Saturday, April 28, 2007

What is the proper footwear for herping? I guess it depends on what you’re after, but I’ve always gone with hiking boots. That makes a lot of sense for covering rocky mountain terrain, but David Carroll (my artist and author hero who writes a lot about turtles) got me thinking that I’ve been doing it all wrong when it comes to wetlands. I had always counted on water resistant boots for the shallower water and hip waders for the deeper stuff. Carroll refers to his three natural history books (Year of the Turtle, Trout Reflections, and Swampwalker’s Journal) as his “wet sneakers trilogy,” though, and that’s inspired me to switch.

I’ll still wear my boots to the mountains, but for anywhere else it’s my beat-up old sneakers. They’re comfortable to walk on flat ground, and I don’t flinch to jump right in when I’ve got them on. It might be unseemly to write the following as a 30 year old herper with some aspirations to be a naturalist, but they’ve restored an element of play to herping.

I see field herpers as mostly falling into two categories: the naturalists and the trophy hunters.

The naturalists are behave a little like professional scientists out there, and some might actually get paid to herp in their day jobs. They keep good records and they volunteer with conservation efforts such as herp atlas projects and fauna surveys. The trophy hunters are out to catch something spectacular. I think of most of the roadcruisers out West as trophy hunters, but the same could be said for the Midwesterners who obsess over red milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum syspila), and my colleagues out here who spend inordinate amounts of time looking for timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) and pine snakes (Pituophis m. melanoleucus) in the Barrens. Of course they almost never take any trophies home with them, but they’re after that spectacular photo and bragging rights.

It's nice to set up clear categories like that, but in reality few people are purely one or the other, and I myself switch back and forth depending on the trip and my mood. Even in Philadelphia County I’m a naturalist with my brown snakes (Storeria d. dekayi) and a trophy hunter with the elusive milksnakes (Lampropeltis t. triangulum).

It was a bizarre turtle hunting website ( that reminded me about play, though, right around the same time I started reading David Carroll. These guys apparently spend a lot of time around Minnesota lakes catching turtles with modified nets, and they seem to do it entirely for fun. There isn’t much turtle diversity up there, so this isn’t trophy hunting, and they sure don’t seem to be scientific about it, but they do look like they have a blast. They’ve come up with all kinds of fun jargon like the “shoeshank” for losing your shoe in the mud and the “shoeshank redemption” for finding it again.

Both trips last weekend were wet sneakers trips. The first trip was a little more on the trophy hunting side, while on the second I was more the naturalist, but I had a good time on both and made sure not to sweat the soggy socks.

On Saturday (April 21st) Jen and I spent the afternoon somewhere in the Delaware Valley. We didn’t find anything too spectacular by trophy hunter standards, but I had a really good time wading around in the mud. It was beautiful weather – sunny and in the mid-70s – and the herps around us apparently agreed, especially the frogs. We heard trilling American toads (Bufo americanus), growling pickerel frogs (Rana palustris), twanging green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota), and rumbling bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana) all around the marsh. The toads were the only ones that made themselves readily visible. Here’s one sitting in a patch of shallow water.

Two more hopped across our path as it cut through a patch of stinging nettle, which made it a little more painful to catch this one.

Jen grabbed this garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis), who I’ll wager to say was after some of those frogs. We were working on a better ‘Jen with snake’ photo, but the snake did not want to pose and kept trying to bite Jen’s nose, so she set it back down right after this photo.

The highlight of the trip was this beast.

I saw something big and shiny trudging through a shallow section of the marsh, and at first it didn’t even register as a turtle; it was too massive. Meet our largest turtle, the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina).

They earn their name when they’re out of the water, and you have to be really careful with them since they’re necks are a lot longer than you think. In the water they’re pretty tame; they tend to use their heft and incredibly strong legs to stay submerged until you give up.

So how about when they’re half in the water? I wasn’t sure, so I kept my distance from the front end, but I think this one went for the submerged strategy, since it didn’t spin around to face me. Instead it stuck its head down into the water and stayed really still – an “I can’t see you, so you can’t see me” strategy. This was adorably futile, since its shell was sticking out of the water, but we only took a few pictures and then left it alone to continue its journey.

On Sunday I headed for the Barrens. I met up Chris, a herper with whom I’d corresponded but had never met.

I had spent my work week thinking about a grand tour de Jersey – spending all of Sunday’s daylight on a big circuit of my herping spots in New Jersey, but Saturday had been pretty busy as well, and I still needed to get a bunch of routine weekend tasks done. So the tour de Jersey was trimmed back to whatever I could fit in before 4pm.

That’s still plenty of herping time, though. I met Chris around 8 in the morning in the southern Barrens (Chris shares my bitter feelings towards the more popular northern Barrens), and we started off flipping some cover, looking for whatever we might turn up.

We found a smallish black racer (Coluber c. constrictor), still not warm enough to make it out of bed that morning (it was sunny but in the 50s at that point), and it was only as we were putting it back that we noticed a ground skink (Scincella lateralis), which is commonly racer food, curled up a few inches away.

We made our way to some nearby ponds, where I heard some southern leopard frogs (Rana sphenocephala) and where we immediately spotted some painted (Chrysemys picta) and redbelly (Pseudemys rubriventris) turtles.

We walked around the edges, spooking all kinds of mystery frogs (the unidentified frogs you just catch a glimpse of as they jump in the water). Chris spotted a northern water snake (Nerodia s. sipedon) as it jumped in, and then a small, round turtle clumsily sliding off the bank. It was a musk turtle (a.k.a. stinkpot, Sternotherus oderatus), and I jumped right in after it.

These guys are really common, but I think they’re adorable and a lot of fun to catch.

Redbelly turtles are a lot harder to catch, but that didn’t stop me from trying. We spotted this big one basking on the bank from across the pond. The idea to try to catch it only occurred to me as we were walking back around to head towards our cars and we passed about where it should be on the bank, on the other side of some bushes and thorny vines.

I slipped off my backpack, crept up to a break in the bushes, and took off, attempting a bonzai/sticky fingers move (to use the Turtle Hunting terminology). I’m not sure whether this looked really clumsy or like some kind of macho Steve Irwin action herping move, but I crashed into the water just as it slid in, and I actually got my hands on the back end of its shell before I lost it in the muddy swirl.

That one got away, but I’m now convinced that I can do this. If I’d only gone in headfirst I would have trapped it under me and had a better chance of getting a grip on it.

We spent most of our time nearby, but we basically saw more of the same. We saw some more painted and redbelly turtles in some other little ponds, we played hide and go seek with some fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthatus) and a five-lined skink (Eumeces fasciatus), and covered a lot of ground on sand trails.

Here's a painted turtle basking on a log:

It’s a beautiful area that Chris has gotten to know quite well, and I look forward to spending more time there this year. We drove around a little and tried one more trash pile before giving up and going home. We found one redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus) and one wood frog (Rana sylvatica), and I was reminded that herping in more-natural habitat (the first part of our day) is more fun than flipping trash, at least when you’re not finding a whole lot.

This weekend looks to be lovely again, again after a period of cool and wet weather, just like last weekend. I can’t complain about this pattern. When it’s beautiful herping weather on a weekday following a crappy weekend, I want to crawl out my second-floor window, jump down to 10th Street, and run for it, but on a day like yesterday, the cool rain made me smile and think about Sunday, when I intend to get in a few hours in Philly looking for milksnakes.

My understanding (my assumption) is that those milksnakes are doing the same thing – hunkering down out of the cool rain and waiting for sunnier weather to get out and bask either on or close to the surface, and then go out and find themselves something furry (the adults) or scaly (the youngsters) to eat or to look up the sexy milksnakes they hooked up with last year, since it’s that season for them.



- about 8 American toads (3 caught, the rest heard)

- 1 snapping turtle

- 1 garter snake

- about 3 pickerel frogs heard

- 1 green frog heard

- 1 bullfrog heard

Sunday (sunny, temps from the 50s in the morning into the high 70s):

- 1 black racer

- 1 ground skink

- 2 Fowlers toads (Bufo fowleri)

- 1 northern water snake

- 3 redbelly turtles

- 1 stinkpot

- 4+ painted turtles

- about 3 southern leopard frogs heard

- 5 fence lizards

- 1 5-lined skink

- 1 redback salamander

- 1 wood frog

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The weather this weekend was the best herping we’ve had all year. It seems particularly productive (for reptiles, at least) to get out in the first dry and sunny day following a cool, rainy period, and that’s exactly what we’ve got outside right now. Also, this being the spring, we’ve got critters moving from their hibernation spots towards wherever they spend most of the year, those same newly awoken herps hunting to put on weight after the winter fast, and to top it off, they’re really horny and cruising for love.

Before I write up a post about this weekend’s finds, though, I wanted to mention some good news. I checked with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, and my favorite parcels in the West Parkside Industrial Park have not been sold (contrary to what my half-blind interviewee reported last weekend). I also learned that they acquired the land in the 1980s, and that it used to be a railroad yard – something I feel dumb for not having figured out. Where else would all those railroad ties have come from?

Anyhow, the good news reduces my sense of urgency for some kind of relocation effort, but I do think it’ll be worth poking around the construction site in the near future to see if there isn’t anyone I can ferry over to the safe side of the site.