now there’re probably off in the underbrush (if they’re not snake food, bass food, bird food, raccoon food…) wolfing down bugs and growing up fast.

It turned out I was kind of right about the toadlets. They and some adult toads were mixed in with the cricket frogs.

I finally did make it into the water with my mask and snorkel. This sand mine was deep. I couldn’t tell from the surface, but after three or four feet of shallow water at the bank it dropped almost straight down, and even in the relatively clear water I couldn’t make out the bottom. I mention the depth because I’m pretty sure the turtles were somewhere down there towards the bottom where I couldn’t see them. I looked everywhere else. I looked and felt around the log on which they had been basking. I peeked in holes and under overhangs near the edge of the pond. I looked around reeds and other aquatic vegetation, but all I found was fish.

They weren’t turtles, but I was impressed by the fish. Some were largemouth bass, the other big ones were sunfish, and the rest were small fish I couldn’t identify. I was amazed at how close I could get to them. I’m not sure if they understand the concept of ‘arms length,’ but they’d let me get to about three feet and then swim off.

Next we tried an area with some nice vernal pools. Of course “vernal” means they’re there in the spring, and we were going in the middle of summer.

Vernal pools are special places for amphibians and some turtles precisely because they dry up in the late summer and fall. Fish can’t live in them because they dry out, but the water’s there long enough for the amphibious animals to mate, hatch, eat, etc., all without having to worry about predatory fish. Nonetheless, we were hoping for mud and maybe a few puddles to feel around for (guess what!) mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum). Chris had been to the spot a couple weeks before, and indeed had seen a mud turtle in the muddy remnants of one of the pools.

When we got there, however, the pools were all gone. I felt around holes under and around tree roots near the pools (popular spots for small turtles hiding from the heat), but came up empty. I muddled around in some mud remaining in one of the pools, but all I dug out of the mud was old roots and sticks. That left only one species of turtle on our list of possibilities, and Chris spotted it pigging out on a mushroom.

Here’s box turtle (Terrepene c. carolina) number one.

Chris spotted one more sitting around in the leaf litter and a third crossing a dried pool before I finally found one.

Mine was sitting in a shallow channel of watery mud (it would be too generous to call it muddy water) that lead out to a brackish marsh.

I was a little surprised to find it there. Mud turtles will switch back and forth from brackish to fresh water, which is why we were looking there, but that was the first we’d seen of box turtles in a brackish area.

Our last stop was at a lake where, in the past, Scott and I had seen lots of turtles swimming around.

I figured it would be a great place to jump in and see what I could scare up, but we found the place eerily turtle-free. There were leopard frogs (Rana utricularia) hopping around the weeds on the banks, but nary a turtle to be found.


15+ cricket frogs

25+ Fowlers toads

4 box turtles

2 painted turtles

3 leopard frogs

I’ll throw in one more quick find. On Saturday morning (August 18) I went for my run in the Woodlands Cemetery near our apartment. I’ve looked under the two pieces of decent debris on my running route – a sheet of plywood and an old chair cushion at the edge of the cemetery – on every run since the last snow melted in the spring, and all I’ve found are worms, slugs, centipedes, and caterpillars. This time, however, I turned up a brown snake (Storeria d. dekayi). It just might be the same one I found last year. There’s no way to be sure, but it looked about the same. It wasn’t very big for a brown snake, about 9 inches, and really drab. That description fits about a third of the brown snakes I see, of course.

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