Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dig the mystery skink:
My friend Tony Croasdale (birder and environmental extraordinaire) called me this afternoon. I was working from home, so when he told me he had found a skink crossing 47th St. between Warrington and Springfield, I rode out to meet him. (Actually I said, "No you did not!" and he said, "Yes I did! It's biting my hand right now!" Then I got up.)

This is a five-lined skink, distinguishable by some of the scales around the lip and ear from another skink that lives in DE, the broadhead (E. laticeps). In this case the lip (labial) scales are ambiguous (I count 5 labials, not the 4 that a five-line should have) but the ear scales (post-labials) look five-line.

Now I know there are snakes in this neighborhood (brown snakes - Storeria dekayi), and I wouldn't be surprised to find a redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus), but a skink?

Rumor has it that there might still be five-lined skinks (Eumeces fasciatus) in Philadelphia, but only at the woolier fringes, S. Philly around the bottom of FDR Park, for example. Moreover, unlike the secretive brown snakes and redback salamanders, these skinks are public critters. We would see them hanging around gardens and old walls, just like I've seen them skittering around in South Jersey and upstate PA. They're not as obvious as anoles, but still I would have seen them, or one of my friends who live right near that corner would have told me about them (to be sure, I've been asking them - no one so far, including gardeners with boys, reports skinks).

Thus I am pretty sure this girl [note - since I wrote this I have changed my mind re the sex of the skink. As its head has gotten redder and redder, it is clearly a male, whose heads get red during the breeding season.] is a hitchhiker. Tony found her - saved her from an oncoming school bus, actually - right near a church that's undergoing a renovation, with lots of contractors from NJ and DE trucking in loads of equipment and materials. This is just the kind of lizard to have been chilling in a heap of scaffolding in some rural or suburban contractor's yard, only to wake up in the city.

Tony and I tried to talk to the guys working on the church but couldn't nail down a specific likely home. Since we don't know where she came from, I'm loathe to just let her go - relocated adult herps generally don't relocate well - and am putting out feelers for anyone who would like her as an educational/display animal. I would rather not keep her, so next up would be anyone looking for a lizard to keep (to be clear, this would not be a sale - that would illegal. I'm just looking for a good home for her). These apparently do well in captivity as long as you don't handle them. Lizards are a little more high maintenance than the snakes I keep (and I already have enough/too many snakes), so I'd rather not hold onto her for too long.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Here's a quick report on a quick trip in cloudy weather a couple weeks ago, when I had been thinking of just staying in the apartment and doing boring things, but then got the motivation up to check out a small stream near a marsh we like to herp.

Streamside/streambed herping used to be my bread and butter - it's easy and nearly instantaneously-gratifying. Almost any stream, with the exception of REALLY polluted streams that you probably wouldn't want to splash on you anyhow, host at least one species of salamander (up here it's two-lines: Eurycea bislineata). As the streams get cleaner and you get more protected land around them you can add a few more salamanders, a few frog species, maybe a couple snake species, etc. This is probably the most fun in the Southern Appalachians, where they have more salamander species than they know what to do with, though the fun changes when you're holding a dusky salamander (Desmognathus species) with a vague pattern and you can't figure out which of the four or five local candidates it could be.

That's not a problem in the Delaware Valley. We've got maybe four likely salamanders: the two-lines, northern duskies (D. fuscus), long-tailed salamanders (E. longicauda), and red salamanders (Pseudotriton ruber), which eat all the other ones. Get another hour and a half into the mountains and you can add mountain duskies plus the real beast of our rocky streams, the spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus - note the genus name, which means 'tadpole-loving,' kind of like how I 'love' ice cream.). I often find frogs too, namely pickerel frogs (Rana palustris) and green frogs (Rana clamitans), the occasional garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) or nothern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon), and, if I'm really lucky (and I haven't been this lucky yet in PA) a queen snake (Regina septemvittata). Basically all you do is walk up a length of stream bank and look under the rocks and logs. I have the best luck with objects right at the edge, where a rock might be hitting the water on only one side. This luck might be more a question of how hard it is to catch critters uncovered in the full flow of the water, where the kicked-up silt makes it hard to see anything and they can swim away more easily, than of these types of rocks making better homes for critters. Either way, flip what you can, and don't be too hard on yourself if they swim away before you can get your hands on them; usually if you see one of a given salamander, you'll see more.

Thus I wasn't too hard on myself for not catching the two-lines I saw in this stream.

Someone else had been here hunting.

I made sure to check some boards on the way down.

I didn't expect a whole lot and thus was not disappointed, but I did think it was neat to see a small mammal working on making this board into a home.

That's cute in its own right, but it also promises to make for nice milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) bait.

Last up, here's a really nice-looking red-back salamander I found under a brick sitting on top of a stone wall. All kinds of objects cry out 'flip me,' and even if most of them are liars, every now and then they tell the truth.

Here was my third try at a photo. I decided not to detain the salamander any more and let it go.