Saturday, June 11, 2011

Last summer I started looking down into the tidal portion of the Schuylkill from the Grays Ferry bridge and decided I needed a boat. So, I got a boat.

In particular I got an inflatable Sea Eagle 'kayak.' I put that in quotation marks because it is an open vessel that you sit down in, halfway between a kayak and a canoe, but the key is that it weighs about thirty pounds and is quick to inflate and throw in the water. I have named it the Raftemys.

I took the Raftemys out on the Schuylkill a couple weekends ago, putting in around Bartram's Garden, paddling up to Walnut Street, and then back down. I had initially meant to put in right before high tide, the goal being to paddle with the tide up and then with it back out, but I ended up putting in a little late and fighting the outgoing tide for a while before I finally got to turn around and take the easy way back out.

Dig the route [it is SO nice to go somewhere and be open about the location]:

Turtles were anywhere there was vegetation along the banks and logs to haul out on.

The most common that I could tell (did I bring binoculars? Nope) were red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta):
Here's a basking party with a red-belly turtle (Pseudemys rubriventris) in the middle; the redbelly actually stayed put a few beats after the rest of his buddies had bailed.

I was happy to see some map turtles (Graptemys geographica). Don't ask me why I'm happier to see invasive map turtles than I am to see invasive sliders. I get the impression the maps aren't pushing anything else out, and I think they're more elegant turtles, whatever the slider's subspecific name (elegans).

I enjoyed the scenery from the river. The tidal Schuylkill features a lot of old docks dating back to when this was a more industrially-active river. Here's an old railroad swing bridge:

Here are some shots of Center City from the river. I had the river mostly to myself; I saw about four other boats (all with motors) and three jet skiers:

Swallows zipped above me as I paddled, and they were thick as I came up along I-76 (in the left of the last shot above). Here are a couple swallow nests underneath the expressway.

Last, here's a shot of Mill Creek.
Mill Creek once ran in a ravine through West Philly, and you can trace its path in names like the Mill Creek Farm at 49th and Brown to the Mill Creek Tavern around 42nd and Chester. Clark Park sits above the Creek, as do the perennial sink holes on Pine around 43rd. Along with the asphalt, plenty of buildings along the Creek's path have suffered damage, some torn down due to subsidence above huge culvert that now carries Mill Creek, essentially a huge storm sewer with fill still settling above it, well over a century after its entombment. Philly H2O has some great information on Philadelphia's underground waterways for those who would like to learn more.

Wouldn't it be cool to go up inside Mill Creek? I have certainly thought so, but I might be changing my mind. I saw the stream of mist issuing from the tunnel before I could see its mouth, the cool underground air condensing the heavy, humid, 90 degree air of the day.

Then I smelled and felt the air. These sensations conflicted, the cool breeze quite nice on my sweating, sun-roasting skin but the fetid stink of the storm sewer driving me past it. I can't say I won't ever hold my nose and head up the tunnel, but not on this trip.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Most reptiles and amphibians are beautiful to me, but some are a stretch. Snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), for example, caked in mud and furry algae, tiny piggy eyes and grotesquely long claws, can't quite qualify as pretty however long I stare at them.

But the baby ones are pretty darn cute. Here's one I trapped at a local marsh - the first of two, the second of which I dropped down my right hip boot, where it latched on tight with its claws and resisted extraction with all its might.

Of course the little guy/gal is terrified, but for a few minutes I gave it a good once-over and got my shot.

On the same trip I interrupted a beaver's lunch. I was paddling and couldn't get good photos off, but here's a shot of the beaver gathering vegetation:

Here is where it had been a moment before it got away:

Monday, June 06, 2011

I rarely herp in isolated places. I'm rarely on a trail, given, but I could reach one in no more than half an hour of hacking, usually less. I find rare, beautiful creatures that the vast majority of the people on those trails zip past without realizing they are there. I don't want to disparage the broader joys of hiking or boating, etc. (walking on soil and rock, surrounded by greenery and majestic vistas, or gliding over the water, hearing the paddle dip and lightly splash with each stroke) but I feel privileged to experience another level of beauty in the landscape. I imagine that all naturalists, whatever their focus, share this with me. The botany nut who can read the history of the forest in the mix of tree species and their shapes, the birder to whom the general chorus of bird calls resolves into a long attendance sheet of species calling from their respective microhabitats, the insect lover who sees the metallic black beetle alighting on his shoulder as more than something to be simply brushed off.

Last weekend I spotted this hunky timber rattler (Crotalus horridus) basking quietly, ten feet off a busy multi-use trail.

I rushed my picture and note taking as a crowd of mountain bikers crested a rise in front of me. I don't think I was being selfish; even if 100 passers by would relish the sight of this beautiful serpent sitting calmly in its element, I fear the 1 who would tell his sadistic cousin, who would come back with his shotgun or shovel. Still I got that special feeling that I witnessed a world that most people passing through did not.

The trip had started with a black ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoleta). I had seen it far away on the main trail (Snake or stick? Is it moving? It's moving!) and had taken off at a sprint to reach it before it could exit the trail. It saw me too soon and doubled back into a tight thicket I couldn't penetrate, mockingly shaking its tail in the leaves as it receded.

Soon I dropped off the trail, down the mountain towards the rocks. I was heading for coordinates where we had found rattlers a few years ago, and as I rounded the top of a small cliff I saw this gorgeous vision.

I know most people don't love snakes like I do, but come on, isn't this the slightest bit endearing? Three adult rattlers, who could spread out if they chose, basked together in a neat cuddly pile.

Not only are they basking, they're doing it with a perfect view of the valley below on the edge of a cliff. I'm sure they chose the site for the sun and not the view, but it still makes for a lovely scene from a human perspective.

My snake antennae perked up at this point, but even so I was surprised to see this little yearling sleeping in the warmth of the sun filtering down from the mostly overcast sky (the sun did peek out every few minutes).

The slope was all smaller rocks than I'm used to seeing timbers in, rocks that almost all shifted and slipped as I tried to step gracefully on them.

I saw another a few yards away; let's assume I missed another ten who were higher or lower on the slope or better hidden.

I finally reached the coordinates, already feeling successful, and found this beauty stretched out and enjoying the weather.

I decided to take her cue and did the same. I found a perch ten yards above her, took off my boots, and had a drink of water. After ten minutes the clouds parted and the hotter sun let her keep her temperature up with less skin exposed, and she retreated under an overhanging rock.

On the way back I detoured to visit a mountain bog (again, just out of sight off the trail).

Here's a resident green frog (Rana clamitans)...

...and the remains of spotted (maybe Jefferson's) salamander (Ambystoma maculatum or jeffersonianum) egg masses.

I heard and saw the splash of some kind of turtle clattering into the water. Note to self: I really need to come back here earlier in the spring (or with binoculars) when there's less foliage to see what kind.