Monday, May 31, 2010

I've been getting up to the mountains less often than I would like, but over Memorial Day weekend I managed a trip to an entirely new spot (for me at least). I haven't done this in at least a year - visit a new place during optimal rattlesnake searching weather (I've scouted new places in winter, but I haven't gone back to check them out in season).

As usual, I was late. The weather was sunnier and warmer than I would have preferred for rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), and even though I had gotten up obscenely early and the roads were clear, I knew that by the time I reached my south-facing hillside destination the sun would have a few hours jump on me and that it would feel hot, whatever the forecast said. I guess I'd have had to have woken up a couple hours before dawn to reach the slope around the same time as the sun, but I still felt delinquent about it.

Whatever I would find that day, I would earn it, I thought as I hiked nearly straight up the ridge, breaking away from the trail when it stopped going my way. I crested the ridge, already sweating profusely, and checked my coordinates. Something rustled beside me, and I took this little American toad as a good omen.

I followed the top of the ridge a little while, and then dropped pretty much straight down the ridge, which continued to pitch steeper and steeper as I went.

In the summer the foliage keeps you from getting clear views of the rocks and cliffs until you're right up on them. Teasing glimpses of gray or white keep you hacking through the next greenbriar or blackberry thicket (note to self: this spot will taste fabulous in another month), and after a few such patches that yielded nothing, I hit a cliff face I couldn't manage. I turned uphill and started scrambling, hacking up the 50 degree pitch (I'm not exaggerating; I checked it on Google Earth) to the top of that particular cliff.

Greenbriar doesn't have the worst thorns of the forest, but its long, flexible vines do a great job of wrapping around your leg and then tripping you before you realize they've started puncturing your pants and your skin. I end up taking big, sweeping strides to negotiate greenbriar, either stepping over it or trying to trap it down with the sole of my boot so that I can clear it without any trouble.

I was taking just such a long step, focusing on catching the briars with my boot when the pattern recognition part of my brain sounded the alarm.

I was aiming my foot only a few inches away from the most perfectly coiled, pretty little yellow timber rattler basking in just a dapple of sunshine on the leaf litter (the shot above from after the light had shifted a little, the one below earlier in the photo session).

The combination of my heart already pounding from the exertion and then the adrenalin rush of nearly stepping on a rattler, PLUS the general thrill of having validated the whole trip with the target species, clean overwhelmed me. I took a couple photos (that little rattler didn't flinch, but I did see it breathing hard) and then called Scott and babbled incoherently until I calmed down.

I took a drink of water, took some more photos, and bid the little guy farewell. I found a couple more rattlers - one I saw, and one I only heard duck away under the boulder next to the one I was standing on.

The way that girl was tucked in among the boulders and the alacrity with which the other had hid implied that finding any others was going to be hard; they were already warmed up and jumpy. I hiked around a bit more, in scouting mode more than hunting mode.

I was late getting home too. I tore myself off the slope too late and then booked it back down through the woods again.

These woods were mostly deciduous, with lots of chestnut oak trees, with bark textured with blocky ridges and long, wavily indented leaves. As I was charging along through the woods, though, a sapling caught my eye.

That wasn't a chestnut oak. In fact, it looked like... a real chestnut tree? These were wiped out by the chestnut blight a hundred years ago. Some of the old roots keep sending up shoots that grow for a few years before the blight strikes them down again.

I thought "huh, that's cool," and then kept on trucking. It was only later that I realized I should have written down the coordinates. The PA chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation needs to know about all the trees we find; the better to build up a genetically diverse, resistant base of chestnut trees to repopulate our woodlands.
I felt a little bad for missing the major toad (Bufo americanus) breeding migration this spring. The horny little guys moved a couple weeks earlier than usual, and just like last year animal-loving volunteers with the Toad Detour project were out around the Roxborough Reservoir, escorting the toads across the street and blocking off the busiest stretches at peak toad/traffic activity.

Of course we all hate to see toads get squashed by tires, but this project has an important urban/suburban ecological dimension as well. Road mortality, as biologists tend to phrase it, is an important threat to reptile and amphibian populations nationwide. You see the effects (reduced populations) of a road for several hundred yards in either direction, and when you add that kind of buffer on either side of every road, you see most of our region's herpetafauna sapped by car traffic. This is one of the strongest arguments against sprawl for me. The more we leave our urban centers and stretch our suburbs out into the country, the more we build up our road networks and dice up habitat into unsustainable little chunks. Every time someone moves out to the woods (or the desert, or the shore...), he or she is adding another car that will kill a few more critters and contributing to the sprawl that will attract even more people.

Not all roads are equally damaging; a lot depends on how heavy the traffic is and how habitat is situated relative to the roads. The Upper Roxborough Reservoir has been out of use for decades and slowly turning into a wetland, perfect for toad breeding. The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and its expansive uplands woodlands property sits across Port Royal Rd., making for a classic road mortality arrangement - a road that must be crossed by the entire breeding population. To make things worse, some new housing subdivisions nearby have boosted the human population of the neighborhood and the traffic on that road.

Here's a shot of the reservoir and the surrounding terrain. Port Royal runs from northeast to southwest across the image, with the Schuylkill Environmental Center to the west and southwest of the ball fields:

Of course the migration isn't a single, simple event. The adults go from their woodland and backyard homes to the reservoir and then hop back home once they're done breeding. Their eggs hatch into tadpoles, and then the tadpoles grow little legs, absorb their tails, and set off into the big, scary world.

Port Royal Road is one of the first major obstacles for these toadlets, and last weekend I finally got to help the Toad Detour folks as we blocked off Port Royal again and kept an eye on the incredibly tiny metamorphs as they skittered over the pavement.

Aren't they cute?

In some places it was hard to walk without stepping on them. You had to put your foot down very slowly to give them time to hop out of the way.

Even I was surprised at how darn tiny the little toads are. I took a couple shots with the usual herp photography size references to give you a sense of their size:

Other critters were moving too, namely some pickerel frogs (Rana palustris); unfortunately the only one I got to see was this unlucky frog:

The Toad Detour folks still need volunteers. Also please feel free to drop me an email and I can get you connected to the volunteer coordinator.