Saturday, August 07, 2010

What's not to like about quiet, green, public, open space with lots of snakes and salamanders? So what if we're sharing the space with thousands of dead people. Readers of this blog might recall my love of herping in Philadelphia's cemeteries - in particular Mt. Moriah Cemetery and the Woodlands, both in West Philly, and both pretty close to where I live. Mt. Moriah is a 15 minute bike ride, the Woodlands about 5 minutes.

The cemeteries come from a common tradition: back in the mid 1800s when Philadelphia was just starting to reach beyond the Schuylkill River, these bucolic, beautifully planted estates spread over rolling hills were billed as peaceful, wholesome places to bury the loved ones and visit them on easy trips from the crowded city.

Mt. Moriah has had the poor luck of having its surrounding neighborhoods get kind of sketchy, at least on the Philadelphia side (half is in Yeadon in Delaware County. I don't mind that very much; even the deplorable practice of dumping trash in the cemetery (come on, who the hell would dump a toilet in cemetery?) makes for cover for me to search under for snakes and salamanders. That said, it's been getting out of hand lately.

Whoever takes care of Mt. Moriah has apparently brought a dumpster up there to work on the trash, but that dumpster has been there for a couple months along with the piles that seem to be about half of a demolished house. I had a really hard time getting to my prime brown snake (Storeria dekayi).

I saw evidence of other wildlife. Here's a weird scene - a weeks-dead skunk with a small pile of poop. I have read that foxes, which I have seen there, like to poop in prominent places as a way to claim territory. I wonder if there is any significance to the fox choosing the skunk remains for its latest statement.

I did find one of the old roofing shingles I like to find snakes underneath, but I had no luck.

Otherwise the plants of late summer had taken over. Here's the path to one of my spots, nearly closed off by Japanese knotweed.
Some sections were better kept than others.

Others were solidly vegetated.

I did like this butterfly even if it wasn't a reptile or amphibian.

...and I appreciated this mockinbird's perch.
...and I kept an eye out for fruit opportunities. These grapes should be good in a few weeks.

...and these choke cherries were great right about now (actually, I probably missed the tree's peak a couple weeks ago).
Still, no snakes.

Today I tried out the Woodlands, much better maintained than Mt. Moriah.

I was on my way home from the farmer's market when I decided to swing by. Here's my trusty steed loaded down with veggies:

A nice corner of the cemetery where I find brown snakes and garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) had been taken over by mulberry saplings:

I squirmed my way back there and started looking under the chunks of a downed hackberry tree. I found mostly the usual annelid suspects:

...but finally under a choice log - set in weeds, near the old stone wall...

I felt a distinct sense of euphoric relief to find what I was looking for. Here's the brown snake:

I let the snake go and went back to my other love, choke cherries!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

I still have a lot of mud under my toenails; I'm not sure how to get it all out - clipping, brush-scrubbing, probing with the little swing-out tool on the nail clipper haven't worked - but I guess that's the price for muddling. Not familiar with muddling? One of the many evocatively named herping techniques (flipping, cruising, noodling...), muddling consists of feeling around in the mud for reptiles (usually turtles) hiding down in there.

It's a blast, aside from the pain of cleaning out your nails. I think I've always enjoyed that feeling of the mud squishing between my toes, and of course I enjoy splashing around in waterways looking for turtles, whether or not (more often not) I find anything.

Grossed out? Please, make up with the mud. Discover what billions of little children have known - mud is a lot of fun, and searching for turtles will give you the perfect excuse to get dirty again.

This time the turtles kept one step ahead of me. I started with a shallow pool where someone reported seeing a large snapper prowling about. I found a whole lot of tadpoles and some enormous bull frogs (Rana catesbeiana), but no snapper.

Three times bubble trails extended away from me to the deepest part of the pond. I followed them, sure that they were turtles walking along the bottom, but the deepest part of the pond was a little more than I could manage - I sort of tiptoed, brushing the bottom but not getting any traction. I stirred up huge clouds of bubbles myself, I suppose methane and other gases (some hydrogen sulfide by the smell of it) from the mud. I can't say that part was fun - not horrible, but a little unpleasant if I thought too much about the bubbles rolling up my pant legs - halfway between a bubble jet whirlpool and farting in the tub.
It wasn't all mud and swamp gas. Here's one the lilies getting in my way... er, enhancing the scenery. Anyhow, after an hour of extensive feeling, groping, and poking around with a stick I had to move on to get ready for the nature walk.

Mid-summer isn't a great season for a herping nature walk, but we wrangled up a garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) and a couple frogs along the route ahead of time so that we could recruit one of the kids to release them back at the capture site as we passed it.

Here's a nice little wood frog (Rana sylvatica):

...and a pickerel frog (Rana palustris), a genuinely pretty species, which I had forgotten until one of the walkers commented on its handsome pattern. The pickerel frog is cursed, along with so many other common species, with the herper disregard that comes from seeing so many every year.

We also trapped a couple painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) to show off - another beautiful common species that we should put more effort into photographing.