Thursday, May 21, 2009

So you've surely heard of nature walks, and probably heard of birding walks, but what about a herp walk? The concept shouldn't be all that alien to us; after all this spring I went on an amphibian walk at the Five Mile Woods in upper Bucks County to observe breeding spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), wood frogs (Rana sylvatica), and spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum), but outside of walks targeting highly predictable herp behavior, we generally don't take groups of non-herpers out on herping trips.

So it was with some trepidation that Scott and I agreed to lead a walk in April at a large privately held property in the rolling hills west of Philadelphia. It's not that we don't want to educate people about reptiles and amphibians and try to engender some respect and appreciation for them in the general public (love might be asking too much). The problem is the fundamental unpredictability of herping. For example Scott and I spent a long and gloriously beautiful April day at the same location - perfect weather, perfect time of the year for all sorts of critters - and came up almost completely skunked. On other trips we've done fabulously, with oodles of turtles, snakes, frogs, and toads, but it was nothing we could guarantee. We didn't want to take a bunch of hopeful strangers out on a long slog in the mud to find nothing but, well, mud.

We immediately decided that the only way this could work was if we captured critters in advance of the walk. These would serve as good show and tell animals in the pre-walk lecture, and then we could release them outside at their points of capture, giving people some herp interactions and observations even if nothing presented itself on the course of the walk. We also decided to set some turtle traps in advance so that we could pull out a bunch of painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) to pass around and then let go. Painted turtles are generally pretty to look at and don't bite, making them a perfect show and tell herp for beginners.

So the day before I was out there with a lot of little containers, some cloth snake bags, and high hopes. Shoshanna, Eitan's daughter, agreed to come along to help with what is actually a really fun kind of project - bag one of everything we see.

We don't collect animals, almost as a rule. I want to skim across the question of collecting without getting stuck in a complicated, highly charged topic that often ties herpers up in angry, vitriolic knots, so suffice it to say that we usually don't catch critters for more time it takes to measure and photograph them.

That said, it's a lot of fun to catch them for a little longer, to indulge our acquisitive urges for a day. I usually don't carry snake bags, but this time I was thrilled to stuff them with a bunch of plastic takeout food containers in Shoshi's backpack and start hunting.

We got to use them right away. One of the first rocks at an we flipped at an uplands spot gave us a small garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) - perfect as a common species of the marsh, a snake that so many people see zipping away before they can get a good close look at it.

Then we struck off to a cluster of ponds, site of my first and only small disaster of the day. As a preface I should relate that Scott had been there the Friday before with his son Miles on his back. Miles is a real trooper, as is Scott to try to herp with a toddler literally and metaphorically weighing him down. Here's an earlier shot of Miles on Scott's back for reference, with Scott examining a spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata).

Scott had called me from the marsh that Friday to tell me how hard it was to catch anything; he'd spot a critter that he would usually stoop, dive, or slide to grab, but none of those actions was possible with Miles riding up top. Particularly frustrating was an absolutely huge northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) he had seen basking at the edge of one of the ponds.

Watersnakes are everywhere in the marsh - basking on tussocks and the banks of the ponds, poking around the reeds for frogs, skimming across the creek, and so would be a wonderfully representative species to show the people on the walk. And if you're going to show people a watersnake, do you want to show them an average, puny watersnake, or do you want to show them the grandmama of all watersnakes?

No question there, so that monster watersnake was high on my shopping list for the day. As I came in sight of the watersnake's pond I started studying the bank for the dark gray coils of the basking beast. Unfortunately it saw me before I saw it and started sliding into the water while I was still maybe ten feet away and on the other side of some willow saplings.

The snake's head start didn't stop me from trying to catch it, of course, so I charged with bull-like grace through the vegetation and over the edge of the bank. I still missed the snake - indeed a monster snake that certainly would have made me pay for the privilege of catching it. To add injury to insult, I underestimated the slope of the bottom of the pond and my second step flooded my left hip wader.

To assuage my wounded ego I caught a newt in the shallows. I know, there is no real honor in catching one of the most common, slowest, clumsiest amphibians of the marsh, but we needed one for the next day. I didn't have the container, so with the newt in hand I set off looking for Shoshi, who had disappeared sometime after I flooded my left hip wader.

I found her in a nearby strip of wet meadow - what might look like an overgrown field with puddles until you step into it and realize you're sinking up to your knees into a mat of water and dead grass.

"Shoshi!" I called, trying to feel proud of myself (it's hard to feel proud of myself when I have a soggy sock), "I caught a newt! Can you hand me a container?"

"I would," she replied, "but I don't have a free hand. I'd have to put down one of the turtles!"

Shoshi was holding two spotted turtles that she had caught basking in one of the puddles, and as soon as she handed one to me she spotted another and picked it up too.

Beginner's luck? Not quite. Shoshi is Eitan's daughter, and she's been catching turtles with her dad her whole life. She explained that she just walks very slowly and carefully studies the water for heads or any sign of motion - ripples, vegetation waving out of rhythm with the wind. She makes it sound simple, but that kind of careful, patient attention to the habitat detail takes some practice and skill, certainly more skill than catching a newt in a few inches of water.

I put my pathetic little newt in a container with some water from one of the puddles and got to work photographing, measuring, and otherwise processing the turtles before letting them go again.

It took us two tried to bag a green frog (Rana clamitans) in a nearby weedy puddle. It had jumped in and escaped into the mud earlier, but on our second try we just kept feeling around the bottom until we flushed it back out.

Now it was time to set traps, one in each of two of the ponds that are full of easily trapped painted turtles, and from there we circled back to a building where we were storing the critters for the next day.

There's a lovely piece of metal on the hillside near the building, and the property's caretaker had commented to me the week before that he finds snakes underneath it when he moves it to mow the grass. I had checked the week before and had found nothing but some rodent burrows leading back into the hillside. This time, however, I was greeted with one of the most beautiful sights in Pennsylvania herping, the crimson and gray coils of a young milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum)!

Dig that red eye.

Yes, this is the same species of snake I so obsessively hunt in the city of Philadelphia. Can you see why?

It was an absolute pleasure to handle - no thrashing, no biting, no musking or pooping. It just held onto my hand and flicked its tongue around patiently. I lingered with it a moment before bagging it, sure it would be a hit the next day.

From there Shoshi and I headed down the creek in a canoe to set some more traps (hoping for more spotted turtles). We snatched a small basking painted turtle and caught one love-struck American toad (Bufo americanus) trilling away next to the creek. This is also when I tried out carrying a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in a canoe (see the May 5th post), and we quickly decided it wouldn't work.

Sunday was the big day, and we started the morning by making the rounds to catch more critters for the talk and walk. The big catch was another snapping turtle, this one smaller than the one from the canoe. Jen spotted it in the shallows of one of the ponds, and Scott pulled it out of the mud.

Now what? The pond is a five minute walk from the building where we were storing critters and where we'd be doing the talk, and I pointed out the trickiness of carrying a resisting snapping turtle that far. I suggested bagging the turtle for the walk back, and soon we were crouching on the ground, trying to hold a pillowcase open with a snake hook while shoving in an ornery, long-clawed chunk of turtle.

That's when the snapping turtle bit Scott.

You might be thinking, 'how does someone get bitten by a bagged turtle?' Well, Scott's thinking was that he wanted to locate the turtle's head in the pillowcase before dropping it in his backpack, but I stared at him with bug-eyed disbelief as he felt around the turtle with his bare hand, and then SNAP!, the turtle caught his finger. He got it out pretty quickly, but even with the bag between the turtle's jaws and his finger it drew blood and, according to Scott, felt like getting his finger slammed in steel door.

After that the day only got better (how could it not?).

Here is a shot of me talking through the slides of the site and some photos of the resident herpetefauna.

Scott and Jen walked the actual live animals around (I added a pet stinkpot - Sternotherus oderatus and a baby watersnake from Cobbs Creek to the effort), and soon it was time to very carefully re-bag the snapping turtle (we had kept it in the sink) and head outside.

I quickly released the gartersnake by its rock and the milksnake by its metal home. We set off on a course to the ponds, releasing newts, frogs,

and turtles,

and doing the same with maybe a dozen painted turtles we found in the two traps.

Have I mentioned how hot it was? This was that freak weekend in April when instead of the pleasant, sunny weather of spring we got nineties better suited to August. We didn't expect much of anything to be active by the 1pm scheduled walk time, but we were pleasantly surprised by the amphibian action.

American toads were having a small party in the shallows where I had caught the newt. We heard the trilling from far away, but close-up we saw them hopping around, some on their own, some hopping in pairs.

One of the walkers spotted what he thought was a small toad a few yards past the toads and came up with this little spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer), a species we had missed in our collecting effort.

We had also failed to catch any bull frogs (Rana catesbeiana), but this one basking on a lilly pad couldn't have looked more perfectly froggy if we had set up the scene in a studio.

We wound up the way a nature walk in a marsh should - slogging through mud and water.

I was a little surprised when more than one person asked how often we did this kind of presentation and herp walk, since this was the first we had ever done.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I wasn't planning on much herping Saturday morning (May 16th), but on my standard Woodlands Cemetery weekend jog I flipped two adult female brown snakes (Storeria dekayi). That was enough of a hint from the herping gods to send me out to Mt. Moriah.

I hadn't expected a warm, misty morning to yield many snakes hiding under cover objects, but obviously the snakes knew something I didn't.

Herpers operate under a lot of assumptions that we too often treat as hard and fast rules. For example we often assume that snakes use cover objects for heat and/or moisture: cover objects to transfer heat from the sun without forcing snakes to bask in the open, and the objects preserve moisture in relatively dry settings. For both these reasons a wet, almost foggy morning should yield little under cover - no sun to heat the cover object, and no advantage of avoiding dessication.

The brown snakes of the Mt. Moriah cemetery disagreed along with their sisters in the Woodlands. I found six adult females along with an adult male and a yearling female. Almost all the adult females looked plump and were getting ready to shed their skins, and all of them were under trash. I'm pretty sure they were all pregnant, but I don't think they're due for another month and half. So, for the next few weeks we should be catching plump female brown snakes.

I also found this gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis), that held still long enough for me to get some photos. Of course it was chewing on my hand, but a foot-long gartersnake doesn't do much damage, and I love how they flatten out to flash that toothpaste blue-green in between their scales.