Thursday, March 19, 2009

I am suffering from acute spotted turtle withdrawal as I write this. The high lasted through the next morning, but in the afternoon I was gripped by the painful need to get outside and find more spotted turtles. Scott called about something else, but I hijacked the conversation to tell him about the craving. He empathized, since he was unable to come along with Simon and me on our turtling outing (March 19th) the previous day, when I got my initial fix. Scott pointed out that it was currently raining lightly and in the mid-40s, which is crappy turtling weather, and although I know that I couldn't be finding spotties even if I didn't have to work, that knowledge doesn't seem to help me feel any better.

Spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) make me happy. I'm not sure how anyone could be anything but happy looking at this face,

or this one (a little more scared, but still keeping an eye on things)

or even this one (not coming out until the monster goes away!)?

...but for me I think I'm feeling more than just the visceral pleasure of holding and regarding a beautiful and endearing little creature that doesn't bite or poop on you (although neither of those really turn me off when it comes to herping). Spotted turtles are some of the first reptiles of the spring, but more than the brown snakes (Storeria dekayi), garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), or maybe painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) that also come out early and stay out all year, spotted turtles are reptiles of the spring. They come out of hibernation as soon as the sun is shining and the temps keep above freezing at night, and then they tend to disappear from sight in the heat of the summer, when their beloved vernal pools and other temporary wetlands dry up (or when thick vegetation shields them from view).

If you've been following this blog for a little while, you might know that I enjoy scouting new sites for rare or hard-to-find species. I like studying maps and satellite images for the right terrain, and then I love stepping out of the car and hiking to the real deal so I can see, feel, and smell it all myself. This "ground proofing" as I've heard it called (I like "casing the joint"), is a good winter activity, and once I've determined that a site really does hold potential, I can barely contain myself until the seasonal and weather conditions are right for the target species.

For spotted turtles I'm waiting for early spring (like right now!) and sunny weather. It can be as low as 40 degrees, but if the sun is strong, it's worth looking. Spotted turtles are morning people, so go earlier than later, and when you get to the pool or marsh, check the the north or northwest bank (where the sun is hitting) or shore for turtles either hanging out at the surface of the water or hauled out on branches or the bank itself. It's best to approach from the south for the best view and to place yourself between the turtle and the water (or in the water where the turtle will run once spooked).

Here's how a spotted turtle looks in the water, like a tiny constellation of stars sliding over the dark leaf litter:

Here is a turtle basking on a downed tree in a vernal pool:

Here's Simon taking a picture of one. You can see another in the leaves towards the top left of the picture, in between the second and third from the right of the shadows cast by the small tree trunks in that corner:

I'll take a quick tangent to quickly show the differences between male and female spotties.

First, note the bellies (plastrons). Males have a concave plastron, while the females' are pretty much flat. Note also the size of the tails - males have longer, thicker tails.


Next, look at their backs (carapaces). The males tend to have flatter shells with more flaring at the back than the females, who have rounder, more-domed shells.


Male (this was a really pretty one):
Last, check out their chins if they'll show them to you. The females tend to have a lot more orange there than the males.

Female (also note her higher-domed shell compared to the flatter male in the next shot):

Most of these photos are from spot we already knew somewhere in the Delaware Valley (the kind of spot whose secrecy we'll defend to the death). Starting with a known population was a good way to check that turtles would be out at all, so that I'd have a better sense of the quality of the new sites we'd visit next. At the old site we also met some other regulars, including this basking black racer (Coluber constrictor)...

...and this feisty, difficult-to-pose ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus) that I nearly stepped on in the middle of the trail; I stopped my foot a few inches above it as some subconscious part of my brain realized it wasn't a stick, so that I was executing an awkward hop to clear the snake before I really knew why. It flattened its head and body to look big and tough, and at first I thought it was a close relative, a garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), but the location of its side stripes on the 3rd and 4th scale rows up from the belly on each side, as opposed to 2nd and 3rd for a garter, and some other pattern details convinced us that we were looking at a ribbon [for some reason the photo keeps uploading sideways - sorry].

At the first of the two new sites I initially had trouble finding the water. I think it might have been drier than I'd been expecting, but pretty much as soon as we found the pool and waded in, I spotted three spotted turtles soaking up the sun on the north bank of the pool. One charged into the water before we could grab it for photos, but here's one of the other two (the male chin example from above is the second) and a shot of the pool:

note the dark chin and how the shell flares out a little over the back leg on this male:

I was ecstatic - clapping, shouting, gorilla-style chest thumping, elated. Simon was giggly too. If simply finding spotted turtles isn't cool enough by itself, finding spotted turtles at a location you've researched and scouted is about as cool as herping gets, ever. Basically I told Simon to park and then hike with me somewhat blindly into the woods to an anonymous pool I'd never herped before, and as soon as we got there we found three of the coolest turtles on the planet.

We had time for one more spot on the way home, so we stopped and I led us down a poorly-maintained trail in the general direction of some coordinates by way of my GPS unit. Eventually we had to strike off the trail, which in this landscape meant hacking, scrambling, and contorting our way through a dense growth of spiny hollies, small face-jabbing oak trees, downed trees, and thorny hanging greenbriar vines. We ended up in a marsh all right, but it didn't look right for spotted turtles. The stagnant water was shallow over deep sphagnum moss. Each step sank us up to our knees in the muck, and we had to climb over downed tree trunks and limbo our way around dense stands of saplings and greenbriar. Pretty soon we realized we were getting close to brackish water and it wasn't looking any better, so we gave up (which meant slogging out the way we'd come in).

On the way back we happened to cross through a section of woods that I had flagged on the map as vaguely strange but promising - no obvious pools, but the forest had a rougher look to it. I think that "roughness" I had noted was the effect of flooded understory, either with water or the blackened leaf litter that dries out later in summer showing through the canopy, since on the ground we were looking at some really pretty flooded forest.

And we weren't alone either! A big male (for a spotty - 4.5 inches long) was basking on the mossy bank of a tiny tree island (he's the one all closed up near the start of the post). How cool is that?!

(here's a shot of such an island, sans turtle)

After the thrill and the photos it was a tough hike out. We couldn't find the trail again, so we just headed back in the direction of the road we'd parked on, knowing that we'd hit it eventually. It was the same thick, brambly mess, and I think I took about as much of the forest out in my hair and stuck in my skin as I left behind, but I didn't care - I was too damn happy, and if I didn't have to work to earn a living I'd be back out there every day of the week.

I need to close by saying the turtles are being reported to the proper state herp tracking efforts, and that we put all of them right back how we found them once we were done with the photos. However tempting it might be to take one, spotted turtles are at risk from people taking them home for pets, even just for "personal use." If you really want one, you can find captive-bred hatchlings, although possession of those still might be illegal (as in PA) or require state permitting (as in NJ, as of the last time I checked). Please avoid buying adults listed as captive-bred - that's usually a fraud to cover for illegal trade in wild-caught adults, whatever the guy tells you. Last thing - never reveal the locations of your spotted turtle sites to anyone you don't know well and trust. You never know who is a poacher, but more important it's often hard to tell if even an innocent fellow herper will have the discretion to keep his or her mouth shut around other possible poachers. I avoid even mentioning what state I found in them, let alone the county or specific locale.
On Tuesday my friend Jim left me a phone message that I love to come home to: he had found a snake in front of his apartment building and he was holding onto it for me to take a look.

I rode over to his place on 48th a few blocks south of Baltimore in West Philly (I guess technically Southwest), and Jim met me on the sidewalk with this little guy:

Jim's block consists of mostly large twin houses with small back yards, with ends up producing nice brown snake (Storeria dekayi) habitat in the centers - a mix of grass, gardens, and trees with lots of flagstones and flowerpots to hide under, and I think probably less pesticides than they find out in the suburbs. Here's a shot of the area from Google Earth.

We let the little yearling brown snake go under the fence of his neighbor's back yard and wished it well.

I headed home, but on Wednesday afternoon (low 60s and sunny, after a nice spotted turtle trip in the morning - more on that in the following post) I rode my bike out to Mt. Moriah cemetery. The angle of the sun was already too steep for my favorite stone wall, casting a shadow out in front of it, but I turned up a surprising four yearlings under other sunnier cover around that section of the cemetery.

Together with the yearling Jim found, the yearling I found at the cemetery the weekend before, and the lack of adults so far, I'm wondering if the yearlings get moving a little earlier than their elders. I have no idea why that would be, but it will be interesting to investigate.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This is a quick reminder about the next GPHS meeting on March 20th. For more details scroll down for my Feb 21 post about the meeting:

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.

(And just to avoid confusion, I'll note that the Greater Philadelphia Herpetological Society is not the same group as the old PHS.)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Every now and then, usually at a party, someone hears about my hobby and in the spirit of engaging in friendly conversation mentions some news story they heard about crazy people in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, maybe even Pennsylvania who catch lots of rattlesnakes (Crotalus species) and then throw big festivals.

They mean this in only the nicest way, but few topics set me off like the rattlesnake roundups. At this point in the conversation I take a deep breath and kindly explain that the roundups are brutal, savage, events in which thousands of rattlers are yanked out of burrows - many flushed out of burrows with gasoline, which kills all kinds of other small wildlife and pollutes the ground - then handled roughly and frequently injured as they're dumped into huge heaps, tossed around in bagging contests, and then in the end get their heads chopped off.

Some Southwestern roundups might not have much of an impact on the western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) populations they target (can't say that about all the gasoline dumped in burrows), but then they might - hard to say - but in other parts of the country they can be devastating. In the Southeast, eastern diamondbacks (Crotalus adamanteus) are hurting enough without being slaughtered in organized events, and it's worth noting that Georgia has extremely restrictive reptile collection laws, pretty much EXCEPT when it comes to those rattlers slaughtered in those roundups.

In Pennsylvania the roundups are on the way out. Timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) are slow breeders and are in an un-ignorable decline statewide. State regulations have gradually made it impossible to collect lots of rattlers for roundups, and I'm glad to see our roundups end.

Needless to say I get angry every year at the newspaper articles cheerfully reporting on rattlesnake roundups as some kind of quirky Americana, ignoring the cruelty and environmental destructiveness of the events. I write letters to the editor every year, and every year they are ignored.

Last week my herping buddy Simon sent out a link to an annoying NY Times article profiling one roundup participant, a supposedly more-respectable hunter who doesn't use gasoline. Of course that pissed me off all over again, and I wrote this letter to the editor:

I am tired of reading articles romanticizing the Sweetwater rattlesnake roundup. Eric Timaeus, profiled in Michael Brick's "Pushing the Limit," might not use gasoline, but he's still rounding up beautiful creatures for slaughter, and focusing on him puts a more-respectable gloss over a group of hunters with little regard for their impact on the environment.

I really wish you'd do a piece on the other, much more numerous group of people who seek snakes without killing them, those of us who find them, take notes and photos, and then let them go to live another day. We take our impact on the environment seriously and many of us collaborate with conservation efforts. This practice doesn't carry the greatest name - Herping - but if you want to learn more, check out or my blog at

Bernard Brown

I was pretty proud of myself for avoiding profanity and an attack on the honor of the reporter's female relatives, and what-do-you-know, they ran the letter!

Of course they edited it down, and it might not be included in all the editions, but I guess this shows why we should speak up when an article presents environmental destruction and basic savagery as something cute and folksy - if we do it in a calm, constructive way, someone might actually pay attention.
I've been looking forward to the outbreak of spring with a painful anticipation that could make me face up to my herping obsession as a form of addiction, although I think I'll choose not to do that. It all seems pathologically emotionally self-destructive in the winter when we're locked down with nothing much to catch, but then the beginning of spring is pure ecstasy.

Some people see flowers as the heralds of the spring, or possibly the songs of birds returning from warmer climes, but for us herpers it is the songs of frogs that call out the beginning of spring and tell us that life has returned to the earth.

It might be wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) quacking and chuckling like a mob of angry ducks in vernal pools, it might be chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) with a cacophony of metallic trills, a hundred fingers dragged over the teeth of combs, but there's a really good chance it's the hearty peeps of spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), tiny, thumbnail sized frogs with outsized voices that can take over the night as the horny little males yell back and forth at each other and occasionally launch a direct challenge at an encroaching neighbor with a little trill.

Last night it was the peepers, as Jen and I joined some Bucks County, PA herpers at an organized amphibian walk. I stood shifting my weight back and forth from foot to foot and gritting my teeth impatiently through the introductory talk - all important stuff for the kids there about amphibian hibernation and breeding, but we had heard the peepers in the distance when we had parked, and I needed to get out there.

Finally we filed out and into the woods, stopping after a few minutes on a boardwalk and around the edges of the party pool. The frogs shut up for a moment, scared by all the tromping humans several thousand times their size, but after a minute or two, one fearless male cried out in lust and aggression, and the others could not ignore the challenge. Other frogs called right back at him, then more, and pretty soon they were shouting from all around us.

Others, including Jen, launched out around the edges of the pool to catch some frogs, and hopefully spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum).

(here's Jen in the first photo, another tromper in the other)

I took a few minutes, however, to stare into the dark, vague columns of trees and patchy grass and shrubs and absorb the chorus of peepers, drinking in the noise like water after a long, dry hike.

There were a couple chuckling wood frogs in there too, and after a little while I came to and started to stalk them at the edge of the pool. A few dead leaves tricked me before I spotted the head of a wood frog sticking out of the water, one that sat still long enough for me to grab it. I headed for one of the containers that had been brought along to hold frogs long enough for the kids to take a good look, but mine jumped out of my hand jumped away just before I could dump it in.

Here's another frog in its holding container.

Jen eventually tired of not catching frogs and not seeing any salamanders in the water, and she turned up some redbacks (Plethodon cinereus) under logs in the woods.

After about an hour some of us tried a pool off in a different direction. We heard those peepers again, and after a little while we finally saw some spotted salamanders.

The forecast as of a few days ago called for rain (to go along with the temperature in the high 30s), which would have been PERFECT for spotted salamander breeding. The males had already started migrating to the pool, but the females were apparently waiting for another good rain to join them.

The night was dry, however, so instead of wading into a mass orgy of salamanders, we were peering into the dark water for a few stray males floating around, maybe tired of waiting at the bottom of the pools for more rain and checking for females. That hunting took us a while, but one herper did finally spot one, and then Jen did too.

You might not know this about Jen, but she loves stalking amphibians. Lots of people ask me about how patient my wife must be to put up with my herping, but I need to point out that she has a blast jumping into the muck or water (even frigid, painful-to-touch water) and grabbing at frogs and salamanders. Last night this was more daring than it sounds. We had figured that with so many people we wouldn't need to get in the water, so we had left our hip waders in the trunk of the car. Of course we jumped in the water anyhow (we should know ourselves better by now), soaking our socks and pants, and feeling our feet go from the initial shock of cold to the longer pain of near-freezing, and finally to totally numb.

Unfortunately Jen was unsuccessful in her hunting last night (and it took some persuading to convince her to give up and come back to the car), but another herper managed to grab two of the salamanders for photo sessions.

Here also is a shot of a wood frog egg mass in the same pool, maybe a foot and a half long.

And here are the two of us. We traded the camera and took shots of each other soaked but elated after a night, the first thrilling night, of herping.