Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Now that 2008 has officially begun, I think it’s okay to do a 2007 retrospective. Although my thoughts naturally turn to all the things I didn’t find or do (not as much aquatic turtling as I had hoped for, for example), that will be more the topic of my upcoming to-do list for 2008.

It would be inappropriate for me to lead off with the lifers for the year since I’m always saying the lifers don’t matter much to me. Of course I’ve got a few I’d love to find, like hognose snakes (Heterodon platyrhinos) and scarlet snakes (Cemophora coccinae), but tops on my list are usually common species in particular places. For example I’m dying to see an eastern milksnake (Lampropeltis t. triangulum) inside the city limits of Philadelphia. I am almost as eager to see a black racer (Coluber c. constrictor) in Philadelphia and a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in Cobbs Creek.

Following that stream (or creek), in 2007 I was thrilled to discover that Cobbs Creek is alive, that it isn’t just a rocky storm sewer but an aquatic environment that deserves my herping attention.

It all started with someone sending me a photo of a snapper next to the creek, and my interest grew with every conversation I’ve had with locals about what they see there. I found a northern water snake (Nerodia s. sipedon) in Cobbs Creek, although north of City Line Ave. I’m sure I’ll find some south of City Line once I start looking more.

I witnessed an amazing abundance of turtles in the Impoundment of the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge on two occasions. I don’t know about you, but I just love watching turtles. It’s rare to see them doing anything but bask, and that bridge over the Impoundment is the perfect observation perch.

I also witnessed some of my neighborhood kids enjoying the turtles (plus a watersnake and a bullfrog – Rana catesbeiana) and having an absolute blast. Those boys and the joy of herping with kids for whom everything is amazing, even redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), might be my top story of the year. For sure I’m doing more of this in 2008.

As much as I write and talk about boardlines, I’ve only had the fun of visiting one really productive one: Scott’s in north central PA. We’re always spreading out trash piles we find wherever we go, and this is our goal: five snakes in two quick mornings, and three of them the milksnakes I’m hungry for in Philadelphia.

I’m still missing my brown snakes (Storeria dekayi) that were bulldozed at their hibernaculum in the West Parkside Industrial Park’s parcel number 1. This is probably part and parcel of urban herping; unless it’s a park, it’s fair game, and we shouldn’t get too attached to any piece of land. I’ve still got other brown snake spots (the Woodlands’ production this fall proving the point), and I guess I need to continuously keep my eye open for more.


This year I found five new species in our region and one maybe. By ‘maybe’ I am referring to the red bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) Scott and I found down the Delmarva in Maryland. I’m not sure I count somewhere three hours away as part of our region. Either way I’m warming to water snakes, and I got a kick out of how Scott managed to stalk it from the water rather than watch it jump into the water from the shore like almost all the other water snakes we see.

The cricket frogs (Acris gryllus) Chris and I found in South Jersey was a special treat. We weren’t looking for them, but as a species I’d heard has been declining in our region, it was fun to have them hop across our path.

I’ve been expecting to find a spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus) for a long time. Whenever we go out flipping rocks in creeks, the big, orange salamander hunters are a possibility, so it’s a little weird we haven’t found one yet. Maybe this one should be another ‘maybe’ since we found it upstate at Scott’s place. But then it isn’t quite three hours away, so maybe I’ll count it.

I’m also a little surprised I hadn’t found mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum) before this year. These are really common but secretive bottom crawlers in South Jersey wetlands, lakes, and ponds. This girl was just plain adorable, and I look forward to finding more of them this year.

Ribbon snakes (Thamnophis sauritus) are also quite common for me not to have found one yet, or rather to not have found one alive, since they show up dead on the road pretty often. This one we found in March was a real looker with its rich browns and drawn-out, slender build, almost a cartoon you’d draw if wanted to exaggerate a snake’s speed and agility.

Last are the timbers (Crotalus horridus). One of my goals in 2007 was to pinpoint some dens that I can follow in the long term. I found two such sites in Pennsylvania’s mountains this year. No rattlers were sitting out in the open for me to photograph, but I did hear a couple, and I got this hazy shot of one during a game of hide and seek. (look for the head in the gap in the rocks in the middle, just to the left/below the stick running across the shadow from top-left to bottom-right).

The tie for saddest find of the year award falls between the recently-shot, magnificent black rat snake that Eitan, Scott, Simon, and I saw in upstate PA and this dying timber rattlesnake Scott, Frank, and I found on the road in the Pine Barrens. I hope to find some live ones in South Jersey to wash this out of my head.

One more thing almost escaped my notice until I was reviewing my photos: this year I found a lot of box turtles. I credit this to Kid Chelonia (Chris), mainly because he actually spotted most of them or told me where and how to look, but they sure are a pleasure to find. Some herps can save any trip, and finding an orange or yellow boxie will brighten any day, no matter how hard it is to find anything else or how badly the deer flies are biting. This is also a good note to end the year in review. Enjoy the parade of box turtles, and look forward with me to finding many more in 2008.