Friday, January 29, 2010

Happy New Year! I know that it's nearly the end of January, but we're talking about the herping year here, and it really does start with the amphibian breeding seasons. Who kicks off the amphibian breeding season? I say it's the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), who come out in the winter to breed in the first warm rain once their vernal (or winter?) pools fill up. This could be in November, this could be in February, but whenever it is, I consider it the first event of the herping year.

Of course for three years I've struck out on the first herping event of the year and hadn't ever seen a live adult tiger salamander (I'm not counting their eggs, which I've seen two of the years); the first event of the herping year has been mostly symbolic, a time to put in a good effort and wander around in the dark.

On Sunday January 24th Scott and I drove to our supposed tiger spot and got there around dusk, with not quite enough light to find our ways to the big vernal pools (last year they weren't even there - 2009 was a lot wetter). We did have to switch on the headlamps, and, what do you know, we saw salamanders in the beams.

They weren't grown up yet, and they weren't tigers, rather their earlier-breeding cousins the marbled salamanders (Ambystoma opacum). The females lay eggs in vernal pools before they fill up; that way they get the jump on the other salamanders and frogs.

Ideally we'd have had a lot of rain, but, as happens so often, the weather didn't cooperate with our plans. We got a little drizzle, then nothing, then a little drizzle, then nothing, but that was enough for a few other species.

We spotted a toad sitting on the asphalt, upright and still as we approached. We figured it would be one of the really common Bufo species (American or Fowler's), but we were surprised and delighted to find a more special critter, a spade foot toad (Scaphiophus holbrookii). These little guys tend to stay underground until the right spring rain event, when they pop out by the hundreds and converge on the lucky pool. I remember a vacation (seven years ago?) in Alabama when Jen and I opened the motel door to find a spadefoot looking at us, and dozens of its compadres hopping around the parking lot. I haven't seen one since.

This one was cold, still, and a little dry looking, but still cute with those big pop-up eyes.

We saw a couple of the more common southern leopard frogs (Rana utricularia) leaping across the road. At 52 degrees they're a lot easier to catch than they are in the summer at 85.

Here's another little frog, the gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor or chrysoscelis
After an hour and a half of driving around, we asked Scott's GPS unit where we should get a beer and a snack. It wasn't raining, and we figured we might kill an hour or so and save some gas while the tiger salamanders weren't likely to come out. When we came out of the restaurant the rain was indeed starting to fall, so we congratulated ourselves on the wise decision and hit the roads again.

I thought it was a wounded snake at first - sometimes they flop around reflexively after they've been run over by a car - but that didn't make any sense. We stopped, hopped out, and it wasn't any snake at all; what we'd seen flopping back and forth was the flat, ungainly-long tail of a male tiger salamander!

Here's a shot of its cloaca to show how swollen it is - a sign of a male ready to breed (it just doesn't look comfortable to me, kind of like the inflamed rear of a female baboon in heat).

What's next in the budding herping year of 2010? I figure we've still got at least a month of winter before the spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) bust out with their frog buddies. Maybe we'll get lucky with another run for tigers, but I also want to squeeze in a tad more scouting and board laying.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Everybody needs to check out House of Herps #2, another fun round of herp blog posts. I submitted the recent post about not finding redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus).

A quick note - Scott and I finally, FINALLY, FINALLY found tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) on the fourth year of trying! As soon as Scott gets me the photos from his camera ("You might need to charge the battery on the camera," Jen said. Did I listen?) , I'll do the post.