Saturday, June 02, 2007

Last week I went on three herping trips. I’ll dodge the question of whether three trips in two days is a little excessive, indeed as I’ve said and written and sworn that I’d limit big herping trips to one every-other week, and I’ll do my best to avoid a full-on rant about the Pine Barrens, especially since I’m planning another trip to the Barrens tomorrow (Sunday June 3rd).

I’ll also avoid a simple rant about road cruising. One of the trips was a classic road cruising trip to the Barrens, and it would be easy to take up this whole post with straight-forward diatribe about how little we found and all the other things we could have been doing with our time. Instead I will use this post to present a more complex case against road cruising: a comparison of the three trips showing the road cruising trip to be a total, stupid waste of time.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t blame this on Scott, who is pathologically in love with road cruising in the Barrens. I’m not sure who is more pathetic: Scott, who cannot admit that endless road cruising in the Pine Barrens is a waste of time and gasoline, or I, who know it is and go anyways.

Scott had called me first thing in the morning on Sunday, and I had gotten giddy with excitement at the thought of road cruising that night. Whatever I know about road cruising in my more rational moments, at that point in time I was psyched. We had had major storms the night before, the day was supposed to be hot and humid with warmth and humidity extending into the evening, in short perfect weather for road cruising. Of course even perfect road cruising weather in the Pine Barrens usually yields nothing, and somehow I managed to ignore that reality as we made our plans.

Trip One, the Mountains:

I was tied up in the morning until a little after ten, but as soon as I was free, Scott picked me up and we headed up towards the mountains. Did we hit Blue Mountain? The Poconos? Delaware Water Gap? I’ll need to be annoyingly discrete here, but trust me that we drove for between 1.5 and 3 hours and ended up in timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) territory.

Down on the coastal plain and nearby piedmont that we call home the day was hot and steamy, but the weather was nice up on the slopes – high 70s and low 80s with clear skies. It was later in the day than I would have preferred (You want to find basking snakes as they’re heating up, not once they’re already hot and have little reason to bask out in the open.) but we left once I could get out, so we raced over the easy ground on foot for as far as we could and then headed down over the edge to where all the rocks are.

I’ll point out here that we were already having fun. A hike in beautiful country and on a lovely day is always worthwhile, and we found this pair of toad lovers in a pool on the way.

Sure American toads (Bufo americanus) are common and easy to find, but they’re cute, and it was especially funny to find them in this position. The female tried to hop away, but her hopping was a little compromised by the male (the darkest American toad we’d ever seen, by the way) weighing her down. Did he have the presence of mind or at least the courtesy to let go so they both could hop away more quickly? No, he just held on tightly, since sex is more important than escaping predators in a male toad’s estimation. He did chirp at us as we took his photo, whether out of fear or indignation we’ll never know, but he sure didn't let go. Faced with the choice of holding onto his girl and likely getting eaten versus letting her go and saving himself, this toad chose to hold on. He was willing to face death rather than miss out on sex. Think about that next time you think you're horny.

We spent a lot of time on those rocky slopes. Here’s a shot of Scott an hour and a half in. We both looked about that tired and ragged. We’d hopped and scrambled from rock to rock, we’d fought through brambles, shoved ourselves through tangles of downed branches, and we hadn’t found anything.

We had the option of fighting back uphill to an easier path back to the car or working back over a couple sections of the slope one more time. Out of persistence we chose the latter. As we stopped for a break, Scott pointed out one spot on the hillside where he had seen a rattlesnake the week before. I remarked that it looked like every other spot on the hillside, but Scott was sure. It had been right in there.

I climbed down for a closer look, and as I was poking around Scott called out. It was a rattler! He had looked over to one side and under a rock right over there, (there!) it was a snake poking its head out.

What? All I saw was rocks, boulders, and more small rocks and sticks under those bigger rocks.

No, Scott, insisted, and we both crept closer for a look. Finally one small bump of a rock in a shadow leapt into definition as the chunky head of a rattler.

It’s wonderful how that happens – something you’re looking directly at goes from part of the background to exactly what you’re hunting. I’m sure there’s a very good neurological explanation for this, how your brain uses search patterns and how an ordinary pattern of firing light receptors suddenly fits that pattern, but for me it’s magical, and I gasped to finally see the snake that I had been looking at for at least thirty seconds.

We then played hide and seek with that snake. We got closer, and it pulled back out of view. We waited, and it stuck its head out a little. We got closer, and it disappeared again, but then we could see its body moving through another space between rocks. Then it was sticking its head out again from another gap.

This was all difficult to photograph; most of the action was in shadows back under boulders, and you get a few seconds at a time to get a clear shot. With that warning, here’s the best photo I got of this snake. See it?

We left it alone after a while and checked one final stretch of boulders. I stopped on one particular rock apparently no different than the other several hundred I’d stepped on before, but this one exploded in buzzing. Scott shouted for me to get the hell off that rock. I jumped to another and turned back to try to find the snake that had set up rattling like that, but it had apparently retreated into a crack too deep for us to find it.

We called it quits for the timber hunting at that point (I made sure we’d recorded the coordinates of both), and we hiked our way back to the car. We stopped only for a cooling wallow in a boggy pond (there’s nothing like taking the shoes off and wading into the mud), where I got a shot of this green frog (Rana clamitans melanota). I'll make a plea again for everyone to take off their boots and get into the mud if they don't already do so routinely. It's a lot of fun, and the only downside I can figure is cleaning the last of the muck out from under your toenails.

We also came upon this majestic old box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). He felt solid and heavy (a sign of good health) when we picked him up, and Scott marveled at the dense layers of scutes on his back, an indication of old age. You can get a rough sense of how old a box turtle is by counting the lines on its scutes; each line represents one year of growth. Lines can blur together and layers can wear off, so it’s just a rough approximation, but Scott figured this guy was at least 35 years old.

Trip Two, Cruising the Pine Barrens:

We noted more good spots on the way back – wet fields that hinted at bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) and collapsing buildings that screamed milk snake (Lampropeltis t. triangulum) – but we needed to pick up Josh in Center City before making it deep into the Barrens to cruise around for a few hours, dodging toads (Bufo fowleri), wasting gasoline and time, and ultimately putting me to sleep (Scott was driving).

There were two exciting moments:

For the first, we were cutting from one good road cruising strip to another, and we got lost. This is not so unusual in the Barrens, but usually you just follow a sand road long enough and you pop out on blacktop you can recognize. In this case, though, we hit a stretch of very soft sand, and Scott’s Camry didn’t make it through. Those front wheels scraped and spun but only dug the car in up to its axles.

This is the stuff horror films are made of – three city boys stuck deep in the Pine Barrens (ever heard of the Jersey Devil?) late at night. Would we head for help one by one and be picked off in the woods? Would we hike together to an abandoned house and make the mistake of going into the basement? Would we call for help and get a murderous tow truck driver? To make it even more exciting, a heavy, damp wind was blowing, and the night was illuminated by flashes of lightning. A storm was coming, and we were stuck.

We dug and dug at the sand, trying to excavate down to the bottom of the car, but it looked like there was no way for us to get it free before the storm hit.

Just then, as we were resigning ourselves to getting soaked on top of stranded, we spotted a set of headlights coming around a bend towards us. Ordinarily I scoff at people who spend a lot of money to put over-sized wheels on pickup trucks, but these guys were just what we needed. They were two teenage boys (18 or so) and one girl (who stayed in the cab), and it was obvious they’d done this before. They quickly pulled a strong rope and hooks out of the back, rigged the two vehicles together, and in a few minutes we were free.

We got back in the car just as the first big drops were falling, and we headed off for more cruising. Again we found very little of note, but we did see one exciting dead snake. It was a corn snake (Elaphe guttata), one of the big trophy species of the Barrens. It’s considered endangered in Jersey, way up here at the northern tip of its range, but it’s extremely common in the Southeast.

It’s also possibly the most commonly-kept species of snake in captivity. They are easy to keep and breed, and several color and pattern mutations have given breeders an excuse to turn out thousands each year. As an aside, if you’re interested in keeping snakes but don’t have much experience, get a captive-bred corn snake. They’re hardy and gentle and a good way to get familiar with the basics of snake keeping.

Over in Jersey, however, these are rare and thrilling to find, even when dead.

I passed out in the back seat soon after this, but we got home after midnight having found little else.

I’ll rate this trip a failure. We spent about four hours driving around to find very little, and it took us an hour to get there. The highlight of the trip was dead. Doesn’t that say enough?

Trip Three, Turtling:

The next day I was thoroughly bushed. I had covered several miles of mountain the day before and stayed up way past my normal bed time. However when I told Jen about the box turtle she said, “Oh, I love box turtles! I’d love to find a box turtle.” I proposed a more-local trip to a box turtle spot, and she agreed.

This was a wet, boggy, muddy area we were heading for, a real soggy sneakers trip, and we wore only our crappiest clothing. A friend had reported finding a lot of box turtles in very little time, along with several snapping turtles, and I figured it wouldn’t take too long for Jen to find her turtle.

Pretty early on I found this baby.

I’ll point out that baby box turtles turn up a lot less often than adults (they’re smaller and tend to stay hidden), and this wee turtle is a promising sign for the population – that they’re breeding and aren’t just a moribund bunch of geezers dying off slowly.

Jen got her picture with it before we put it back.

She wanted to find her own, though, and we were having a good time sloshing around in the water and mud, so we kept on looking for a couple more hours. We didn’t find any more turtles, but we did see an absurdly high number of frogs (the only ones we saw well enough to ID were green frogs) and Jen had a great time chasing them.

Even with only finding one turtle, I’ll rate this trip a smashing success. We only went only a short distance from home and so wasted little gasoline and time. We had a great time mucking around on a nice day out in a beautiful spot. In other words the method of searching was itself fun, leaving us feeling happy even though we hadn’t found much.



2 timber rattlesnakes

7 American toads

1 box turtle

5+ green frogs

1 black rat snake (Elaphe o. obsoleta) DOR

1 garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) DOR

15+ calling pine barrens tree frogs (Hyla andersonii)

1 carpenter frog calling (Rana virgatipes)

2 green frogs calling

50+ fowlers toads

1 DOR painted turtle (Chrysemys p. picta)

1 DOR corn snake

Monday (Memorial Day):

1 box turtle

30+ green frogs

1 string of toad eggs in a puddle