Sunday, June 10, 2007

We have a million things to blame for herping trips that don’t go well. I like to blame the entire Pine Barrens ecosystem when I’m down there, but I also like to pick on the weather. Sometimes it’s too hot, sometimes it’s too dry, sometimes it’s too cool, often it’s the clouds. Most often, though, blaming the weather is another way of saying I have no idea why I got skunked.

All that said, last Sunday, June 3rd, I feel pretty confident that it was the weather that kept us from finding any snakes.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, this spring I’ve been tied up early in the mornings. For the most part this has preventing me from either looking for morning-basking critters or snakes heating up under cover before the day gets too hot. Lately, though, I’ve noticed that a lot of people find pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) crawling around in the afternoon, even when it’s warm out. Looking for afternoon-active pine snakes struck me as a perfect trip, so I contacted Scott and Chris about trying out some Pine Barrens spots that Chris has been working. The plan was to start off late morning and spend all day walking around pine snake habitat – sort of the on-foot, daytime equivalent of road cruising.

As a side point I’ll mention that I’ve been wanting to get Chris and Scott together all spring. Chris is a turtle specialist, and while Scott claims to give equal consideration to snakes and turtles, nothing gets him excited like the Clemmys species (don’t tell him the genus has been split into Clemmys and Glyptemys; he still hasn’t accepted it): the spotted turtle (C. guttata), the wood turtle (G. insculpta), and the bog turtle (G. muhlenbergii).

Did you know wood turtles are the smartest turtles? Scott has waxed eloquent about their intelligence more than once, and when Chris started expounding on the genius of wood turtles when I met him for the first time a month and a half ago, I knew I had to get Scott and Chris together.

Scott picked me up in Center City, and we got to our meeting place a little before eleven. Again I’ll mention this is later than we’d like to start. It’s best to show up around dawn, but we were making the most of my constricted schedule. We immediately set off walking, and pretty soon we were in some gorgeous pine snake habitat. Scott pointed out how I remark that we are is beautiful pine snake habitat no matter where we are, and how in all of our searching Billy-declared-beautiful habitat we’ve found just one pine snake.

When I had checked out the weather earlier in the week, the forecast had called for a 50% chance of rain. Sunday was when we could do it, so we booked that day anyhow and hoped for the best. It was cloudy and gray when we arrived, and although we would have preferred to have a little sun, we were optimistic about our prospects.

That optimism held strong even as we found no pine snakes. We spread out to cover as much ground as possible, walking just in view of each other through the open, sandy pine forest. We eventually got to a line of denser saplings and brambles, and we figured that was a good reason to turn around. We had another area to check, where Chris had seen a total of three pine snakes last summer, and we figured we’d have more luck there.

On the way back we stopped at the edge of a marsh. I waded right out into it, of course, to see what I could see. I think the area merits some more exploring. We spent ten minutes speculating about spotted and bog turtles – was it too deep, had any been seen in the area, etc., (I up to my knees in the mud and water the whole time), and then decided to hike back to the cars and try the second area.

This turned out to be the peak of our trip. Chris quickly spotted a box turtle (Terrapene carolina) half buried in the leaf litter at the edge of the marsh. He pointed out that boxies are common in the damp, tangled areas where woods meet water, and we took a few pictures of the frightened old girl before moving on.

Here’s one with Chris on the left and Scott on the right.

We followed the edge of the wetlands on the way back, and I picked a path uphill into those open woods a little. I was still hoping to stumble over a pine snake. What I noticed instead was this little girl.

I thought, “gosh, that’s a little snapper" (Chelydra serpentina), but when I got closer I realized it was something else entirely. Snappers can’t really shut themselves up like that; they bulge out of their shells on all sides and keep their heads out where they can bite off your fingers.

I ran quickly through the other local turtles in my mind: definitely not a painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), redbelly (Pseudemys rubriventris), or red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) – they’re all flat, round, and have squarer noses. It was too flat and its nose too pointy for a box turtle. It wasn’t a stinkpot (Sternotherus oderatus) either – a little too flat and the skin not nearly gnarly enough. It sure wasn’t a spotted turtle or a bog turtle; they have the squarer heads too and are always dark. As Chris and Scott walked up to see what I had shouted about, they said the same thing I was finally thinking, “Oh, a mud turtle” (Kinosternon subrubrum).

These guys are protected in Pennsylvania. They might be hanging on here and there in the marshes along the western bank of Delaware, but in New Jersey they’re pretty common. Still, this is the first I’d ever seen.

Chris and Scott remarked on how clean she was. I guess they usually are either covered with dirt and mud from their most recent burial, or they’re covered with silt and algae from their time in the water.

I wish they had a nicer common name. I guess bog turtles don’t have a pretty name either, but most of our other turtles are called something more impressive than “mud.” You’ve got the elegant and evocative ‘painted’ turtle, and the less-fancy-but-still-descriptive ‘redbelly,’ ‘spotted,’ and ‘red-eared slider.’ ‘Snapping’ turtle sure demands attention, and it’s hard to forget ‘stinkpot.’ Mud turtle, however, is so damn plain. I feel like this girl deserves better.

Still, ‘mud’ is an appropriate title. They aren’t fully aquatic, and they aren’t quite terrestrial. Mud turtles sometimes hike away from the water in late spring and hang out in the woods, digging burrows and coming out around dawn and dusk. They often live in seasonal bodies of water. When the water dries up, say in the middle of summer, they’ll burrow into the mud and wait for rain or hike to the nearest body of water. I’ll point out that the nearest body of water might be several hundred yards away. No one’s exactly sure how they navigate. A quarter mile might not seem like much to you or me, but to a four-inch turtle that walks with its head an inch or two off the ground, that’s an epic migration.

As for the redbellies and the snappers, we came across a couple dug-up nests on our way back. One had egg shells that looked like they’d been cylindrical when full; these were snapper eggs, which look like little ping pong balls. Another raided nest was scattered with more-oblong shells, which Chris was sure were from a redbelly turtle.

Either way the damage was a little sad to behold. I guess enough nests survive to keep up the population, but it still strikes me as a little tragic. A female eats and eats and hauls around all the weight and discomfort of being packed with eggs (think of pregnancy and then recall that their shells don’t let their bodies expand). She then drags herself out of the water, walks around on the very-frightening dry land (raccoons, coyotes, and bears, oh my!) as she searches for a patch of ground that promises the perfect mix of warmth, moisture, and seclusion. This can take her several nights, and she might spend hours digging test holes until she decides she’s got the right one. Finally she pushes out her clutch and then burns rubber (or the turtle equivalent) back to the safety of the water.

Then, nine times out of ten, or maybe nineteen out of twenty, a raccoon, possum, snake, fox, or coyote sniffs out the nest, digs it up, and devours that year’s effort. If her eggs actually slip by and hatch by some miracle, the babies have to run a gantlet of crows, large fish, and snappers to get anywhere near adulthood. If we remember that in a stable population the average female turtle might have fifteen or twenty good breeding seasons in her and leaves only two offspring that survive to breed, we get a sense of the waste of effort that dominates turtle reproduction.

That’s enough about turtles, though. It’s time to talk about deerflies. The whole time we were walking, we were mobbed by deerflies. I think I actually prefer mosquitoes to deerflies; I certainly prefer ticks. Mosquitoes respect deet, and ticks you can brush off or pick off later. Deerflies are stubborn, painful, and don’t seem to care how much OFF you spray on yourself. Chris and Scott both had clouds buzzing around their heads, and I figured I had the same cloud around me. I grew quite skilled at smacking them to death on my neck and catching them as they burrowed through my hair and then crunching them between my fingers. I guess they liked the humid weather. They sure didn’t seem to mind the light rain that started falling as we headed away from the marsh.

They were out in force when we arrived at our second destination. Even though we found a painted turtle digging herself a nest, something I would have certainly liked to have photographed, the flies were too thick for me to stop moving.

We covered a lot of ground, again in perfect pine snake habitat, but the rain fell harder and harder, and the temperature actually fell from the 70s into the 60s. The cool rain convinced us we weren’t going to see anything out on the crawl. The amphibians certainly like rain, and Fowlers toads (Bufo fowleri) were popping out of the sand everywhere we looked, but we figured we weren’t going to see any pine snakes. At least the flies let up once the rain got pretty heavy.

We did look under some nice boards we found; maybe the pine snakes were hiding under cover? Nope, but we did find this black racer (Coluber c. constrictor). It was preparing to shed its skin, hence the milky eyes and overall grayish color. Three or four days after that it probably shed its skin and right now looks coal black and gorgeous again.

Box turtles like rain, and another turned up in the woods on our way back. It was a pretty one, but the rain was too heavy for me to feel like taking out the camera. If you ever want to find box turtles, hit the woods right during or right after a heavy summer rain. You’ll find them gobbling up slugs and earthworms, and you might find one luxuriating in a warm, fresh puddle.

I haven’t mentioned the lizards yet. They didn’t quite fit into the flow of the story, but we did find a handful of fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthatus) under cover.

I also chased the flashing blue tail of a young five-lined skink (Eumeces fasciatus), but I didn’t manage to catch it or take its picture. Scott also found one, but only managed to catch the tail. Their metallic-blue serves as an obvious target for predators, but as soon as you grab the tail, it pops right off and the skink keeps running. The tail then flops and wriggles around for a minute, keeping a bird, a racer, or whatever else had meant to eat it occupied while the lizard makes its getaway. Apparently it works on herpers too.

All in all I’ll still rate the day a success. We got skunked on pine snakes, thanks to the weather, of course. We were a bedraggled mess once we got back to the cars, worn out from walking for four and a half hours on sand and soaked to the bone. Still, I had found a new species for me, and we had seen a total of six or eight species, depending how you count those dug-up nests.


1 mud turtle

2 box turtles

1 painted turtle

2 dug-up nests

30+ Fowlers toads

5+ fence lizards

1 black racer