Sunday, April 15, 2007

Last fall I spotted a woman gardening in the plots on the 4700 block of Spruce, and I asked her about brown snakes (Storeria dekayi). Asking about brown snakes in West Philly is now part of my conversational routine, at least with people I know. I don’t stop strangers all that often, but I figured if anyone would see them it would be a gardener.

She (her name was Vivianne) said no, but we got to talking, and she commented that kids used to pull tons of brown snakes out of a vacant lot near Clark Park that is now another community garden (a friend who lives right near there on Regent Square has also reported brown snakes, so that makes perfect sense to me). She also asked if I might be willing to take some local kids out herping with me. Vivianne volunteers with kids at the Lea School, and she was sure some of the children she gardens with would get a big kick out of finding snakes and other critters.

I said “of course!” I’m all for turning kids onto the natural world, especially poor, urban kids who probably don’t take weekend camping trips like rich suburban kids do, or run around in forests and fields like kids in rural settings. There are a lot of kids who almost never leave Philadelphia, who almost never leave their neighborhoods. I think it’s important for all children to grow up in contact with the natural world, and I’m happy to help give at least at few that opportunity.

Maybe this is my hyper-analytical mind at work, but is there also a self-serving element in this? I’m also always looking for ways to socially justify my herping. Spending hours upon hours playing around in the woods has always made me feel a little guilty. It all seems a little self-indulgent. Turning inner-city kids onto nature, though, that’s a noble way to spend my time.

I don’t know. However subconsciously mixed my motives might be, I was excited to take Vivianne and the kids out herping, and yesterday looked like a day with some potential – highs in the high 50s and at least partly sunny. Jen’s friend’s kids, Owen and Isaac, wanted to come too, so we picked them up at 1:15pm and met Vivianne and drove to the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center.

Vivianne had already arrived with Bryan, David, and Johnny. It turns out their family had once lived near Cobbs Creek, and David, the oldest, remembered catching fish and frogs there. They had spotted a frog by the creek already, and they were excited to find some snakes.

I gave a quick talk about how to pick up and replace logs and other pieces of cover, to gently handle whatever we found, and put it down after replacing the cover. I rolled the first log, and found only the usual invertebrates. I was about to roll it back, but the crowd of boys around me weren’t done yet.

I was a little surprised by how excited they all got about the non-herps I always find. They oohed and ahed over the centipedes and millipedes. A big leopard slug was worth scary enough to be examining, and they were fascinated by a fat grub in its little dug-out home under a log.

They spotted a small (maybe 2.5 inches) bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) in the water near where they had seen the one earlier (probably the same frog), and we took some photos. Everyone crowded at the edge of the steep bank and tried to spot the eyes and nose sticking out of the water on the submerged log. I was worried someone would slip over the bank, but everyone managed to see it without getting wet.

I found the first redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus) under a log, a fat lead back. It wasn’t a snake (all of the boys were dead set on finding snakes), but it caused quite a commotion. Again I had to suspend my sense of boredom with the common critters I find all the time – the kids were excited and learning something, so we took our time with even the lowly red backs.

We spotted another bullfrog, this one a real fat sumo wrestler of a frog, maybe six inches long When you see (and hear) one of these, their name makes a lot of sense. If frogs and toads are little squirmy creatures, these beasts have enough gravitas to transcend their order and earn some respect.

We found a lot more salamanders (23 more by my count). A couple logs we turned were having small red back parties, with three or four piled on top of each other. Here are some photos of all of us trying to hold seven salamanders (from under one log) long enough to put the log back to properly release them.

Eventually, though, we ran out of logs in the immediate area of the parking lot, and we decided to call it a day.

I’d like to do this again. I’m still making up my mind on whether it’s a bad idea to take a bunch of little kids into the Mount Moriah cemetery or into some of the vacant lots I hit for brown snakes (too much broken glass and boards with rusty nails), but I think the overall concept of showing local kids the wild creatures they can find a short bus ride away is a good one, and I mean to do it at least a few more times this season.

I headed up into Roxborough after I dropped Jen and Lynn’s boys off. Someone had reported finding a milksnake in their backyard last year. I had a few more hours of sunlight left, and I figured it was worth scouting out the spot if nothing else.

My initial drive-by showed some prime habitat – steep wooded hillside with great exposure to the afternoon sun, but all of it out of reach. I’ll trespass out in the country, where an absentee land owner is probably just worried about dumping, meth labs, and kids getting drunk and injured on his property. Traipsing through suburban back yards is another matter, especially on a Saturday afternoon when so many people were hanging out in their gardens and chatting it up in their driveways. So, I got shy and drove around the block once before I headed to the Wissahickon.

Of course now I’m kicking myself for not getting out of the car and striking up some conversations. I’ll need to do that next time. Philadelphians are pretty wary about strangers, but even if no one gave me permission to flip rocks in their back yard, some might have given me some interesting information on what was back there, maybe promised to call or email with photos.

It occurs to me that I need cards. It would be perfect in that kind of situation to hand someone a card with the blog’s URL and my contact information. That wouldn’t guarantee that I’m not some kind of evildoer with nefarious designs on your back yard, but it might swing the assessment strongly towards geeky legitimacy. It’s raining right now as I write this – raining and in the 40s, so I’ve got no herping to do. It’ll take one quick trip to an office supply store to get the business card stock….

Anyhow, I didn’t stop, I didn’t talk to anyone, and I didn’t hand out any cards. I did keep on driving into the Wissahickon, where I spent an hour (about 4pm to 5pm, partly cloudy and 56 degrees) flipping rocks and finding nothing but arthropods and red back salamanders underneath.

I think those salamanders were actually therapeutic. They weren’t the smooth cream and red coils of a sleeping milksnake, but they were beautiful. The lead backs had nice sparkly sides without the wormy, bloated look they can get sometimes in full sunlight, and a few of the red backs had clean, bright backs with no mottling on the tails (I guess when you’ve caught a few hundred red back salamanders you start focusing on their finer points).

I left the hillside with what seemed like enough time to get home and clean up before going out to dinner with Jen, but I couldn’t stop myself from hanging the right turn on Parkside from Belmont. I noticed a group of middle aged men hanging out on Parkside with the horse trailers visible behind them in towards the middle of the field, and I filed them away as some insight into the horses.

Sometimes we see middle aged black men riding around on horses in Fairmont Park West. I’ve heard them referred to as the Black Cowboys, as if it’s a club (something else I need to research now), but it clicked in my head right there that the mystery horses could be their horses.

I made my left on 49th and found four kids taking turns on an ATV. I made my next left, noted the progress in the lots fronting the railroad tracks and that the road to the west was completely fenced off. At the cul de sac where I usually park I found a few more trucks parked with concrete pieces of some building structure loaded on their beds. That all wouldn’t have been enough to keep me from getting out and looking around, but what did it was the guy in the black pickup truck. He had the door cracked, and he watched me very closely as I drove by. Maybe he was just dumping some trash, but he reminded me of people I’ve seen dealing out of parked trucks in Fairmont Park. I decided not to be late for dinner, and I headed home.

I drove past those guys on Parkside (two of them with cowboy hats on, I noted), and actually made the right turn onto Belmont, but then I decided to circle back and ask them about the horses.

All of them looked to be in their fifties. One, with a tan cowboy hat, was tall and thin with round glasses and a plaid shirt tucked into neat blue jeans. One was seated without a cowboy hat and seemed to be seeing out of only his left eye; the right had a white cloud over the pupil. The third, who didn’t talk while I was there, was short, chubby, and had a black tee shirt tucked into jeans and a really big black cowboy hat on. I’m not sure about the guy who was sitting down, but the other two looked like guys with office jobs who put on cowboy hats and ride around on horses on the weekends to get away from their wives.

I walked up said hello, and they went from chatting amiably to suspicious (of me) and silent. I explained that I look for reptiles and amphibians in my spare time “like some people do bird watching.” I paused for the usual quizzical chuckles and questions, but they kept right on eyeing me like I was out to scam them. I guess they didn’t buy it. I kept on talking. I said I had noticed the horses and I was curious about them.

When I had decided to circle back and talk to these guys, I was expecting something like “Oh yeah, we ride them on the weekend. We’ve been doing it for years. You like horses?” but in spite of two of them wearing cowboy hats, it was the guy sitting down who responded.

The horses had been back there for forty years. “Forty years they’ve been back there, and he says he’s curious about the horses!” He went on explaining that it’s private land back there, that it had all been sold, and someone was building back there. I pointed out that they still had PIDC for-lease signs up on the eastern sections, and that no one was building over there, but he assured me that it was all sold and that someone would be building there soon.

He also warned me about a dog running back there. I replied that I’d never seen any dog (and the more I think about it no dog poop either in the ten or so times I’d been wandering around back there), but he assured me that I needed to be careful about that dog.

The thin guy, who to that point had stayed pretty quiet, said, “you mean you catch those garden snakes?”

I nodded and explained more about the brown snakes and again how it’s like how some people watch birds; I watch snakes. “It’s just…” I shrugged.

He finished my sentence “What you’re into,” he said with what might have been a touch of sympathetic understanding, and I nodded.

The seated guy, who was still watching me warily out of his one good eye volunteered that the kids catch snakes across the street in the park. “Buckets of them,” but again that I shouldn’t go out back because of that dog “running back there.”

I thanked them and wished them a good weekend. I don’t think the chubby guy with the black cowboy hat made eye contact the whole time, but the one with one good eye responded in kind, coolly but cordially, and the thin guy did the same.

I’m still trying to process that interaction. On the one hand I learned some information that might be useful. (1) that there might be snakes in the park. That makes sense to me, especially some garter snakes around the ponds, and it’s worth exploring over there a little. (2) that the other parcels of PIDC land might also be sold and slated for building. I think I’ll call the PIDC this week and try to find out more about the situation.

I believe the horses have been there a long time, and I have a feeling that those guys know their horses are grazing/squatting on public land. I’ve read about Black Cowboys’ horses getting evicted from some land in Brewerytown. They apparently had been a fixture up there, riding around nearby Fairmont Park and taking neighborhood kids for rides, but had been keeping their horses on abandoned land that Westrum (a development company) bought for their big condo development up there. I’m pretty sure they figured a random white guy was asking about the horses for some reason other than pure curiosity, and that they invented the dog to scare me away. I wonder if Phillyherping cards would have helped?

Grand totals:

- 2 bullfrogs

- 38 red back salamanders