Monday, December 15, 2008

The fruitless tiger hunt is becoming a tradition, an event when we get to break our equipment out of the closet (or more likely the car trunk, where my waders live year-round) and wander around in the cold and the rain for a few hours. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Part of it might be desperation. The tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) breed when our morale is at its nadir - from late November through February - so even the slightest glimmer of a chance to find something as cool as a tiger salamander (and they sure are cool - yellow-spotted black salamanders that can get up to a foot long) is enough to drag us out onto rainy highways at rush hour for almost two hours to reach the breeding pools.

The problem is that all our likely pools are about an hour and a half away (the other end of S. Jersey and down into the Delmarva Peninsula) and it's hard to tell when the pools are full from up here in Philadelphia.

I had a strong tip that the pools I keep targeting were not full yet, but that it still might be worth road cruising for salamanders. When I related this to Scott, he perked right up at the thought of road cruising (even for salamanders) and Simon was even more enthusiastic, replying to my email with at least ten exclamation points.

We drove around a little when we got there, stopping for sticks, dead leaves, and a particularly upright clump of dirt. We parked and walked around, shining our beams around on the forest floor for anything crawling around (nothing was). The pools were as dry as we expected, but we turned over logs anyhow, hoping a salamander might have showed up early for the party and was waiting for everyone else. No luck there either - Scott flipped a redback salamander but we turned up no tigers.

The rain had slowed to a slight mist when we parked, but it picked up again on our way back to the car, and so did some calling frogs. At first it was just a spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) off in the distance. It's strange to hear just one peeper, so that we stopped and scrutinized it, alternating between thinking it was a frog and thinking it was some baby bird begging for food. Then there was another peep from another direction, and another, and pretty soon the slightly metallic sound of a thumb running through the teeth of a comb - a chorus frog (Pseudacris feriarum).

This gave us some hope, but it evaporated back on the road. We missed any tigers, but did find a leopard - a southern leopard frog (Rana utricularia).

The most exciting part of the evening was when we passed a small SUV at an intersection and saw that the driver had a headlamp on. We realized that he must have been road cruising too, and we pulled a quick U-turn. Our fellow herper sure drove like he was road cruising, going slowly and continually braking for sticks, leaves, and that clump of dirt.

We debated how best to contact him. I thought it must have been spooky to drive behind him like that without passing, so I argued that we should drive up alongside him and talk right away. Scott thought that would surely freak him out, but after a few minutes of our following and arguing, the driver decided for us. He pulled over to the right and we made contact.

It turned out there were two herpers in the car - both of whom I'd heard of, and we had a good quick conversation about what they'd been seeing (even a DOR wormsnake - Carphophis amoenus - and a live spadefoot toad - Scaphiophus holbrookii).

They live closer to where we were cruising than we do, and they reported that those particular pools sometimes don't even fill up until the end of the winter - February. We were pretty intrigued by the winter rain road cruising results (we hardly ever see spadefoots), however, and we think we might try it again, although maybe closer to home until we get firm word that the tiger pools actually have water in them.