Sunday, December 19, 2010

The cold wind blows and it's been too long since I've found anything besides a red-back salamander (Plethodon cinereus).

We've got two days to the shortest day of the year, before the sun mounts its comeback. I could do an end-of-the-year roundup, but the calendar year ain't quite over yet - I could flip some interesting amphibians in Atlanta this Christmas, and we might luck out with a nice salamander-rich rain after I get back, so I'm dredging up a report from beyond my usual stomping grounds this summer.

Readers of this blog are probably familiar with my love of aquatic turtling - diving into the water with my mask and snorkel and looking for them in their terrain. This is not an original technique. It might be less popular than road cruising or flipping AC (artificial cover), but then herpers tend to be a lazy bunch (that's right, brothers, I'm calling you lazy (there are few sister herpers, and my sense is that they might work a little harder than the boys.)), but you'll see it pop up now and then on Field Herp Forum and in scholarly papers that report collecting aquatic turtles by snorkeling or wading.

I had spoken with a herpetologist from Central PA who catches map turtles in a river towards the middle of the state, and after letting one summer drift by without making it out there, I resolved to make the drive in 2010.

It was early September when I got there, a little too early in the morning still for jumping in, with mist on the water and temps in the low 70s. I saw a couple turtles basking on a rock in a patch of sun, and one more swimming around at a fishing/boating access parking lot.

(here are some of the local turkeys)

On my way up a rise in the road I noticed a blue pickup truck in my lane. I slowed down, and the truck pulled back into the correct lane but paused. Maybe it was too early for my brain to put it all together right away, but my next thought was, 'Oooh! Is that a rattlesnake? Oh, it's an enormous copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)!'

(a few beats go by)

"Oh my God it's DEAD! The truck..." I jumped out, and looked at the snake, back at the truck (now a few yards behind me, so I couldn't quite see in the cab), back at the snake. The truck drove away.

I still wonder what I would have said if the DB in the truck had lowered the window or if I'd gotten there thirty seconds earlier, in time to stand in front of that snake with my potato rake and guard it across the road.

Whatever I could imagine, that snake was road pizza by the time I got to it. There was nothing to do but jot down the coordinates and temperature and hop back in the car.

The herping gods rarely show compassion, but maybe this is such an instance. I was feeling pretty demoralized by one of the worst possible omens to start a trip, when I saw the most beautiful road cruising vision possible.

It was a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoleta) stretched half across the road.

I got down to her level for some photos, including the classic reared-up rat snake pose, trying to look big and tough in the face of a strange monster that poked a large glassy eye in her face.

I kept her attention on the camera and reached around to pick her up from behind. Pretty soon she was slowly exploring - not biting or whipping around, but not exactly sitting still for any more posed photos.

I could have spent all day like that, but I had turtles to catch. I had a hard time figuring out the best place to hop in.

Another snake showed up on the light gravel as I doubled back down the road, this time a garter (Thamnophis sirtalis)

This is about as close as I got to any basking map turtles (Graptemys geographica). Time after time I parked, scrambled down to the river and got in. I worked upstream, poking my head into brush piles and downed branches in the water for males (not finding any), and struggling to find the deep holes where I expected the bigger female turtles to be.

Crayfish were everywhere.

They uniformly faced me bravely with claws ready to do battle, and then (I suppose) cheered with triumph as the enormous four-limbed monster drifted on. harass the local fish...

...and another garter snake, this time exploring a snag.

This is another one of those stories that ends, "and then at the last spot I checked..." as much because I wasn't going home until I found a map turtle as because of the luck of the day. In other words I would have gone home maybe an hour earlier if I'd found a map turtle at the previous spot.

What a beautiful river. It was a pleasure to even strike out to that point, to drift along, nestled between steep mountainsides with lush green banks to either bank.

What gave me hope was that I had finally found some deep holes, a stretch of river where the boulders and gravel went suddenly from knee-deep to way too far to reach even tippy-toes. I feel a sudden fear of falling in those initial moments, as if I need to brace for impact, before it occurs to me that I'm floating.

From there it's a dream of flying, the noise of the world muffled by water in my ears and the river bottom scrolling by in muted shades of green. There are monsters down there - here a muskie the size of my leg.

And finally, nestled in the downstream space under a boulder...

I got a good grip on her and got her above water for a few shots.

Note the puny tail on such an otherwise hefty turtle - another sign it's a girl.

I've still got this next shot on the wallpaper for my work computer. The closeup exaggerates the size of her head, but rest assured she was a bruiser. These map turtles are strongly sexually dimorphic (here's a post from last year showing a male and female together). The females are hefty turtles with broad, strong jaws for crushing snails and mussels. The males are half their size, with narrower heads suited to smaller, flimsier prey. I took the message of those opening jaws to heart and let her go.

I conclude this post by looking out at the cold sky, dark disgustingly early, and know that it's at least four and a half months until I can catch these turtles again. Winter sucks.

Check out the 1st Anniversary House of Herrrrrrrrrrrrps!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Is this what I’ve been reduced to? Watching birds through binoculars for lack of herping? Freezing weather can drive you to do strange things.

In all seriousness and fairness, though, I had a lovely time last week walking around the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center with Tony Croasdale, a birder friend who works at the Center and who put up a bird feeder right outside his office window so he’d have something to look at besides a computer screen.

We observed some of the common local feeder birds – a nuthatch, a downy woodpecker, titmice, juncos, mourning doves, and chickadees. Tony even helped me distinguish between the black-capped and the Carolina chickadees (black caps show more white on the wings).

I couldn’t walk around the park with Tony without flipping logs, though. Partly it’s habit, since I know there are no garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) with a high in the 40s, but I did manage to turn up a redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus), the lead-back phase. This time of year I was happy to see it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The end of the herping season has me thinking morbid thoughts. Green is dying back to brown, the earth fading into the cold stillness of winter.

Of course that's overly dramatic. The last post of marbled salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) guarding eggs shows that spring is already getting started. When those pools fill and ice over, little marbled salamander larvae will be swimming around the frigid water underneath.

Right now, though, I'm thinking about the bones I found.

I ran them by my erstwhile herping buddy Simon (now a veterinary pathologist) who guessed at a snake about the size of a black racer (Coluber constrictor) or black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoleta).

I had feared as much. In the spring we had found a dead, nearly intact (one ugly eye injury) black rat snake nearby. (I'm not sure why it would have made me feel any better to discover ANOTHER dead snake in the same spot.)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Scott recently remarked on his growing appreciation for salamanders (this is a big deal if you know Scott, who is usually a major reptile chauvinist), pointing out the satisfaction of fixing our herping activities to their life cycles. I think we do this for reptiles as well - for example when I target female timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) in the summer as they bask to warm the babies growing within them - but this sort of life cycle herping is more pronounced for the amphibians, and in particular for the mole salamanders (genus Ambystoma), aptly named for the subterranean lifestyle that makes them generally inaccessible, except for when they breed.

We seek the enormous tiger salamanders (A. tigrinum) in the winter rains that top off the vernal pools, the garishly-patterned spotted salamanders (A. maculatum) in the March showers that break the grip of winter, and in the fall we seek the marbled salamanders (A. opacum) waiting for the autumn rains that remind us that those dark-soil depressions in the woods hold water for half the year.

Somehow when I went out on Saturday I thought I might find spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) at a beloved patch of woods where we find them in the spring. I should have known the pools would be too dry.

Here's a pool as it was in spring:

Here's the same pool last weekend:

Dry vernal pools in November mean there might be salamanders to uncover, though, so I decided to make the best of the situation and flip logs.

First and most numerous were the red backs (Plethodon cinereus), still a pleasure to find (they'll be annoying me in the spring when I'm sick of them and lusting after other quarry):

Finally one of the logs revealed something besides a red back or just nothing:

When the other local Ambystoma salamanders breed in their wet, explosive orgies, the marbled salamander babies will be swimming around, waiting for their cousins to hatch... so they can eat them. The marbled salamanders get to the pools and mate before the pools are even pools. The females pick a spot that will soon be underwater, lay their eggs, and then guard them until the water rises to where they are. At that point the eggs hatch and the larvae (kind of like tadpoles) swim away and get started on growing.

See all those eggs underneath her?

Another log right nearby revealed another marbled salamander, this one in a position that made it easier for me to pluck her up for a closer look.

I was about to write that "I know better than to anthropomorphize," but you know what? I don't. Although I don't think we can ascribe human thoughts to non-human animals, I do think that the same basic instincts drive us, so that when we see these salamanders guarding those eggs, we can say that they're feeling protective, or even maternal. I think they get angry when they see a hungry cricket come at the nest, terrified when an enormous monster lifts the roof off.

In that spirit of sympathy for the tough little women of the salamander world, I stopped looking under logs. Two was enough. I was also getting a little unsure of how well I was replacing the logs on top of the nests. Ordinarily the rule is replace the cover object, then release the herp. That way no one gets smooshed, and the critter will find its way back under on her own. In these two cases, however, I wasn't so sure she'd get back under with her eggs, so I put the logs back down on top of the salamanders and their eggs. I did it very slowly and very carefully, but I was still caught between the fear of crushing them and the concern that I would leave too much space around them, possibly letting the nest dry out too much.

I wished all the other marbled salamanders well in their rain vigils and hiked back to the car.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Just because it's November and the temperatures are in the 50s, it doesn't mean you can't go out turtling. I don't think I'm jumping in after these guys with the water as chilly as it is, but the Manayunk Canal's horde of invasive red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta) was well represented on the snags and logs. In retrospect this might mean I should have been wading around somewhere looking for spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata), but it was inspiring to see.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Sure there are piles of debris and unsavory goings on after dark, but how many tombstones are this welcoming? In full disclosure, I straightened the mat out a little bit, but that's where it was, near a few of those trash piles.

The above is a shot of a dumpster that I think was placed there for cleaning up the trash piles. It's been there for at least four months now.

I know, the Mt. Moriah Cemetery, straddling the Philadelphia/Yeadon border, is strewn with trash even at its best, but this year it's gotten way out of hand. I am having a harder and harder time finding the piles small enough to get to the bottom of, let along the single and big pieces that the brown snakes (Storeria dekayi) like to hide under. three mattresses that I used to adore.

Of course they were probably used by prostitutes, but when lifted (with a potato rake - as little skin contact as possible) they frequently revealed browns and garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis).

The trash isn't all that works against the cemetery. The Japanese knotweed continues to overwhelm the rest of the vegetation. I liked this image of the knotweed vying for space with the multiflora rose. I did find a few red backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). See the gray one (lead-back phase)?

Give them credit; they appear just when our hearts are sinking with the winter breezes, and display some spunk in hand. This little guy knows the ground is somewhere between these fingers.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Success smells like snake musk. The plainly foul and potent fluid that snakes release from glands at the base of their tails gets on you and sticks with you. In a case of simple conditioning, we who love to catch snakes get a little thrill any time we smell it. On the way home from a fun trip I'll get another whiff of it and get that flash memory of the snake itself.

I thought I had learned to love all snake musk - from the rounder funk of the water snakes (Nerodia), garter snakes (Thamnophis), brown snakes (Storeria), and their relatives to the more bitter, acrid bite (notes of burning tire) of the common king snake (Lampropeltis getula) - but on Saturday a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) shocked even me.

I had spotted the snake in the other lane as I rounded a bend in the farm and marsh country along the Delaware Bay in New Jersey. I slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car, and ran back to the snake as it froze and then started to retreat (thinking to myself - 'not a rat snake' - too chunky).

Water snakes are common almost anywhere there is fresh water in our region. They are chunky snakes that can give the impression of being longer than they are - you'll rarely see them much bigger than three feet. Somewhere under the layer of mud they are patterned with broken hourglass bands of dark red on gray that can fade almost to even gray in bigger water snakes.

They are almost uniformly unpleasant to catch. The scared water snake puts up a savage defense, pooping and musking liberally and biting repeatedly, leaving lots of shallow scratches that bleed a bit more than you expect thanks to saliva that is toxic to their fish and amphibian prey but just a mild anticoagulant to us.

Somehow I got away from this one without any bleeding. I am getting better at this. Sometimes catching a snake means grabbing it however you can, but if you can occupy its attention with one hand, camera, or face while you lightly grab and pick up its back end with the other, you can often get away without any bites - good for the snake as well as more pleasant for you. (note that Scott opposes this, maintaining that the bite is part of the experience; to avoid it is to wimp out) I handled the snake a moment, relishing the feel of its cool, roughly keeled scales, and then put it down.

Only back in the car did I get a full sense of the stench. I'm not sure why this was so much more powerful than I've ever noticed for a water snake (and I've caught a lot of water snakes, all of which musked on me) - had the snake been saving up? a yet-undocumented musk mutation? a fungal infection of the musk glands?

I had decided I could stomach this for the ride home (betting it wouldn't stick in the car), but then Jen called to tell me to run by the drug store on the way home, and I knew there was no way I, in good conscience, could stand in line with other humans smelling like that. I stopped at the next rest stop and scrubbed my arms down.

This was an otherwise lame trip - I checked out some public land I had wondered about and found little exciting. I did, however, flip the first red-back salamander (Plethodon cinereus) of my fall herping. By the end of March I'll be too sick of these ubiquitous little guys to take any more photos, but here's the first one in all its glory.

Under the log:

In hand:

making a break for it up my forearm:


What does this can say?

Why? Because even after about 35 years, it will still be where you left it and eleven others where you were drinking them in the woods.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I might be rationalizing myself into a herping triumph with this one, but here goes.

Remember the spring? Remember when the rains started and the frogs started calling in loud, horny choruses? One of my repeated memories of spring (happens every year, so the experiences all sort of blend together) is walking through such a chorus, surrounded on all sides by load frogs peeping, trilling, honking away (depending on the species) and not able to spot a single one. They're there, assuming Scott hasn't played an elaborate practical joke on me using dozens of tiny, perfectly camouflaged speakers, but they're tucked into the weeds and fall silent as soon as I get close, playing on my greatest herping weakness - my lack of patience.

The worst of the spring crypto-callers (for me at least) is the New Jersey chorus frog (Pseudacris triseriata). Where I hear them they tend to call from the mossy skirts hanging from emergent shrubs in seasonal pools, and up until recently I had never laid eyes on one, even though I had heard scores of them.

Jen and I had taken a trip down to a beach on the Delmarva Peninsula - an early fall getaway to take advantage of the cheaper prices and smaller crowds, but of course I had to look around for critters. We took to a nearby wooded park (where we ran into another Philly-area herper in the parking lot - small world) that looked absolutely perfect for spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata): holly and oak, greenbriar, and seasonal wetland just starting to fill up again.

I think we spotted one basking on a log with a group of painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) - the bottom-most turtle in this shot:

We heard plenty of green frogs (Rana clamitans) hopping into the pools as we went. Here's one that hadn't quite spooked yet:

We rolled every log we saw, targeting marbled salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) but finding none. These chunky salamanders, dazzlingly patterned with metallic silver on black, breed in the fall, the females laying eggs at the dry edges of vernal pools and guarding them until the water rises to submerge the eggs and allow them to hatch.

We struck out on the marbleds, but did gain more solid proof that we were in spotted turtle country (damn raccoons):
We struck out one more time on the way home. We had stopped at a parcel of land where Scott and I have seen oodles of marbled salamander larvae in the winter as we looked for tiger salamanders.

I kept catching glimpses of little creatures hopping away in the leaf litter overlaying the wet, spongy bottom of a large vernal pool. 'No, not grasshoppers,' I thought to myself, but had the damndest time getting a good look. I'd see the motion and then couldn't find the critter. After letting a few go with a shrug (then back to looking under logs) I pursued one and came up with this:

See it?
Here's a closer look:

I have to say I was impressed at the elegance of the little guy. I might just be inflating my opinion to compensate for all the effort I have put into this moment over the repeatedly failed stalking sessions, but I enjoyed my very first look at a New Jersey chorus frog.