Thursday, December 31, 2009

I got ONE MORE TRIP in by the end of 2010, and I felt the need to post about it before midnight tonight!

It was a little trip (December 27th, chilly at a high around 50), a mini salamandering trip to visit the ambiguous duskies (not ambiguous anymore - I now am sure that these are common duskies, Desmognathus fuscus) with my 5 year-old niece Mariana.

We had an easy time finding the dark, chunky duskies, but a really hard time keeping them in hand once we found them - I need special gloves or something to hold onto the little wrigglers. Here's a shot of one in the water after I gave up trying to catch it:

I'll wind up with a shot of my able hiking buddy, Mariana, standing by the Chattahoochee River. She turned over many rocks but probably had even more fun tossing pine cones in the water and poking sticks into mud puddles - a great time either way.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

It's looking like about ten inches of snow outside right now as I write this. The total could be around 16 inches. I got no herping finds to report, and no trips to contemplate with this kind of weather. I'm not quite ready to do an end-of-the-year post (I could still find something cool next week, right?), but luckily there is something new to post about: House of Herps.

This is a blog carnival, which, for those new to the concept, is a periodic compilation of blog posts on a related topics. It was organized by more-general naturalist bloggers and birders, something that took me aback at first. Herpers suffer from a powerful mix of paranoia and low self esteem: what normal people could possibly take an interest in the objects of our psychopathology? They must have some ulterior motive. Are they trying to steal our spots?

Once I got over the initial sense of being weirded out, I had a writing crisis - what interesting herping topic could I come up with in the middle of winter? I volunteered my post about Herp Atlas submissions (see below), but on reviewing the other posts in the House of Herps' first edition I've realized the obvious: the audience is not other herpers, but rather people with a broad and genuine interest in nature, so they'll be fascinated by topics that jaded herpers have given up on. I was going to write about scouting for January, but hell, maybe I'll do redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

December 13th, 2009. Herp Atlas Day

1:43 PM: I don't herp for the paperwork, but that's what I find myself doing right now (or at least the electronic equivalent). A glance out the window shows me that it's still raining and a quick check of tells me it's 44 degrees. That's pretty miserable weather to be outside, so I can't say I'm missing anything. Still, I am in full procrastination mode right now rather than simply pulling together the notes from my herping records database, pulling the photos, grouping them with satellite images, and sending them to the hard-working New Jersey biologists who keep track of what we catch around the state. I did some this morning, went for a swim, and now I'm back home watching football (I swear I can watch football and do this at the same time. Really!) and working on the atlas submission.

Taking action as a citizen scientist should fill me with pride! We should all be reporting our finds to our local herp atlas databases. So many of the species we catch are so poorly documented that even our records of catching them, hearing them call, seeing them slither out of our grasp can add to our knowledge of their local abundance or scarcity.

If you don't believe me, consider that a year and a half ago I learned that a record I had reported to the PA Herp Atlas project was a county record for a salamander species. Even cooler, at the DVHS meeting on Friday evening a fellow herper reported that the state (PA) will be funding a study of a copperhead population he discovered in the Philadelphia suburbs. These are the kinds of minor advances that we can accomplish, but of course we need to report them.

How can we weekend, citizen biologists find what the professionals have not? Aren't these guys with advanced degrees in biology combing the woods and wetlands? Haven't they been doing it for hundreds of years? Maybe not. I remember hearing about a conversation a fellow herper had with a NJ state biologist. We sort of figured that the biologists spend a lot of time out in the woods and swamps doing, well, biology. Oh no, complained the biologist, he spends his time reviewing plans for strip malls and subdivisions and negotiating with land developers.

Of course this long discussion is itself another instance of me procrastinating. Ugh, back to work. I promise to check back in only after I've finished the NJ report.

4:21 PM: I feel like I've just finished some kind of really long workout - a long, tedious, crampy workout that made my eyeballs hurt. My New Jersey Herp Atlas reports for the whole season - March through September - have now zipped through cyberspace to somewhere in the Garden State. My season in New Jersey (where I herped a lot less than in PA this year) has now converted from an obsessed herper's recreational activities to a socially useful activity.

Now, it's time to do PA :-(

5:20 PM: Done!!! Pennsylvania's was a lot easier. For one thing, the Herp Atlas asks for submissions on a lot fewer species than New Jersey's and asks for less information on each find. Pennsylvania's atlas just collects basic information on species of conservation concern, while New Jersey's atlas collects information on everything. I also did a better job of submitting finds throughout the year for Pennsylvania. Maybe it's the extra information they ask for in New Jersey, but I put it off all year saying, "I'll take care of it in the winter, when I won't be herping anyhow."

Now the sad reality sinks in that there are still a little more than two weeks left in 2009, and I'm not likely to find anything else of interest until the calendar rolls over to 2010.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Earlier this week I had to email Scott. I had felt a sharp pang, a mix of frustration and despair at the thought of finding no more reptiles (and few amphibians) until April. Maybe it's similar to what children feel going back to school, or the football fan the Sunday after the Superbowl.

Scouting and flipping for amphibians can help ease the distress, but only so much. Maybe I need to treat this kind of herping as a weak medicine, best taken often.

On Sunday Mike and I headed to a large park to the west of Philadelphia for some basic rock flipping. I was hoping to find a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber), and so I focused on rocks and debris around this kind of seep:

We found none, but we did see some more common salamanders. Here's one of the omnipresent redbacks (Plethodon cinereus):

Here are the two most common streamside/streambed salamanders. First a two-lined (Eurycea bislineata) that wouldn't sit still:

...and here's a dusky (Desmognathus fuscus):

Here's a quick reminder on our December DVHS meeting this Friday. We'll be hearing about the least-well-known order of the herpetological world, the caecillians. Our speaker Ed Kowalski refers to them as "living sock puppets."

The meeting will be at 8pm in Maple Shade, NJ. See the DVHS' website for the full directions and details:

Friday, November 27, 2009

I could lament the cold weather and limited herping options, or I could do something useful: scout.

This is the time of year to do it, fellow herpers. The leaves are down, not in the way of any views of rocky outcroppings or vernal pools. So I don't want to hear anyone kvetching about not finding rattlers (Crotalus horridus) or wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta). You should get out and find we're they'll be.

In that spirit I checked out a new mountainside last weekend (November 22nd). "New" for me; I suppose it's been there a few million years and plenty of other people must walk the same trails. But it's a new project for me, at least, walking the trails below, hacking around on the ridge, noting the locations of the rocks...

...seeps (where I turned up two-lined salamanders - Eurycea bislineata - and dusky salamanders - Desmognathus fuscus).

I managed to recruit three buddies to come with - Anthony and Lillian sitting, and Joshua standing in the lime green.

The site looks good; maybe too good, with more than I can manage to actually search once spring rolls around, but maybe it will be a good multi-year project. I just need a neat code name for the spot (like Forbidden Ridge). Tumble Down? Crocodile Rock? Hidden Drive?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

DVHS meeting December 11th at 7:30pm in Maple Shade, NJ.

Our next public meeting will be over on the OTHER side of the Delaware River. Marple didn't work out this time, so we're meeting in Maple Shade, NJ. Our speaker will be Ed Kowalski, the Lead Keeper at the Philadelphia Zoo's Herpetology Department. He will be talking about caecillians. "Caecillians?" you ask. "What the hell are caecillians?" Exactly. Of all the orders of reptiles and amphibians, there is none I (or most of us for that matter) know less about than the caecillians. Basically they're long, eel or snake-shaped amphibians, some of them aquatic, some of them burrowing underground. I'm excited about it, and I hope to see everyone there.

Check out for the full details.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I suppose I could drive up to the mountains again soon, and I probably will, but my inclinations have swung me around to local herping this fall, the short trips where it takes me a half hour to get there and I don't have to carve out big chunks of my schedule to make it work.

I've heard about Carpenter's Woods for years now - a small branch of park along a stream in Mt. Airy that sort of connects down to the bigger trunk of the Wissahickon. It's a local hot spot for birders, and Scott goes there often with Miles to hike around and flip rocks for salamanders.

The creek emerges from a storm sewer and starts off rocky and, to my eyes, not very promising, the rocks looking like they get tumbled about and rearranged each time there's a big storm. Much of the upper section of the stream was layered with newly fallen leaves. In this photo is looks like a series of puddles.

Further down I found more of a flood plain, a flat muddy area with its own scrubby vegetation rather than the hillside trees growing almost right down to the water, and the creek carving out a channel through softer sediment.

So, here's the salamander I found. Yup, it's a redback (Plethodon cinereus). Followers of this blog might wonder, "just one?" That's what I wondered; I've been finding dozens of them lately in the Mt. Moriah cemetery.

I guess with just one I could focus on its interesting details. Fall into winter is breeding season for red backs, and this male showed two bumps coming down from its upper lip, enlarged naso-labial glands. Salamander foreplay involves the male rubbing his lip and chin (where there's another of these glands) all over the female to turn her on, and presumably some secretions from these glands help get her in the mood.

I haven't read a childrens picture book about toads in a long time, but if you asked me to draw one of the illustrations I'd put the toad next to a log, at the top of a burrow. Thus I got a nice little giggle out of finding this crotchety-looking (it was cloudy and chilly - 51 degrees) American toad (Bufo americanus) on the other side of a rotting log, just at the head of its burrow.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

It occurs to me that I had forgotten the pleasures of hunting stream bed and stream side salamanders. This week I remembered. I stepped frankly right into the shallow water with my sneakers and welcomed the cool water flooding my socks. I looked at all those rocks at the edge of the water and didn't need to think much. I just hooked my hand over the first that looked too big for a raccoon to flip (my standard for rocks that might hide decent sized salamanders), felt the rough stone, the weight, and leaned back, the gravel and sand beneath giving up their grip on the rock. I didn't find anything under the first one, but that's not much of a problem. Another pleasure of flipping rocks in streams is the meditative quality of the repetition, rock after rock, working up or down the stream by inches.

The fall is a fine time to focus on salamanders. I worry that I insult the true salamander fans, the implication of that sentence being that I look for salamanders when I can't find snakes or turtles, and that's probably true. Still, the point of this post is that I have more fun than I thought I did, and I've been missing out each time I've walked past or through a rocky creek without climbing down into it.

If missing all that fun isn't bad enough, I didn't have to drive very far. I had met Ryan (who goes by EyesOfTheworld on Field Herp Forum) at his place not too far into Delaware County, and he was kind enough to show me some of his salamander spots in the near suburbs. I could also go flip salamanders in the Wissahickon, Pennypack Park, or any of a number of nearby places.

I saw the usual stream suspects - dusky salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus - no photo) and two-lined salamanders (Eurycea bislineata):

I also flipped a green frog (Rana melanota) that seemed awfully sluggish until we tried to take its picture: The big target of the afternoon lived a little bit up from the stream sides. Red salamanders (Pseudotriton ruber) tend to live up in seeps, which are those wet, muddy stretches where water seeps (no better word for it) out of the hillside and works its way down to the creek.

Redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) were everywhere the other salamanders weren't - in other words under almost every rock, log, and piece of trash up from the water. Here are a handful from Mt. Moriah Cemetery, where I stopped on my way to see Ryan:

Here is an itty-bitty redback from one of our stops in Delaware County:

I'll wind up, incongruously, with a snake. Ryan is lucky enough to have brown snakes living and apparently hibernating in his back yard. Here's one of them:

Sunday, November 01, 2009

On the one hand I like to contest other herpers' end-of-the-season laments by declaring all the things you can still find into the end of October, and even November. On the other I feel that sense of panic, that sense of it all slipping away into winter and nothing you can do to hold it back, however badly you want to.

Even now, at the very beginning of November, I am still watching the weather forecasts for one more sunny day to get out and find snakes and maybe streamside salamanders, but I suspect the season for timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) is over. Scott and I planned a big end-of-the-year trip to Forbidden Ridge a week and a half ago, figuring that it's about time for the snow and cold to drive everything out of sight, and even then we found surprisingly little.

The day was about right - temperatures in the low 60s (maybe not quite enough sun), but we wondered how the snowy weather and freezes the week before might have affected our scaly friends; would they still be basking in whatever sun they could find, or would they all have been driven too far underground to pop back to the surface to bask?

We can't say it wasn't a beautiful day. I know I say and write this a lot, but even a poor day of herping in the mountains is a good day hiking.
We were keeping our eyes peeled for big, meaty, badass adult rattlesnakes basking around a talus slope (rock slide on hillside) that I think is their winter den site, their 'hibernaculum.' When we showed up to the supposed hibernaculum, the heavy, damp clouds were keeping everything out of sight, but as the sun began to play hide-and-seek with us we heard dozens of little rustling noises around us from between the rocks. Any one of those rustlings could have been the tiniest breeze stirring a dead fallen leaf against its neighbor, and we reminded ourselves of that even as our instincts told us we were hearing snakes; if we were right about the snakes, we wanted to give them a moment to settle down before we moved towards them to avoid spooking them right back down in between the rocks.

Well, they weren't leaves; they were baby rattlers! Scott and I spotted a handful (four or five?) curled up on pads of leaves, enjoying the sun beams penetrating between the rocks. Baby rattlers spook easily, so we didn't get many photos, but I was still and patient enough to watch a couple of them crawl around.

This was a true thrill - I guess they figured I was yet another dead tree trunk standing up from the rocks, because they bumbled along with no apparent hurry or fear. I write 'bumble' because they moved with very little grace over the rocks, often having to retrace their path when they came up to a rock they couldn't scale, and sliding off clumsily when they lost the grip on smoother boulders.

Here's one picture I left relatively uncropped to show how well they blend in. Look along the bottom-left of the chunk of conglomerate for that mini rattler working along the rock's edge.

Here's another one, easier to spot sitting on another boulder. [this photo is not sitting well with - click on it for a better view]

We didn't see any of the bigger adults, leaving me unsure of my earlier certainty that I had found the hibernaculum. Maybe the adults were just deeper underground; maybe they were one talus slope over on the hillside. I guess we'll have to go back and check in the spring :-)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Check out a great new informational sheet on our humble and beloved brown snake (Storeria dekayi). Of course I'm biased about the sheet since I wrote it and took the photos, but I deserve absolutely none of the credit for the idea or how beautiful the sheet looks. Jason Poston, the force behind the PA Herp website, came up with the concept and then took my words and some of my hastily snapped photos and turned them into a professional grade (Jason is a design professional, though PA Herp is a labor of love) piece of literature.

Monday, October 19, 2009

No, I'm not only ogling rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) this fall, as wonderful as they are. I am still herping Philadelphia, although primarily my stomping grounds in the Mt. Moriah Cemetery.

It's hard to miss that the redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) are out again. I started seeing them a few weeks ago, and now they're under everything I lift up. They appear as if by magic as the temperatures drop, but there's a very ordinary explanation; these salamanders are very vulnerable to high temperatures and to dry conditions, so they stay deeper underground (at least during the day) for the heat of the summer. Now that daytime temps are back in their comfort zone, they're back near the surface.

There are still some snakes about too. Here's a big female brown snake (Storeria dekayi) I've found a couple times. I went for a walk recently with a friend in the cemetery. We saw the expected salamanders, but we also saw this migrant passing through, I assume on its way to central Mexico.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A few weeks ago we took some friends looking for rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus). The "we" included Jen, and although she's my life and herping partner, she hasn't yet come along on any big mountain trips, for the simple reason that we usually leave too early in the morning.

This time the weather called for clouds in the morning and sun in the afternoon. After a couple seasons of waiting for this kind of day to bring Jen along to look for my beloved rattlers, I had our day - we'd actually benefit from sleeping in.

So, after picking up Ruth and Patrick and stopping for donuts and coffee we were on our way. We got to the trail head and were on our way, with me promising that the cool, low blanket of clouds (enforcing temperatures in the mid 50s) would pass as we walked out to the spot.

The redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) under every rock were interesting to everyone but me, and this nice slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosis) was a huge hit.

I was wrong, so we killed time eating lunch, hiking around doing hiking things. Eventually, after a spell of sitting around talking on a scenic outcropping, Jen hopped up and nearly stepped over this beauty:
Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) have perhaps the best camouflage on the planet. Put a copperhead on dry leaves on the forest floor and good luck finding it again. On a gray rock, however, they don't blend in so well. Don't tell the snake; it froze like its instincts told it to, even though that just made it an easy photo subject.

That copperhead was about all for the day. The sky never really cleared like I had hoped, but I'll take the pretty little pit viper. I've seen dozens of rattlers in PA, but I have a much, much harder time finding copperheads. I should bring Jen more often.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I hope you're not getting sick of timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) yet. I know I'm not. I suppose I might think differently if I were doing this for a living (a hypothesis I'd be glad to test), but I'd be happy to go out hiking at least a few days a week to stare at our most majestic snakes in some of the most beautiful places in the state.

Last week I went back to Forbidden Ridge yet again, this time to find the hibernaculum. We've been watching pregnant females, and then the newborn babies, but we hadn't yet figured out where exactly all these snakes go when it gets cold. Timber rattlers hibernate communally in dens generally set in rocky, south-facing hillsides, so we knew there was a den back on that hillside somewhere.

We have hiked a lot of miles over that slope, dragging ourselves up and down, through rhododendron thickets and greenbriar curtains, over steep slopes of boulders and cliffs. Last week I hiked in a little late; to be precise I started right on time, but another route in proved harder than I had expected, landing me in position an hour later than I had hoped. The sun that day had started off shrouded by cloud and then played hide and seek. It was strong and steady when I arrived on scene, though, meaning that the snakes likely were already withdrawing into the shade where I'd have a hard time spotting them.

I started at the maternity ward, er, I mean the rookery site. As I had suspected there were still snakes there, but they were all out of sight and out of the sun.

I figured this was yet another trip where I'd wouldn't find the hibernaculum, but I pressed on into the woods towards a talus slope I hadn't yet explored. I hiked up one side of the steep, rocky incline and then positioned myself at the top for a descent on my way down to the trail out and back to my car.

The rocks on this slope made me uncomfortable. Large boulders are relatively easy to traverse. Your foot step matters little to a rock that weighs a few tons. This slope was composed mostly of smaller pieces, unfortunately, so I stepped carefully but still felt several apparently safe footholds slide our or lever to the side beneath my boots.

Startled buzzing erupted just as I slipped on one such rock and skidded to an awkward stop another rock down. The thrill of finding the snake hit me at the same time as the jolt of fear that I didn't know where exactly it was for a moment - next to my ankle? Luckily I located the sound about a yard away and it was retreating. I didn't see the snake, but it was plenty indication that I needed to stop and look around.

Suddenly they were all around me. It's hard to describe this moment to someone who hasn't experienced it with at least some kind of cryptic animal. You look again at the rocks and now there are rattlers basking right there where you swear you had seen nothing a moment before. Two of them scooted out of view before I could extract my camera, but this yearling stayed put.

I took all the necessary readings and notes, and then figured I could happily cut back to the trail and go home. On my way out, though, about twenty yards from the first cluster of snakes, I looked to my side and say this guy:

I took his portrait, giggling to myself with triumph and immense satisfaction, and then noticed two of his yellow buddies. See them arranged into a triangle with the black one at the bottom-right corner?

Here's the bottom-left corner snake:

I got a step closer to the top one for a better shot and immediately noticed TWO MORE snakes back in the shade.

They were popping up all around me. Here's a baby a few more yards up the hill:

I looked to my left at one point and saw yet another snake, this one a black rattler in the shade of a rock, positioned so I could really only see it from that exact angle.

That one led to the completely sobering realization that nothing distinguished the rock sheltering that snake from the ones I was standing on or any of the rocks to which I could step from my position. I finished up the photo session and made my way back to the trail very, very carefully.

Monday, October 05, 2009

So, how do I top the last post of awesome baby and adult timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus)? Well, basically I'm just going to throw more of them at you, but this time better photographed.

A week after the post below I did the same trip, but this time I had herping buddies with me: Eitan and his buddy Danny. Both of them have better cameras than I do, and they take better photos too. Both also proved game to try yet another way to the site - a trail a non-herper hiking friend told me about. That trail proved to be a perfect route in - fast and pretty easy. It doesn't take me by all the rocky outcroppings I'd like to hit, but my route here is still a work in progress.

Have I mentioned any of our frustration at only finding timber rattlers at Forbidden Ridge? I know that sounds absurdly ungrateful - like only getting ice cream for a free dessert and complaining about not getting any cookies too - but it's a real gripe. I don't think it's necessarily a problem we have with rattlers; rather it's that we don't handle the venomous snakes, and we sometimes miss the feel of actually getting to pick a snake up in our hands (the elusive ratsnakes - Pantherophis obsoleta - are perfect for this).

I can't say this little guy made us feel all that much better:

That's a baby ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus) I found under a rock on our way to the main site. It was cute, but not very impressive to handle :-)

I am pretty wary of posting habitat shots for this site since I don't want to give it away, but I feel good about these two pictures, namely because I know how hard we worked to get to where they are and how hidden they are if you're not already standing right in these spots.

It is gorgeous country, and I like to repeat that even if I don't find anything, at least I get in a great hike.

Luckily this time we didn't have to settle for just the hike, though. The babies were out in force again.
(next photo is Eitan's closeup of the same snake):

Here they are peeking out of a crack:

Here's one who has already had its first shed and looks pretty (Eitan's shot).

What I just plain adored was the way the babies hung out with the adults. That sentence understates the situation; these babies were almost certainly hanging out with their mothers. We didn't sex the adults, and we certainly didn't do genetic tests to connect the family trees here, but after seeing gravid females basking, then seeing babies with adults (many looking deflated and skinny, just like snakes do after they give birth or lay eggs) at the same spots later, I think we can say these babies were with their mothers, even if the babies and mothers were mixed up and hanging out with each others offspring and moms.

Can you see the babies sitting inside the coils of the adult in the middle of the shot?

Here are two of Eitan's shots:

I don't know if I've ever seen anything cuter, ever. We're so used to snakes being non-social, heartless little critters that don't interact with each other except to fight or mate that seeing all these snakes exhibiting apparently social behavior is especially heartwarming. I should mention here that studies have indicated social behavior among timber rattlers. Babies seem to hang out in groups near their moms for a few weeks after birth. Babies seem to follow the scent trails of their elders to find the hibernaculum (winter den), sometimes traveling together. There is also some interesting observations and speculation out there about adult females hanging out with their sisters while gravid, with some non-gravid girls apparently swinging by to visit. We shouldn't make too much of this, but timber rattlers apparently are able to regard each other as more than just 'other non-food mobile objects in the landscape, half of which are worth having sex with once a year.'

Now, in another interesting observation that is worth some fun, wild speculation, Eitan was peering into a baby-stuffed crack when he remarked, "there's a garter snake in there."

I said something to the effect of "&*//$#!%," and he said, "no really. I think there are two."

I walked over, and sure enough we could see two garters (Thamnophis sirtalis) back in the crack with a bunch of little rattler babies.

None of us had heard of this before, and I can't find anything written about it in the books I have. We've heard of other species, such as ratsnakes, shacking up with rattlesnakes for hibernation, but never a smaller species, one that actually has been documented as rattler food, hiding with baby rattlers. As for the wild speculation part, we have to wonder if this is more than coincidence. The nearest water is about a half mile away, and although garters do range away from water, we haven't found them before on that slope, and it still seems like a strange place to find them randomly. Were they actually selecting a hiding spot because of all the venomous snakes sharing it? That's impossible to say based on this observation, but it sure is fun to think about.