Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Greater Philadelphia Herpetological Society and the Marple Township Environmental Advisory Board present a free lecture on

Searching for the Elusive Bog Turtle

by James A.Schmid,

Principal, Schmid and Co., Inc., Consulting Ecologists,

Dr Schmid will explain who needs to do a bog turtle survey, what the regulations demand, and what is involved in a survey. The talk will be illustrated with slides.

8 PM, 20 March 2009

Marple Township Building, Springfield and Sproul Roads

From the East or West: PA Rte 3 (West Chester Pike) to PA 320 (Sproul Road), South to the “T”. Enter parking lot just past police station or turn left on Sproul and take your next left to get to the other parking lot (on the right).

From the North or South: Either take I-476 (Blue Route) to Exit 9 (Broomall) and go west on PA Rte 3, then south on PA rte 320 or take PA Rte 320 from wherever you are.

There is a parking lot around the Township/Library Building and one just to the east of the building. Street parking is possible on Sproul Road from the Police Station north.

Refreshments will be served. While there is no admission charge, there will be a voluntary collection to cover the speaker’s fee and other expenses.

Monday, February 16, 2009

This is part two of the North Carolina herping vacation. Once again, all photos are by Josh Shatsky or Scott McWilliams

We spent the second part of our North Carolina trip down the coast a little, in and around the Croatan National Forest. In my pre-trip scouting online and flipping through detailed range maps, I had noted this area as a possible destination, and Eitan had mentioned it as well when we called for help back in a moment of desperation in the Lake Phelps area.

We needed the change, as much as for our sanity as for our herping. Nothing wears you down like four days of boring, crappy luck on what is supposed to be an exciting adventure, and we at least needed to feel like we were trying something to change our luck, even if it was just a change of scenery.

The drive down involved one unexpected ferry crossing, as well as a bag of boiled peanuts and some monster peaches I could have confused for canteloupes. I didn't take any shots of the peanuts (I forget how salty those are) or the peaches, but here's one of the ferry.

Soon we were there, but "there" was a fuzzy concept, a few hundred square miles we didn't know particularly well, with any spot on the map you could plant your figure as likely to yield success as any other.

The landscape was boring at first glance. There was some marshy pocosin there in the Croatan (a really fun word to say "Crow-a-tan"), but the landscape was dominated by flat pine woods. These might be productive to hike in the spring, but not so in the late summer, so right then we were looking for more-promising features - bodies of water, abandoned, dilapidated structures, dump sites, etc. We were lucky to have some more of those handy drainage canals everywhere alongside the roads, and we saw a handful of wide lakes on the map too. We also saw a few marshy creeks that looked like fun:

I would like to be able to compare the herping in the Croatan to the Lake Phelps area two peninsulas up the coast, but the weather was quite different in a very important way: a tropical storm was coming. Hannah was a horrible disaster for Haiti, and I confess some guilt at hoping she would sweep our way. We didn't exactly need a storm of natural-disaster proportions, we just needed a lot of rain, but a tropical storm would do the trick.

Heavy rains can simply flood critters out of their burrows, pushing them out onto the roads at night and closer to the surface during the day. All that water also makes it easier for moisture-loving amphibians to leave the water and hop around. While we do like frogs, we also like the critters that eat them - various water snakes (Nerodia species), cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus), kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula) and other fun snakes, including some really large and brightly colored snakes called mud snakes (Farancia abacura) that Josh was itching to get his hands on. These mud snakes are unfortunately difficult to find, since they spend almost all their time in the water and mud, and rarely go onto dry land, except for during rainstorms. (They also can be found in cover at the edge of the water - soggy carpet is supposedly perfect - and we checked every semi-submerged object we could find). Water turtles also sometimes get up and leave the water to walk around in the rain, which all together means we were imagining some really cool things happening once the sky opened up.

We made it to the Croatan in the afternoon. The air was humid as the northern edge of the storm system slid in over us, a promising sign. We checked into a hotel, caught a little rest, and then headed back out into the dusk. We navigated with the paper Delorme atlas, supported by Josh's driving-GPS unit (we named her Audrey), and I took us down a few blacktop and dirt roads that extended into the national forest and adjoining state game lands - I'll note that both are categories of public land much friendlier to the herper than the National Wildlife Refuges.

Our luck was nearly instant. We were driving near some houses that must have backed up against the forest when we saw a chunky little snake making its way across the pavement, its held up in a high angle off the road.

I do like copperheads, although when you start playing with them (even if it's only for a couple photos and then to scoot them off the road) they sometimes get a little snappy, striking so hard they jump a little.

We quickly found another one, and suddenly felt pretty good about ourselves.

Soon our driving took us to one of those large lakes in the middle of the forest. Here's a dusk shot from the following day:

With not much better to do we hopped out of the car and started shining our flashlights around. This can sometimes produce rough green snakes (Opheodrys aestivus) and other critters sleeping in the bushes, not that I've ever had that luck. Josh, however, struck gold almost right away, or rather he struck white and black - a nice kingsnake he found that was itself inspecting the bushes around the edge of the lake.

We drove around a bit more and found ourselves in what in the dark appeared to be an overgrown field with several decrepit houses. We flagged it for inspection in the morning, but on the way out nearly ran over another kingsnake, this little gem.

The next morning we slept in a bit and then headed right back out to where we'd found the small kingsnake at the end of the night. By daylight the site was more than we'd even imagined in the dark. There were three decrepit buildings still standing but with boards and other debris scattered around them, and one shack totally collapsed, its tin roof spilled out into the high grass. To be really emphatic about this, for the non-herpers out there, this is a scene straight out of our dreams - not much gets our blood pumping like decrepit buildings in a agricultural/forest patchwork setting with lots of boards and roofing tin for critters to hide under.

We got to work first on one of the standing building's half-collapsed front porch. Josh caught some Southeastern five-lined skings (Eumeces inexpectatus).

Then Scott flipped and had to chase down something that eats little skinks, this black racer, who was not at all happy to be restrained and photographed.

And then there was that collapsed roof. We knew it LOOKED perfect, but how often do perfect cover objects reveal nothing beneath them but ants and centipedes? Still, we got our hopes up and then got in position. Josh and I lifted up on the main section while Scott crouched at the ready. The tin rose up, and Scott shot an arm out to grab at a snake slipping away deeper under the roof.

What he pulled out still makes me grin with excitement, the most beautiful eastern kingsnake I've seen. Her coloration and pattern were perfect: inky black with that white chain pattern, the lines bold but not too thick for my taste.

I think if she'd been thinner she would have seemed less remarkeable. I measured her at about five feet - really big but not enormous. What gave her such a regal, imposing air was her bulk, a shiny, supple length of solid muscle that made her look like she could eat just about anything she wanted to.

What made her even cooler was that she was extremely calm in the hand. I think she nipped at Scott when he first grabbed her, but then she quieted down and calmly explored whoever was holding her, and we each took turns to check her out and take photos like these.

It was hard to let her go again - I was powerfully tempted to take her home as a pet - but our better inclinations prevailed and we said goodbye.

I suppose we could have continued to search that particular area, but raindrops were starting to fall, and we were excited to head back out to where the more-aquatic critters might be hopping around.

The first critter we came across was this little lizard, not aquatic at all. No trip to the Carolinas would be complete without an anole (Anolis carolinensis):

I was riding in the back of the car at this point. This is usually considered an inferior herping position compared to the front when road cruising, but in the daytime it can work out pretty well, as you watch directly to the side for things not in the driver or front-passenger's field of vision.

Looking down into one of the drainage canals I thought I saw something and called out to stop. Scott complied and I jumped out. There in the rain-spattered canal was a thick, chunky-headed cottonmouth.

Scott tossed me a snake stick and ran around over a little dirt-road bridge and down the other bank. We made an effort of trying to fish the guy out, but it dove into the weeds at the bottom, and we weren't quite ready to start feeling around in the murky water for a venomous snake. We let him be.

A little while later we spotted this familiar site up ahead on the road, a box turtle (Terrepene carolina - yes, another animal named "carolina"):

We stopped for some photos and then let him go.
It looked like a nice spot, though, with a pretty canal, and we started poking around. I quickly spotted another cottonmouth (I don't know why I was seeing them and not the other guys, but I'll take whatever luck I can get), this one beautifully banded, even if it did hide its head for the photos.Scott and Josh tried to fish it out, but with the same results as with its cousin up the road.

I headed down the way we'd come, watching frog after frog leap away into the water before I could do much to catch it. In retrospect it's perfectly obvious to me that I should have put on the waders, grabbed my net, and started dredging for those infernal amphibians, but I didn't.

Instead I saw a white pickup truck drive up and roll down its window. This is sometimes the prelude to an unpleasant interaction with law enforecement, even if you're doing the most innocent herping imaginable. I braced myself.

"Hello, what are you doing?" asked the man in the cab (white, thin, in his late 60s or early 70s, dressed as a civilian). I explained that we were looking for snakes, to which he responded, "What are you planning on doing with those snakes?" I quickly assured him that we weren't collectors; we were just nerds out for a geeky good time and some photos, to which he answered, "Oh good. Sometimes people come out here and kill snakes, and we don't like that."

Music to my ears! We had found a friend, and our friend's name was Jack. Jack was a local retiree who spent a lot of time as a volunteer in the forest, cleaning up dump sites, running off poachers and other evil-doers, giving out informational brochures, and giving recommendations of places to go in the forest. We hit it off famously.

We parted ways with Jack (though we ran into him again later), and we found a few more critters before we went back to the hotel for a cat nap, including this baby banded watersnake (Nerodia fasciata).

We were expecting big things after our nap - big rain, big frogs, big snakes, and things started off okay. It was sprinkling (what we were sure was just the beginning of the night's precipitation), and we quickly turned up a green snake and a ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus).

We also found this adorable baby snapper (Chelydra serpentina):

But as darkness fell, the rain actually let up. Wasn't it supposed to be a tropical storm? Weren't we supposed to see rain increasing in intensity?

Well, we never got the downpour we'd been banking on, just a whole lot of wind. The storm had ended up cutting just inland from where we were, and for whatever stupid accident of the weather ended up raining very little where we had chosen to herp.

We did find a handful of critters, including this young cottonmouth (they really are pretty snakes):

...a grown-up banded watersnake:

...and a cute and snappy yearling greenish ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoleta - when it grows up it will be a kind of ugly greenish color with faint blotches and fuzzy black stripes, a mix between a yellow ratsnake and a black ratsnake):

The DOR canebrake rattler (Crotalus horridus) with which we ended the evening seemed to put the icing on our sour moods, and I can't say we were particularly happy for our ride home the next day.