Friday, March 11, 2011

Hypothermia and herping don't usually come to mind together, but I've been freezing my butt off this winter in pursuit of critters, and I suppose spring is no reason to stop.

Imagine the release scene at the end of a documentary where a wounded wild animal has been rehabilitated - maybe a puma that has been hit by a car has finally had its casts and silly neck-cone taken off. It is caged at the edge of a field, desperate to get on the other side of the bars. Suddenly the park ranger yanks up the gate and the cat flies out of the cage, thrilled and probably not quite believing it is actually free. That's how Mid-Atlantic herpers feel right about now. A few weeks ago it was cold and snowy (but we KNEW, any day now it could break...) and then the temperatures got up above freezing and it started to rain.

I actually missed the first couple rains. Scott and I did drive around the Coastal Plain for one night waiting for a storm that only hit when we were on our way back home at midnight and I was passed out in the passenger seat. He scored the next week with an Ambystoma trifecta (opacum - marbled, maculatum - spotted, and tigrinum - tiger), but with another storm bearing down on us last week, we made sure our night was clear and headed for the PA countryside.

Another herper I knew sent us the details for an amphibian crossing guard volunteer opportunity, so we signed up to walk around with a clip board in the frigid rain (temps dropped from 38 to 35 while we were out) counting salamanders as we helped them across the road.

The smaller the herp, the harder it is to pick up off wet tar-mac. Four toed salamanders (Hemidactylium scutatum) seemed to wriggle between the pebbles set in the asphalt. I start with their best side - their enamel white bellies speckled like a mini dalmatian.

On top they're a basic-looking salamander, though in daylight they do take on a nice metallic sheen that doesn't show up here. We saw two of them, though one could question how many we passed without even seeing them. After they mate, the females lay eggs next to the water under moss, and then sit with them until they hatch and the larvae drop into the water.

We saw a few spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) sitting on the road. I couldn't move my fingers very quickly to grab them, but then with temps in the mid-30s, these guys weren't moving very quickly either and were very easy to pick up.

Spotted salamanders were a lot easier to see. We saved eight on the way to the crossing guard meet-up point (and saw four or five that hadn't made it across), and once there got our total up to about 60, dominated by females (about three fifths - previous nights were dominated by males, who generally get to the pools first, not unlike male humans who arrive at the bar and start drinking before the women).

Look how fat she is - the big girl is schlepping around a hundred or so eggs and probably can't wait to get them all out.

Here is a male - note how much thinner he is.

Males arrive with a swollen vent and ready to drop their load of spermataphores (little packets of sperm that the females then pick up with their own vents, fertilizing their eggs internally before they lay them) leaving Scott and me to infer the amphibian equivalent of (well, think about it).

The ponds and marshes around the roads we patrolled will now be full of jelly-like globs of salamander eggs, and these adults might already have started the trip back home - maybe just a few dozen meters, but up to 800 meters in some cases, quite a hike for an eight-inch salamanders.

It's hard to say when exactly we lost feeling in our extremities, but by the end of the night our hands were moving in slow motion and our facial muscles froze up too. Thus it is conceivable that below you see me with some kind of pained rictus, but I'm pretty sure I was just gleefully happy with the first proper herping night of the season.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

I swam in the ocean and I canoed in a couple rivers on last July's Florida vacation (see the first post here), and I have to say I favor the inland waters of the Sunshine State, or at least its panhandle.

Springs pop out of the limestone that underlies much of the panhandle, producing gorgeously clear pools flowing out into gentle (but chilly) creeks that are a pleasure to canoe or kayak. I took a couple absolutely sublime trips - one by kayak on my own, another in a canoe with my brother-in-law Fernando, who is entitled to call in the debt I owe him for constantly stopping the canoe as I jumped in the water to pursue turtle after turtle.

I am not going to organize this post by trip; rather I'll start with the scenery and then discuss some of the turtle species I saw.

Here's a murkier creek, one I was working on foot (in other words tripping and slogging my way along) until the deep mud, snags, and the nagging fear that an alligator was going to rip my arm off called it quits for me. There are some wary turtles in the distance in this shot. In the foreground is a large branch I sort of flopped over into the mud again.

I'll start with the ugly. I mean no offense to the cutely homely mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) but there is a little bit of a let down when you charge into the mud and water and then realize you've caught something you can find at home:

The first turtle I came up with on the canoe trip with Fernando was almost as unexciting - a yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta), the less attractive cousin of the red-eared sliders (T. s. elegans) that are colonizing the Delaware Valley from their native range in the middle part of the country. Yellow bellies live all over the Southeast, and you can find them just about anywhere there is water.

Still, it was an exciting proof of concept: that I could see turtles dive into the water, and then catch them by diving in after them with my mask and snorkel.

There are three species of cooter that I probably saw on this trip (all related to our local cooter, a.k.a. the redbelly turtle - Pseudemys rubriventris). The most common, based on the one I caught and the characteristics of the river I caught it in, is the river cooter (Pseudemys concinna). They have a distinctive C-shaped mark on one of the scutes towards the front of the carapace along with other distinctive markings that I was unable to make out in the far-off, wary turtles that jumped in elsewhere. Thus I might also have seen some Florida cooters (P. floridana) and Florida Redbellies (P. nelsoni).

One of those turtles in the distance (my camera does great underwater, but not so great on zooming in for long distance) is a beefy-looking softshell (Apalone sp.) that I failed to catch. Part of the problem is that I lost my flashlight in the river early on the trip, and with the cloudiness of the water couldn't see much towards the bottom of the deeper sections.

Even when I didn't get my hands on the turtles, I did enjoy the other river dwellers I got to see:

Now here is the catch of the trip, a Barbour's map turtle (Graptemys barbouri). The males and females look quite different, with the males staying small and eating bugs and small crustaceans, while the much larger females grow bulldog-massive heads for crushing mollusks and crustaceans. I only found one male - testament to my poor turtling skills on an unfamiliar river, but I was still pleased as punch. Here is how it looked underwater.

Here's the little guy for one out-of-the-water shot before being released.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

I usually save vacation herping posts for the depths of winter, when the Delaware Valley will yield nothing to the hard-up herper, but somehow it's already spring amphibian migration time, and I still haven't posted the results of last July's family vacation (with my wife Jen's family) to the Florida panhandle.

The herpers reading this should be smiling and nodding knowingly - for the rest of the readers, the Florida panhandle, particularly the area around the Apalachicola River, may just be the best place to go herping in the entire country. Some will object and hold up southern Arizona or the Everglades, but the panhandle's mix of peninsular and Southeastern species puts it waaay up there.

As a guy who likes jumping into the water after turtles, though, I'll take the panhandle. The Everglades is a land of murky, shallow water, and Arizona's awesome rattlesnake diversity is countered by its dry climate and sadly limited turtle roster, which counts zero species of my favorites, the map turtles (Graptemys sp.).

Never mind that turtle build-up. I'm breaking the trip into two shorter posts, and this first one is about the terrestrial herping I did.

I am miffed to report that I had very recently messed up my ankle when we headed down to the Gulf Coast, so I was pretty much stuck road cruising from a car - my least favorite herping technique (though given the mid-summer timing of the trip, maybe the only productive one).

On the other hand, with most of my hopes pinned on aquatic herping, I had low hopes on land.

Early on, Jen and I took our niece Mariana with us to try out some roads that seemed to have some potential. I was wrong, and about all we found were southern toads (Bufo terrestris).

They were cute, but they weren't as cute as the snake I most wanted to find (in retrospect I have down-graded snakes I most wanted to find but did not find to a slightly lower status), the dusky pygmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri). To be fair, we have our own pygmies up in Pennsylvania, the rare and elusive massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus - note the genus is different than our timbers, of the much more speciose Crotalus; the Sistrurus are externally distinguished by larger scales on the tops of their heads) that linger in a few patches of wetland in western PA. The dusky pygmies are neither rare nor elusive, and on my first early morning road cruise I came up on this little cutie crossing a dirt road.

(The nickel in the shot is a herp photography standard, to show the size of something small with a coin for comparison - some folks have gotten baby snakes of smaller species to coil up on dimes for a neat effect) I am too poor or impatient a photographer to portray this snake's beautifully intricate and rich pattern of russet spots and black blotches outlined with just the narrowest white edging; 'dusky' is an unfair name for these guys.

Otherwise, morning herping (mixed in with scouting out spots to hop in the water) turned up a few box turtles (Terrapene carolina major). These were crossing the road in the humid, newly-sunny mornings, just like box turtles do up here. The Gulf Coast box turtles, with the apt subspecies handle, make up for their homely pattern with bulk - these guys looked freakishly large to my eyes.

I only did one other night road cruising trip aside from the toad trip turned up some fun little critters (and more toads):

Here is a glass lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis), one of four species of Ophisaurus in the panhandle, which gave me fits comparing my photos to the descriptions, in particular because I failed to photograph the top of the lizard, where the presence or lack of a mid-dorsal stripe would have made the ID much easier.

The only other live reptile (saw plenty of road jerky) I saw on land was this pretty little scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinae). These guys are cooler than most herpers give them credit for. Everyone appreciates how pretty they are, but their diet and teeth set them apart. They specialize on reptile eggs - hence the pointy nose adapted to digging - and feature oddly blade-like teeth that help them cut through the leathery egg shells. Once they've got the egg open, they stick their heads in to drink out the contents.

Slicing teeth are rare in snakes, which generally swallow prey whole, and scarlets share them with a few other reptile egg specialists around the world, including the Asian kukri snakes (Oligodon sp.), named for the curved knife carried by Gurkhas.