Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

I'll lead with the last herping of 2011:

I was under the weather for much of our Christmas trip to Roswell, GA (northern suburb of Atlanta) and the days I felt like going out it rained. Indeed right now my camera is somewhere in the care of the United States Postal Service on its way back from Paula and James' house. What does that have to do with the rain? Well, I had left the camera in the pocket of the rain jacket that James had lent me when we ventured out with their son to see what salamanders we might see in the creek that runs by their house. Unfortunately the same rain that compelled me to wear that jacket had swollen the creek to a chocolatey torrent, interesting to behold but nothing we could flip rocks in.

But on our last day there, with a flight to catch in the afternoon, I scampered down into the ravine behind the in-laws' house to see what I could flip.

Duskies! Apparently these are firmly considered to be spotted duskies (Desmognathus conanti), now their very own species and no longer a measly subspecies of our basic northern dusky (D. fuscus). I saw one adult, dark with some reddish-brown pattern along the back and top of the tail, one itty-bitty baby with the twin rows of spots on its iridescently brown and purple back, and one mid-size dusky that just looked dark grey to me as it bolted down a hole.

That might be about the entire dusky population on that stream. I only half-kid. I measured the streams on Google Earth, and I think they might total about 250 yards of stream leading into a man-made lake, all of it cut off from any other streams to which these duskies might travel or from which they might receive new blood.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

However bummed I am about the lack of turtles this time of year, I can take comfort in the salamanders. I've seen some people online finding the spring ambystomid (a.k.a. 'mole') salamanders like spotteds (Ambystoma maculatum) moving a bit early (I figure our buckets of rain this year have drawn them out early in some cases), and that motivated me to head out, with my herping buddy Mike, to some spotted spots and see what we could turn up.

We did find redbacks (Plethodon cinereus), which hail from a completely different group of salamanders: slender, lungless salamanders that skip the larval stage and lay eggs on land. The ambystomids do their thing in the water, and their eggs hatch into aquatic larvae that develop in that water for a few months before striking off into the woods to find a cozy burrow. Here's a pretty typical redback.

Here is a pretty typical redback response to being asked to hold still for a photo:

At another spot, near where Scott and I helped out with the salamander road crossing this past spring, we decided to see if the spotteds had been near enough to the surface to find, and to see if there was enough water to breed in (if you're a salamander).

Nope, and nope, though we did turn up this little cutie, an itty-bitty baby four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatus).

These guys look just enough like redbacks to make me think, each time I flip one, 'something ain't quite right with that redback,' for a split second, until it dawns on me that the redback that is too rough-textured, too coppery, with too short a snout and a tail that pinches off a bit at the base, is not a redback. The four-toe's most obvious distinguishing feature is its belly, an opaque white with black polka dots.

And here's one more redback ('leadback' phase) for good measure:

Next time you read/hear/see me kvetching about the lack of turtles, remind me that there are salamanders to be found.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

This will be the first of the frustrated winter herping posts. I know, it isn't quite winter yet, and I should wait until it's been weeks since I've seen a live herp, but I keep riding out along the Schuylkill River and reflexively examining logs and whatnot for basking turtles, even though it's in the 40s. What's frustrating is that they're in there somewhere; it's not like turtles fly south for the winter.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Thanksgiving isn't usually a time for herping, at least in the Delaware Valley, but we were in North Carolina. My sister's boyfriend's parents retired to eastern North Carolina, near the Croatan National Forest. They rented a beach house on Emerald Isle and invited us all down.

Now, this was a family trip, not a herping trip, and even if the Croatan is a herping playground, the fall weather was still kind of chilly (rising from the 50s into the low 60s while we were there). I was tempted to hike along freely through the woods looking for basking snakes, but the weather also included hordes of men with guns and dogs hanging out on all the dirt roads. The men with the guns stayed on the roads; this was baffling to us, since we think of hunting as either active walking around or hiding in habitat. Finally a ranger explained that they were letting their dogs run around until they flushed something (it sounded like everything was in season) after which they'd hike in and shoot it.

We decided against wading through the vegetation like a deer, or a bear, or (anything else the dogs might bark at and draw fire) and stuck to the roads, watching the canals. This was not a random idea; a few years ago on a herping trip (in warmer, wetter weather) we found lots of fun critters in those canals, spotting cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorous), various turtles, and oodles of frogs.

Here are some shots of the canals...

... and here is a shot of a lake.

All that we found was the mystery cooter, with a redbelly (Pseudemys rubriventris) as a lead candidate.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

I'm a little backed-up on some Grid writing assignments, so forgive the delayed post yet to come. This is just a round of...


That's not nearly as dirty as you might be thinking. Cooters are a group of water turtles in the genus Pseudemys. The Delaware Valley's redbellies are a cooter (P. rubriventris), for example. This one was basking in a large ditch along a dirt road in the Croatan National Forest in eastern North Carolina, near a large lake and a whole lot of the shrubby wetland they call 'pocosin.'

Three species of cooter occur in this section of NC. They've got river cooters, but this this was no river. They've got redbellies, which do live in slower water (think of all those ponds/bogs in the Pine Barrens), but it looks too yellow and, to my eye, a little too flat in profile. That leaves the Florida cooter (P. floridana), a slower-water species with a yellow belly.

Let me know what you think.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Raftemys 2 has arrived!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Last weekend I headed back to our favorite marsh to see if I might be able to score a November spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). I was depending on the sun to break through, on the cloudy part of the 'partly cloudy' forecast to be really small and positioned to one side or the other of the sun.

That took a while. I slogged through the sedge marsh, starkly beautiful in a way, even without much in the way of life.

Indeed here is some evidence of death, at least for the bird.

I switched to the woods, checking out a spring that I thought might yield some salamanders.


It did yield a pickerel frog (Rana palustris), kind of the redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus) of the marsh; when you find nothing else, there will be pickerel frogs.

To be fair I did hear a few spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) singing their stubborn little hearts out.

When the sun finally did come out, I headed back to a spot Scott and I have identified as a spotted turtle hibernaculum. It's a wet meadow, which means it looks like grass with a few puddles here and there, but sink in to your knees (at least) when you step off the trail. The turtles particularly like this old stump, and I did hear a turtle-scale plop when I leaned over to see what I could see. This might not look like much to you, but what you're seeing is a shroud of tear-thumb (an aptly named vine) spread over dead rose briars. If I had seen the turtle I would have reached for it, but I like the skin on my arm too much to feel around blindly in there.

I saw a barely-surfaced turtle dive in a deep spot of that meadow, where the turtles winter beneath the tangled lip of a dead tree's root mass. I did feel around after it for a moment, but came up with nothing but a numb hand.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dearly beloved, we gather to mourn the loss of a fine herping companion, delighted to bathe in the murky waters of our beloved Schuylkill River, content to be tossed around by luggage handlers en route to sunnier streams, gracious enough to hold me and assorted gear as we paddled around in search of turtles.

On my most recent Southern turtling trip the Raftemys suffered a mortal wound, a seam ripped open by an insidious submerged branch, a vengeful snag that, as I eased upstream to examine the branches above the water, tore her open below.

A sudden torrent of bubbles alerted me to her trauma, and we limped back downstream. I contacted the company (Sea Eagle, this is a SE 330) but they said there is no way to repair a ripped seam like that. Patches won't hold.

In exchange for a photo to demonstrate the complete disabling of the vessel, they offered me a steep discount on a replacement hull, and though I am wary to buy another of a model that just failed, it's one hell of a lot cheaper than a higher-end alternative, and I'll give it one more shot (though it pained me to take a razor to her).

Tonight I will bear the deflated and rolled-up Raftemys down to our trash room and leave her in a dumpster. Perhaps she deserves a burial at sea (or at river), but I'm not sure the river or my fellow river-goers would appreciate the 30 pounds of floppy vinyl litter.

Sometime soon the Raftemys 2 will arrive by mail. Until then I will consider myself in mourning, bereft of my turtling companion.

Friday, November 11, 2011

It is hard to suppress the impulse to catch. The quick transition from 'see critter' to 'grab critter' is something we drill into ourselves from childhood. I think it partly comes naturally; I mean that literally, that eons of predator evolution have included it in our basic toolbox of behaviors, but little herpers (and bigger herpers) dwell so much on the ones that got away - 'if only I had reacted faster when I saw that basking rat snake' - as punishment for herping failure that catching becomes second nature, something you don't think about as much as something you just do automatically.

To be clear, I am not going to give up catching critters. I am not a birder who can be satisfied with the simple visual stimulus. I need that tactile reward of the snake wrapping around my fist; the round, hard weight of a turtle; or the plump toad or frog filling my hand. Every now and then, however, it is nice to simply watch.

Last weekend Jen and I went for a walk in the Wissahickon Valley in search of hemlock trees for a Grid article I just finished. Of course there is more than hemlocks in the Wissahickon Valley, and here we have Jen compulsively checking under almost every log we passed.

Here is the reward, plenty of red backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus):

I continued on, examining hemlocks for evidence of woolly adelgid infestation. Jen stayed back, relaxing by the creek. She called a few minutes later: she had found a snake.

I turned and came back running. I assumed it was in her hand, pooping all over the place and scaring the nice walkers, joggers, and cyclists on Forbidden Drive.

No, the garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) was soaking up the sun on this crisp autumn day. I suppose I could have picked it up, but it looked so comfortable that I just left it there in the sun.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

I apologize for another gap in the blog. I've been traveling again, driven by a turtling obsession to go South again. Now I'm back in the cooling Northeast. I have no herping trips to show for myself since I've been back. I would ordinarily save an account like this for the cold, hard, frozen winter, but with the season winding down, why not jump ahead of the schedule by a couple months.

Last weekend I found myself paddling upstream in a stretch of river in the Pascagoula system in southern Mississippi. I was by myself and had only one car, so if I wanted to check out a river, this was the only way to do it: fight upstream and cruise back down. In this case it certainly was a fight. The current wasn't terribly strong, but the wind was, and the two together gave me no breaks from paddling.

At some point early on I had to pee. I don't know if I really had to go all that badly or if it was a good excuse to take a break, but I headed for the bank to my left. For those unfamiliar with this sort of river, the banks generally alternate between (on the inside of curves) gentle slopes that often meet the river with enormous sandy beaches, and (on the outside of curves) steep, bluff-like banks cut sharply down through the sand and clay sediments. I was headed for the steep bank; it was closer, and there was a flatter lip that I could hop out onto.

This is what I saw as I drew closer:

Yep, that's a frumpy little three-toes box turtle (Terrapene carolina) sitting at the base of the bank. Here she is in more detail.

I regarded her as a sort of a post turtle. I suspected that she had no idea how to get out of that situation by herself, and I was powerfully tempted to help her out. I did suspect that she got there by herself, tumbling down the bank by accident or climbing down at an easier spot, and then getting a bit lost and stuck, similar to their problems with train tracks (box turtles sometimes climb into the space between the rails on train tracks and then can't get back out). Box turtles will dig down into the bottoms of puddles and marshy spots, and they will also burrow into leaf litter and other dead vegetation, but a steep bank next to the water? I saw nowhere she could go except into the water, and no easy way to get down there. True, box turtles are better climbers than we give them credit for (I've read about them climbing out of outdoor pens), but this was slippery stuff with a curled-over lip of moss and vegetation at the top, and I just didn't see her climbing out.

I contemplated a hook shot, an easy lob up and over, but that seemed a bit dangerous; I didn't want her landing on her back and unable to right herself. Down the bank maybe fifty yards there was a shallower slope to the bank. I decided to give her a ride in the Raftemys.

I should emphasize that I was not taking her very far. Box turtles are generally homebodies. Most spend their lives in an area about the size of a football field, and if you take them out of that area, they dedicate themselves to getting home. This is a problem when a well-meaning motorist finds a boxie crossing the road in their subdivision and decides to do it a favor by relocating it to a park a couple miles away. That box turtle will most likely start hiking in search of home, exhausting itself, not eating well, exposing itself to predators and car tires along the way. If it's lucky it makes it back to the same subdivision it was rescued from, and if it is unlucky it dies along the way. The lesson? Don't move a box turtle more than you need to in order to get it out of immediate harm's way. I figured the fifty yards or so (I'm terrible with distances, but it looked about half a football field away) might take her out of home range, but it would be close enough to find her way back.

Here she is in the boat with me.

And here she is at farewell, trundling into the underbrush.

If I was right about her predicament, then I saved her life. If I was wrong, well, she had a day or two of hiking to get back to where she started.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Last weekend I engaged in a one of my regular exercises in futility: searching for milksnakes under the rocks of Northwest Philadelphia.

I date the beginning of my writing about herping to May of 2005. On that cool, cloudy evening (about 7:30pm) I was flipping rocks on a hillside above the Wissahickon, when under a hefty slab of rock I found not centipedes, not ants, not pill bugs nor crickets, not even a redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus) - all somber-hued creatures that blend in with the soil, stone, and dead leaves - but a vividly crimson and cream little beauty of a milksnake. It felt like a dream, finding something so unexpected and gorgeous, and I felt the need to post about it on a field herping forum that I no longer frequent. I don't think that post drew a single follow-up, which motivated me to launch this blog. I know that sounds backward, that the lack of response spurred me to write about a topic, but I was thinking more along the lines of 'to hell with you rattlesnake-obsessed Californians, I'm going to write about herping on my own damn website.'

For the rest of that season into the next couple years, I went back to that same hillside as well as others in the area, thinking that thar be milksnakes, I could go out and just flip some more.

Nope, that was not the case. Eventually this turned into an absurd ritual as it became clear that finding that first milksnake was an incredibly lucky fluke.

In the meantime, non-herper friends have unintentionally mocked me as they have sent me photos or other accounts of their own milksnake finds in that same area. Just a couple months ago a friend sent me this photo:

Here's a DOR from near the Upper Roxborough Reservoir (where they do the Toad Detour):

Here's a road jerky specimen (I think I only just threw this away a few months ago after keeping it in a drawer) from a couple years ago. Scott found it next to the car after we had concluded another unsuccessful expedition:

So, this is why I keep heading up to the far northwest corner of our fair city, to strain some more ligaments in my back and find lots of things that aren't milksnakes.

Here is a typical rock, one of hundreds (thousands?) at this spot:

As per usual in the fall (and spring), redback salamanders were out in force:

A rustling in the leaves alerted me to this hefty toad (Bufo americanus). I find a plump toad like this really satisfying. There's something comforting about having it fill your hand instead of having to handle it gingerly with your finger tips.

I did flip a snake. Here it is, twelve inches of puffing, pooping, biting garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). This is not the first garter I've found under a rock in that part of town, but it is the first for that particular hillside.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Turtles About Town

I got my turtle fix over the weekend. I went on a Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) nature walk at the John Heinz NWR on Saturday (thanks to ranger Mariana Bergerson for a great tour). The weather was crisp and sunny, and that was enough to bring out the turtles.

The first two we spotted were red-eared sliders (RES - Trachemys scripta), descendents of released pets of a species native to the middle part of the country, not the Delaware Valley. RES are kind of like the methadone of turtle fixes. They ease the craving but don't quite get you high. Maybe if they looked better they'd hit the spot, but they're such basic turtles that, as they get older, end up rough and dull looking.

Here's a mystery turtle that I think is an RES.

The real release came with a proper Delaware Valley turtle, a hefty red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys rubriventris) basking with some smaller turtles that I think are the same species. There is a lot of concern that the RES are pushing out our red-bellies. RES are getting more common; our beefy red-bellies are growing scarce. Cause and effect, or both effects of a common cause (for example that RES might thrive better than red-bellies with human-altered habitat)?

It was satisfying as well to see some painted turtles (Chrysemys picta), the girl next door of our native turtles, the one who you see so often that you forget how pretty it is until one day you look and...

The Heinz NWR might be the most dramatic wild landscape in Philadelphia; Concourse Lake sits on the other end of the majesty spectrum. This is an artificial pond in Fairmont Park West dating to the Centennial celebrations of 1876. There are some snappers (Chelydra serpentina) in there, and catching one is high on my priority list for 2012, but the turtles you see most often are the RES.

I want to send out a hearty congratulations to Fairmount Park (or Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, now that they've merged) for a job well done here. They took an ugly, foul, decrepit pond that even I was scared to touch and re-paved the paths, added a lot of attractive native plants, dredged out one side of the pond to make it deeper, and left the dredged fill on the other side to create a wetland area. Apparently the Canada geese like to rip out the plugs of native wetland plants they use to get the vegetation started, forcing the landscapers/restorers to use tightly arrayed fencing to keep the geese out: