Tuesday, May 12, 2009

One of the interesting herping projects I'll probably never actually do is the 16 mile trek along the entire length of Cobbs Creek in Philadelphia. For a long time I've thought it would be cool to start at one end - either at City Ave. or down where Cobbs Creek flows into Darby Creek - and walk to the other, watching the water for turtles, flipping cover along the way, and hoping for one of the fabled black racers (Coluber constrictor) of Cobbs Creek to cross my path.

It sounds like such a fun urban herping idea, but now for the second spring in a row, I don't think I care enough to make it happen. I know that sounds awful, but each time I think about a free spring day for herping, I'd rather be searching for spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) outside the city or finding timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) well up in the mountains to our north and west. Of course if I ever win the lottery or find some other way to spend more time herping I'll do it, but as long as other herping goals are competing for my time, it probably won't happen. All that boils down to me just not caring enough, doesn't it?

I still do make it out there, don't get me wrong, but only for the shorter visits - an early morning trip squeezed in before a brunch date, an evening after work in June to listen to the bullfrogs. I know there's nothing wrong with this, but I've got a complex mix of emotions about the place - defensive advocacy of a local park, annoyance at its decrepitude, anger at the kids who catch and 'sell' every snake and turtle they see there - and I'm frustrated at myself for paying too little focused attention to the Creek and its wooded corridor only a mile or so from my apartment.

A couple weeks ago I found myself on Passover with the day off of work and the sun shining outside. The holiday revolves around a celebration of our freedom from slavery, of course, but it's also a fundamental celebration of spring. Before our ancestors ever went down to Egypt, even before they were monotheists, they were sheep and goat herders who slaughtered spring lambs as a sacrifice to honor the changing of the season.

I don't slaughter lambs and paint the blood on my doorpost, but how about a walk outside on a beautiful spring day? I thought about driving out to the country to go turtling, but I didn't feel quite right about the car ride or taking advantage of a religious day off to go herping. Instead I thought about the park nearby, where I could go for a nice walk first and foremost, and maybe do a little herping along the way.

For those who have never seen a gartersnake swim over calm water, this is one of the most beautiful sights that Earth has to offer. I have yet to get a good photo, but I remember seeing a garter snake swim across the creek by the skating rink (roughly at Spruce St.) last year. It slid off the bank and onto the water, inscribing a rippling sine curve over the surface, its pale vertebral stripe and long dark flanks echoed in the gentle wake fanning out to either side.

That bold stripe on the gartersnake's back is not exactly camouflage. Try to catch a gartersnake, and you'll often find your hand landing just behind it or on its tail even if you aim for the middle of the snake. After a few tries you can feel like a terrible klutz. Don't worry, it's not your fault. Your eyes initially fix on a point along the solid stripe, but the snake is moving, so the initial point that your eyes hit moves along the line without your brain noting the forward progress - you keep your eyes fixed relative to the stable ground instead of relative to the snake's body. This is a disconcerting optical illusion that gives many striped snakes an escape advantage. It adds a flowing grace to a gartersnake in any setting but especially so on the water as it adopts the fluid properties of its medium.

I passed a jogger on the track and a man at a picnic table on my way to the water. No gartersnakes greeted me there, just the storm sewer odor of trash and decay and some small fish holding steady in the current.

I set off down the path to the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center (CCCEEC) and made a few stops to watch the water, spotting only rocks, trash, and fish. A couple teen girls were pumping music and shining a car in the CCCEEC's parking lot, and they didn't seem to pay any attention as I rolled logs and looked under rocks. I sometimes find garter snakes there, but nobody was home.

Back in the woods to the south of the CCCEEC I found redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) under almost everything I checked. Whatever bad things I can say about Cobbs Creek and its wooded corridor, the salamanders sure like it.

A fierce debate on Field Herp Forum about whether artificial cover (trash, boards, sheets of tin, old furniture, carpet, etc.) increases herp population densities or only makes them easier to observe (yes, this is serious stuff in our world) reminded me that the pieces of cover under which I look are not necessarily better salamander homes than leaf litter or tree roots - things I can't lift up so easily - so maybe I should assume that however many salamanders I've found under a rock (like the three under this one) should be assumed to hang out in every similar area around me: 3 + 3 +3 +3 +3... It's like counting stars by drawing a small imaginary square above you and then trying to figure out how many such squares could cover the full night sky - it blows the mind and again reminds me that small creatures rule the earth, whatever we think.

I would be eager to wade in most creeks in our region, but not in the one closest to my apartment, Cobbs Creek. (To be more accurate, I should refer to it as the above-ground creek closest to my apartment. There are at least two closer creeks that run underground as storm sewers, including Mill Creek, a name that pops up a lot from the mid 40s north of Haverford Ave. south down 43rd St. Note that 43rd seems to run down a small valley and into Clark Park, the south block of which - the bowl - used to be a mill pond, and then down into the Schuylkill River. Check out Philly H20 for a great account of the now-underground creeks of Philadelphia.) Why not jump right in? Check out these photos of where Naylor's Run emerges from under Delaware County and flows out into Cobbs Creek.

I noticed this unwholesome pale green color wherever water flowed out of storm sewers and into the creek. I'm not sure whether it's due to chemicals in the water or maybe some difference in algae in the colder water flowing from underground, but it did nothing to make me want to jump in.

In case I need a reminder, I found this encouraging sign downstream. More on this later.

Much of the ground in the forest is covered with a beautiful green carpet speckled with lemon yellow flowers. It could fill you with the joy of spring - life rushing to receive the sun and wildflowers just bursting out of the ground - until you learn that the ground cover is an invasive exotic weed. Lesser celandine, a.k.a. fig buttercup, is from Europe and nastily outgrows everything else, replacing a diverse native flora with a relatively sterile monoculture. As resolved as I am to fight invasive exotic species, I wish I could remove that piece of knowledge from my brain and simply enjoy the beauty of the yellow and green landscape.

Here's another bad character, Japanese knotweed, sprouting from the insidious buttercup. By the middle of the summer it will form dense banks ten feet tall and preclude all other vegetation. That's Cobbs Creek for you - invasive exotics and that lingering fetid smell of runoff.

But I really did have a good time, I just have to avoid thinking about it too much. I was walking a wavy line through a densely populated urban neighborhood, but I never would have known it by looking - the green tunnel effect formed by the forest and the slopes down to the path and creek kept me pleasantly ignorant of the concrete and asphalt on the other sides. Isn't this why we go on nature walks?

I walked through a couple fields that I keep an eye on for racers. To my mind the most reliable way to find racers is flipping cover in old, overgrown fields. They might also live in forests (again that worry about misinterpreting ease of finding animals as their actual abundance), but most that I have found have been under boards in fields or hanging out in forests right near fields.

One of the fields is on the Philadelphia side, the other is on the Yeadon side - reminding me that indeed I was on the border with Delaware County.

My understanding is that these are old ball fields that Fairmont Park is letting grow to help mitigate Cobbs Creek's surface runoff problems. By that I mean that all the dog crap, lawn fertilizer, and motor oil on the sidewalks and streets gets washed into the creek each time it rains, a problem for aquatic life and people who are close enough to the creek to smell it. Generally plants and trees help soak up the chemicals and other crap before it reaches the water. A forest is ideal, and a high meadow is better. A mowed field is probably better than an impermeable surface like a parking lot, but letting the field turn into a meadow, and maybe eventually into a forest helps even more.

I saw no racers. I think I freaked out a man, a teenage girl (I presume his daughter ), and their dog in one field by walking around the edge inspecting trash and the ground underneath trash. There are deer back here, and dogs too, judging by the prints in a pile of sand in one of the fields. Why a pile of sand in the middle of a field? I haven't figured that one out yet.

I took a picture of a mallard couple and a goose swimming around, not that the world needs more photos of the super common waterfowl, but it's a representative spot on the creek and not a bad place to sit and watch the water.

I saw some less common birds here too - a kingfisher, a red-bellied woodpecker, and a nuthatch. Or I should say less common in West Philadelphia? I think I'd see a lot more of these in a heavily wooded suburb or out in the country.

I liked the remnants of an old bridge I found in the creek.

I'm not sure when a road last ran through here, but it reminds me about Cobbs Creek's industrial past. If the creek is now a natural break in the urban landscape, it is a recent role reversal. For about two-hundred and fifty years the creek was an industrial break in an agricultural landscape, back before electricity when water ran heavy machinery. Then the land on either side was all farms and villages and the creek powered mills to grind grain into flour, weave fabric, or even produce gunpowder (see Philly H20 for more).

My pulse peaked at an otherwise undistinguished bend in the creek south of the fields when I heard the shallow plunk of a turtle jumping into the water. This is one of the basic sounds of herping, along with the sharper splash of frogs leaping into the water from the shore and the slide of a snake through grass or leaves. I ran up to the edge of the steep bank down to the creek and saw one more turtle tip off the log and into the murky water.

This was a major victory for me. I wasn't completely sure of the turtle species, although I was leaning strongly towards the somewhat exotic red-eared slider or "RES" (Trachemys scripta elegans - popular pets from the Mississippi watershed). An exotic species was a bit of a let down, but pinning any turtles to one spot on the creek has taken me at least a year and a half of staring at the water and taking advice from locals to check out pools and bends that looked as empty and sterile to me as any other.

Why should there be so few turtles in Cobbs Creek? It flows into the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, turtle capital of Southeast PA, and it looks exactly like turtle-rich creeks I've seen elsewhere. There should be snappers (Chelydra serpentina) every few yards under the water, painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) basking everywhere, and stinkpots (Sternotherus oderatus) trudging along the bottom and basking on overhanging branches. I haven't seen any of those common local species. Maybe it's the pollution, and maybe it's the local kids who grab anything they can and try to sell it to their friends (I've had kids tell me about this, and other Cobbs Creek fans have complained about it too). Either way, it pains me to have a creek with so few turtles, so that plunk was music to my ears.

It was close to lunch time, so I settled down on a stump and watched the water. I saw a few turtles hovering around their basking spot, watching me warily. This photo shows the side of this turtle's head well enough to ID it as a slider.

I saw one slider chasing another (presumably a male after a female) close to the bank. I ran down to try to grab one, but they were just out of reach, and I just couldn't convince myself to jump in after them.

I was wrapping up lunch when I saw a garter snake swim across - beautiful as always, but at a bad angle for a photo. I did take a picture of the snake pausing next to a basketball on the bank (asking the turtles for a game?), and then of course I had to run on down and pick it up for a closer look.

It was a basic garter - average side, average pattern, typical stinky musk. It sported a terrible scar on its back and sides. Something once tore into it - maybe a bird, maybe a fox, maybe a snapping turtle? I shudder to think of how it looked when the wound was fresh, and I wished the snake better luck in the future as I let it go into the fig buttercup.

A little further down I passed a guy walking a couple pit bulls. Sometimes I get sick of the all the pit bulls. Am I the only person who thinks they're pathetically ugly dogs? I suppose the point of a pit bull is to radiate brute strength on behalf of the owner, but that speaks to me more of insecurity. Show me a man walking a Chihuahua and I'll know I'm looking at someone who doesn't care what anyone else thinks about him.

I was pretty close to my Mt. Moriah destination at this point, but the trail led up out of the ravine. I had to pop up onto the sidewalk along Cobbs Creek Parkway.

I should mention the robins. As much as I ignore birds in this blog, I do notice them when they're flying and hopping around me, and the robins were everywhere I looked. Here's one by the bike path along the Parkway.

I was only a minute away from Mt Moriah at this point, the center of my Cobbs Creek herping activity. As I posted a little earlier I recently found a northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon - see below) there to add to the gartersnake, jillions of redback salamanders, and merely hundreds (my rough estimate) of brown snakes (Storeria dekayi).

Mt. Moriah is one of my great guilty pleasures. It's a pleasure for being an urban herper's paradise - a few hundred rough acres of trees, brush, and high grass with more artifical cover to look under than I can get to without spending the night. Of course camping there would involve spending time with the prostitutes, semi-wild dogs, and other unsavory characters who hang out there after I've gone.

As for the guilty part of the pleasure, I don't think any cemetery should look like that, and I can't quite feel satisfied with taking advantage of the neglect of thousands of our deceased neighbors, people whose families didn't expect them to spend eternity under piles of trash and toppled headstones.

To be fair, some of the cemetery is still kept up.

But unfortunately it's hard to avoid the realization that the decrepitute sometimes adds to the beauty of the place. I prefer meadow to mown grass.

I think the brown snakes do too, and I found a few to take pictures of before turning around and heading back up the creek.

I wasn't the only person up in the cemetery that afternoon. I saw a nicely dressed white woman jumping out of a very nice car to look at a grave marker - I assume looking for a relative or doing some research; she showed no inclination to hang around. At the bottom of the hill a guy sat in his car talking on his cell phone; I'm always suspicious of people choosing to hang out there inside a car, apparently not even enjoying the nice day on a nice hillside.

And then there was the dead dog.

I had visited a week before, and there hadn't been a dead pit bull rotting on the side of the dirt road. Its ribs were exposed, the face pulled back in a tight rictus exposing the teeth. I suppose someone could have dumped a half-rotten dog, but I also wonder if scavengers could have taken the flesh off its bones.

I passed more people on my way back, but none more interesting than the girls in bikinis by the No Swimming/Sewage sign. At first I thought people were planning on swimming right near where it says not to go swimming. I know plenty of people hop into swimming holes at local creeks; that's what these people in bathing suits would be doing. But who goes swimming in high heels? Who wears high heels with string bikinis? And that much makeup? And only hangs out with other really hot young women in bikinis? And with a fully dressed guy arranging how they were draping themselves over the chain link fence?

One of the girls smiled and said hi as I walked back. I smiled and said hi right back. Just downhill three more impressively attractive young women in bikinis and high heels were wrapped in towels. "Hi honey," one of them said, which struck me as a little odd. I'm probably ten years older than she is. I tried not to think about it.

A little further down the path I passed the kind of dog I'd like to see more of - mid-size and a little shaggy. Not intimidating at all, just a friendly looking mutt. An older man in a work jump suit walked on the other end of the leash, carrying a tall can of Colt 45 in a paper bag. We greeted each other, and I smiled as I thought of what he'd see in a few seconds - "Works every time!"

Hot bikini models aside, I've got unrealistically high hopes for Cobbs Creek. Here's what the pragmatist on my shoulder says: It's a beautiful wooded creek corridor with lots of potential, but it is never going to be a good herping spot, except in the light of the abysmally low expectations I have for a polluted, abused urban landscape drained by a large, open storm sewer.

As soon as I write that, the idealistic pro-urban herper on the other shoulder defensively shouts back, "give it a chance! There are gartersnakes and brown snakes, bull frogs and redback salamanders! What about the snappers? The racers? The rumor of box turtles?" Cobbs Creek has a lot to offer, even if it is horribly polluted by street runoff, overrun with invasive exotic species, and its reptiles over-poached by the local kids.

But I haven't found any racers, or snappers, or any hint of a box turtle. True I've found the bull frogs (Rana caterbeiana), the garters, and one brown snake, but that's it. Maybe it's worth a nice walk after work or on a Sunday afternoon when I don't have time to go anywhere else, but I don't know if I'll ever get around to that big 16-mile hike I've been planning for two years.

Is it enough that it's worth a nice walk on a beautiful day? I can ride my bike out there in ten minutes, and I can enjoy the salamanders and the snakes with next to no effort. However many rattlesnakes I can find in the mountains, it takes me a couple hours to get to them. I like bull frogs, and watching them rumble away from the shore on a June evening can make me happy. I might even catch myself a red-eared slider if I can work up to touching the water.