Monday, May 26, 2008

[This is part two of the Memorial Day Weekend]

On Sunday Jen was itching to get out and walk around. It was another beautiful day (highs in the mid 70s and sunny), but we were planning on dinner with the family so we didn’t go far in the afternoon. We headed to the western edge of West Philly, starting not too far off Lindbergh Boulevard, just south of where Cobbs Creek runs into Darby Creek. There’s a weird reedy area back in there, a mix of really big, weedy puddles and mowed grass, with benches hidden in the reeds and a half-flooded biking/walking path.

We spent a few minutes poking around and flipping logs and trash. I had noted some likely boards a few chilly months ago, but they didn’t produce much besides worms and ants. Jen spotted another dumped pile of boards, and I waded into the grass to flip the biggest one.

It produced this big female garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). At first she flattened out impressively, doing her best to look like a pit viper, but then she calmed down so we could see she was still a really hefty, solid snake.

We found what could have been her sister up in the Mount Moriah Cemetery. She
was a little smaller, but also a really healthy, thick snake that was fun to handle, even though she musked and pooped all over me. I’ll note she’s the first garter snake I’ve found in that cemetery – something that’s often struck me as a little strange. It’s nice to have the urban herpetefaunal cast back in balance again.

The regulars were there too. We dug through one of our favorite piles of trash there and came up with a few redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) and this cute little brown snake (Storeria dekayi) that must be a baby from last year – proof that the snakes have made their way from the hibernacula into the rest of the cemetery. In a few more weeks I hope to start turning up lots of gravid females.

Our last stop was closer to the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center, where we found garter snake number three. This one was smaller, much prettier than the other two, but unfortunately a lot faster. It got away before I could get a photo.

On Monday I managed to get Simon (sucker!) to come looking for milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum) with me in the Wissahickon section of Fairmont Park. Of course I’m the bigger sucker here, having spent countless hours lifting rocks in search of Philly milk snake number two, number one having turned up back in May of 2005.

We didn’t find any milk snakes, but we turned up the obligatory redback salamanders (about four), and had our best luck in a wet field off Henry Ave.

Simon turned up this cute American toad (Bufo americanus) that chirped to let it down and then peed on him.

I turned up two kinds of very squirmy salamanders under one rock: two-lined (on the left, Eurycea bislineata) and long-tailed (on the right, Eurycea longicaudata). Now at first I thought I was finding two-lines at that spot, and then last fall I found some long-tails and figured I must have been finding them the whole time and had just not been looking closely enough (Two-lines are really common and scatter fast once uncovered, so sometimes I don’t bother to chase them down. They can look a lot like young long-tails, as the photo shows). Now I know I was finding both. The next challenge will be to uncover an adult longtail. These are about twice as long as the one on Simon's finger and really colorful, impressive salamanders. They can't be too far, but they might be hanging out under cover too big for me to lift.

Last we found a ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus) I found about a month ago. I said to Simon, “there was a ringneck snake under this piece of concrete,” and when I picked up the concrete, there it was. Here's a pic from last month.

We wrapped up our trip doing something I should have done a while ago, asking people about milk snakes. If you want to know if a species is present in an area, asking people who live or work there is a good way to start. I’ve always been shy about knocking on doors and asking what snakes people see in their back yards, but I need to get in the habit. This time we asked some Fairmont Park employees and a student at the W.B. Saul High School, an agricultural-themed school off Henry. Milk snakes are often found on farms, attracted to barns where livestock feed boosts rodent populations (hence their common name). This is the only farm I know of in Philadelphia, at least in this section of the city, and I had high hopes. These hopes were dashed, however, when a student we saw corralling some horses replied that no, she just sees garter snakes.

I might look around a little more, maybe around the Walnut Street golf course, where I’ve also heard there are milk snakes, but I might just have given up on the quest. This is not to say that I’ve given up on milk snakes, but maybe this kind of single-minded quest is the wrong way to go about it. Of course I’ve found lots of other cool herps in the process, but maybe the thing to do is just make occasional trips up into the Wissahickon to find whatever I find. This also fits better with the more-immersed herping style I've been working on. The single-target-species approach appeals to me less and less (especially given my low batting average on these kinds of trips). I think the ideal is to focus on the place, immerse myself in the landscape, and observe and enjoy the community of herps living there. Maybe it’ll be this year; maybe it’ll be in ten years, but eventually I’ll find Philly milk snake number two, but I don't plan to be looking for it when I find it.

How did you spend your Memorial Day weekend? I went herping of course. (we also spent time with friends and family, don’t worry) I went out three times – Saturday with Scott, Sunday with Jen, and I managed to drag Simon out on Monday. I’ll break these into two posts by theme.

On Saturday we returned to a large property in Chester County that features a huge wetland complex. I can’t say enough times how happy and grateful we are to have been granted access to the property, and once again we had a fabulous visit.

I can’t say my legs have fully recovered. There’s something uniquely fatiguing about yanking your leg out of sticky mud step after step for half a day. These photos makes it look like a grassy meadow, but figure on about a foot of mud and dead vegetation under a thin layer of water in between each plant.

We did walk through the solid-land fields and woods around the marsh for about an hour looking for rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoleta) and copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) with no luck. Several painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) seemed to be mating in one of the ponds on the property, and Scott nabbed this one in the shallows.

Then we headed into the muck. We didn’t find a whole lot, but what we found was pretty special. Spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) are relatively common in the areas of South Jersey where we usually hunt them. To be clear about it, they’re rare overall, but when you find an isolated bog in the Barrens or a protected vernal pool at the edge of the Barrens, they’re often in there.

We’d spent a few hours out once before in that marsh in perfect spotted turtle weather, and we’d been surprised by their apparent absence. There is so much picture-perfect spotted turtle habitat (shallow marshes of all kinds with a shallow creek) in there, we felt like if this were in Cumberland or Burlington County (NJ) we’d have seen at least a handful.

On Saturday (highs in the low 70s, mostly sunny) we finally found some. I found the first one, a relatively rough-looking female sitting next to some briars with her head and top of her shell out of the water and mud. I didn’t get a good photo, but I did snap shots of the two Scott found (not the greatest photos I’ve ever taken, to be sure).

We also spotted other assorted wetland herps: a couple water snakes (Nerodia sipedon) that got away, some pickerel frogs (Rana palustris), one calling green frog (Rana clamitans), and lots of mystery frogs – the ones that hop and splash just before you can get a good look.