Sunday, October 07, 2012

This isn't exactly the end of the Phillyherping blog. I'll call it brumation (the reptile equivalent of hibernation), a period of dormancy, sort of tucked into a stump hole but maybe poking out in nicer weather for little bits of activity.

I have been writing this blog for nearly seven and a half years. That's about seven cycles of herp activity - glorious, exuberant springs with peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata), summers with timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) and box turtles (Terrapene carolina), autumns and winters with the salamanders, praying again for spring.

I can't say I'm running out of enthusiasm: each cycle is a new take on the annual phenomena. Each spotted turtle I find feels like a new friend even if it looks an awful lot like the last one (and even if the turtle itself is terrified for the duration of the reunion) is a fun encounter with a new friend.

The writing is getting a little hard to fit in, though. When I started the blog I was living alone (engaged to be married) and I had a relatively easy job as a low-level bureaucrat. Now I'm directing the office and it's harder to leave on time or play hooky on nice days, and Magnolia's arrival has eaten into the 'free' time I have. I'm not getting out as often, not for as long trips as I'd like, and when I get home it is hard to find time to sit down and write it up, which is pretty obvious given the longer-than-usual stretches between posts.

It only hit me recently that there are people (aside from relatives) who read this blog on a regular basis, and I apologize to you that I won't be writing it so regularly anymore. I am flattered that anyone reads this at all, let alone returns to read it. I appreciate the community you've provided for what is generally an oddball pursuit.

Maybe I'll think differently after the winter, but for now I'll be taking a break from weekly posting and taking the opportunity to post when I feel particularly compelled to write something.

Till then, happy herping,
Bernard Brown
This post has taken so long that I've been out again to the same spot. This is a good thing because I didn't find much on the first trip, just a cute but squirmy little ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus)...

...and the tail of a basking rattler (Crotalus horridus). Now, that tail looked kind of skinny. I had to wonder if this is a girl who just gave birth and is hanging around a bit before making the hike back to the den for the winter.

On the next trip I brought Magnolia, with all the attendant handicaps and benefits. We didn't see much out in the woods, but Magnolia reminded me how to have a good time. Each tree had more bark to inspect, and these rocks weren't just good for rattlesnake housing, they were a pleasure in their own right.  

So the day wasn't a total failure when I gave up (I would have asked Magnolia for her opinion but she had fallen hard asleep.) and started hiking back to the car. 

And if my herping experience has taught me anything it is that you don't actually give up until the moment you shut the car door. 

This is why: 

This black rat snake was a beast (I don't know what it is with this road on this mountain, but I'll keep coming back), and I couldn't walk past without at least trying to make its acquaintance. 

Of course I had that handicap I mentioned earlier: about nineteen pounds of baby slung on my chest. So I took the photo above, tucked the camera away, briefed Magnolia on the plan, and carefully reached for the snake in sort of a slow-motion lunge that ended with me on my knees and my left hand and with my right hand holding a warm, muscular coil of the snake, which was now waking up and winding around the vegetation. (I'll mention that it was doing so very slowly and calmly, like it was annoyed that I had woken it up but not exactly angry or scared.)

It was my left hand that informed me of the thorns. I hadn't considered the species of plant the snake chosen for its refuge, but it was all blackberry. 

I realized I faced a choice: I could crawl forward and try to extricate the snake, but that would involve dragging myself and Magnolia (who was watching the snake like she wanted to grab it - she is truly my daughter) through the briers and bringing her home to her mother covered in scratches. I could also let go of the snake, which would mean not catching it as well as enduring the disappointment of Magnolia (you could argue she's too young to be disappointed, and you'd probably be right, but she'll probably read this someday and think, 'Dad, you wuss, why didn't you catch that snake?'). 

I let go (for real, and I'm not just writing that because my mother-in-law reads this blog). I was sure the snake would bolt off into the woods, but instead it turned and gave me the gift of a good pose. I'm not sure if it was just a little scared and angry from having been grabbed (as if to say, 'hey there, good sir, I was taking a nap!') or just too stupid to realize I had been defeated by the briers, but it reared back in a half-hearted defensive coil before sliding away, which gave me one more halfway decent photo. 

I know that a garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) isn't exactly a lunker black ratsnake, but this sighting was a little victory of its own. Many times I had walked past this spot on the road and heard a small snake retreating into the brush. Each time I had thought, 'sounds like a garter snake.' Maybe it would sound the same as a baby racer (Coluber constrictor) or any other similarly small snake, but garter is what I imagined, and garter is what I found basking right there on top of the brush along the side of the road. 

I let it enjoy the sun. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

No one on the bus would have guessed what I was about to do. Of course, this being Philadelphia, few if any would have cared, but something about matching an action as ordinary and urban as an bus ride on SEPTA with a great-outdoors activity like kayaking on a river while looking for turtles had me feeling a little furtive as I glanced around at the other riders.

To be sure, I did not invent taking SEPTA to a put-in site. Please take a moment to check out the Commando Chronicles by Dubside. I do wish Dubside hadn't left West Philly to move to the Pacific Northwest. I never knew the guy, but I would have loved to spend time with a man who took a folding kayak out to the Delaware in the middle of icy winter nights and tried to follow the course of miserable suburban streams in New Jersey. He apparently does not communicate by email ("I prefer ESP-mail. It's not quite as accurate, but it definitely filters out the extraneous stuff."), but he did answer one of my letters inquiring about  Mill Creek, and I was inspired by the correspondence. Thus I thought of Dubside as I pulled the cord for my stop, slung the sack with the deflated kayak onto my shoulder, and thanked the driver.

I adore the transition from land to water, leaving my feet and gliding away, feeling my paddle blades bite in and propel me into the current. Even alongisde the highly-trafficked banks of the Center-City Schuylkill, with cyclists, walkers, runners, and sunbathers all in view, it marks the passage into a smoother, quieter world.

Soon I left most of my fellow Philadelphians behind and joined the select few of fellow boaters (one canoe, a few motor boats coming up from the Delaware, and four jet skiers on three jet skis (why is it always the women who ride behind the men? Why don't the women ever get to drive?)) and fishers who know the peace and beauty of the Schuylkill.

Yes, this is the same ugly river that we cross every day and wrinkle our noses at, no matter that it's been restored to the point that it again hosts American shad schools and is clean enough to splash around in as long as it hasn't rained recently.

From the water it's a river with trees along the banks, a current (or two, I guess, if you count both directions of the tide), and birds, fish, and turtles. Sure there is some trash bobbing along, and sure the storm-sewer outlets are a bit stinky, and sure there are rats poking around banks covered with bricks rather than the usual river rocks, but on balance it is still a wonderful place to spend an afternoon.

That said, the murkiness of the water saved me from making any snorkeling decisions, and I let all the turtles swim away after I got as close as I could.

 Most were mystery. Some might have been redbellies (Pseudemys rubriventris), some maybe map turtles (Graptemys geographica), several certainly were red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta).

I reached Bartram's Garden just as the tide was turning around and turned myself to ride it back to Center City.

Then I took the bus back home.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Does persistence pay off, or does it just waste time?

I've had terrible luck finding brown snakes (Storeria dekayi) at what has generally been the most reliable brown snake site on earth (aside from, perhaps, the famous 'shanty town' in Ernst and Ernst's Snakes of the United States and Canada), the Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Yet I keep going. I know they're there. There's no way the entire population up and died, or moved further out into Delaware County ('Not another garter snake, Martha! There goes the neighborhood.'). I'll blame a combination of bad weather and unwieldy artificial cover. I can flip a few boards pretty easily, but a trash can full of old bathroom tiles, a pile of cinder blocks, a discarded toilet, and a six-foot tall stack of jumbled two-by-fours bristling with nails outclass even the potato rake.

And then there is the vegetation. The other-worldly succession processes, apparently distinct for each section of the cemetery, have overwhelmed innumerable carefully-placed boards and shingles so that I can't figure out where to flip anymore. The path to one of my favorite little piles of metal panels has been blocked off by an unholy union of highly-invasive Japanese knotweed and the yet-more-invasive and aptly-named-by-either-of-its-names Mile-a-Minute-Weed a.k.a. Asiatic tearthumb.

The knotweed provides eight-foot-tall banks for the tearthumb to use as a scaffold so you can't step over it, you can only trap it down with the potato rake and sort of step on it to make a path to avoid losing too much flesh. I hacked through fifty yards of this mess and found nothing.

I did find some very promising boards in another section of the cemetery, less overgrown and easy to flip. Unfortunately some wasps had found them first and drove me off.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Somewhere on the south side of a ridge in the mountains of Pennsylvania, maybe three hours into our hike (me with Magnolia on my chest) I took the opportunity to needle Scott about why I don't like road cruising. I pointed out that I would rather strike out in gorgeous mountain forest like this than on blacktop at night.

I meant it. Even if we had found nothing, I still would have been able to head home with tired legs and a mental album full of majestic, rocky images like the one below of Scott inspecting a cliff face.

We hadn't found any of our target timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) at that point. Here are some ledges where we might have seen them if the temps had gotten out of the mid sixties or if the skies had cleared a little (cloudy and a little warmer would have worked great, and sunny at the same temps would have given us some action, even if a shorter window than the cloudy and warm scenario):

I felt like logging something with a backbone, so Scott indulged me while I flipped rocks in a stream for salamanders. It only took me a few rocks to find this pretty two-lined (Eurycea bislineata).

I found a redback (Plethodon cinereus) but Scott game me a dirty look when I started to take out my camera.

To his credit, he scooped up this wee American toad (Bufo americanus):

We stopped to play with this female northern true katydid (thanks to James Trager for the ID).

So I can't say we were striking out completely when we realized we'd been hiking for about five hours and still had an hour back to the car.

On the dirt road back to the car, I got the sense I had to change Magnolia's diaper (ultimately I was wrong - false alarm). This would involve lifting her out of the carrier, and for whatever silly arbitrary reason I pointed to a landmark up the road and said I'd stop there. Scott asked what was wrong with where we were at the moment. I had no good answer, aside from having decided on the other spot as where I'd check the diaper.

Lucky I was being so arbitrary (or prophetic? Guided by the herping gods?), since as I stopped and got ready to pull off my backpack to get the changing pad out, I looked to my left and saw this timber basking next to the road! I think I said something like "Ooh Ooh a rattler!" and we quickly forgot the baby and started taking photos.

We spooked the rattler (poor form), and as I remembered the reason for stopping in the first place, both Scott and I noticed the same pattern of shiny coils gleaming from beneath the dry brush.

Scott froze in amazement. I started hopping down and babbling like, well, like Magnolia. Scott reached in and very, very carefully picked the snake up. We could tell it was big, but we only got a sense of HOW big once Scott was standing upright and stretching it out a bit (I include both photos for the facial expressions).

I have a hard time describing that degree of herping ecstasy in writing. Prior to the rattler we had been warmly satisfied with a nice day on a mountain and a few little critters. The rattler had made it a memorable trip, gleefully happy and patting each other on the back about the luck of thinking of changing the diaper where I had arbitrarily decided to do so. That big, mellow ratsnake multiplied the vibe by that same factor again, giving us a two-step, exponential increase to something that would stick with us all week (and even now that I'm writing about it again). We half expected to turn around and find a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) with a winning lottery ticket it its mouth.

Last up, nice but not quite the same vibe multiplier, here is one of the green frogs (Lithobates clamitans) in a puddle at the side of the road.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Today I wandered around the Mount Moriah Cemetery and found nothing but butterflies drawn to the red clover in the paths. I couldn't identify most of them, though I knew the buckeyes and of course the monarchs.

Still no sign of the duck pond red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta), further strengthening the case that the DOR one on Pine Street was ours.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

I like to throw the term 'mystery' around a lot to indicate I don't know what kind of critter I'm looking at. For example when I say 'mystery frog' I usually mean some kind of frog that jumped in the water before I could get a good look at it. When I say 'mystery turtle' I'm usually talking about the distant basking turtle that slides in before you can get a good look.

In this case I know what kind of turtle this is (Red-eared slider - R.E.S. - Trachemys scripta), but by 'mystery turtle' I mean I am mystified by its location. I took this photo (sorry for the gory DOR shot - in this case I'd call it 'road pizza') half a block from my apartment building in West Philly, far from any natural body of water it could have called home.

I saw it just before dawn on Friday as I was riding my bike to the Y for a pre-work swim. I was in a rush to get into the pool and expected better light once the sun was above the horizon, so, figuring it wasn't going anywhere fast, I took the photo on the way home.

Could it have been a pet? RES are native to the middle part of our country, but they are frequently kept as pets and too-frequently released into the wild. A lot (I'd bet the vast majority) of the former pets probably die, but enough have hung on to establish breeding populations in Philadelphia's waterways to possibly threaten some of our native species. In this case it was miles from the nearest likely body of water, though. It must have been a pet.

I suspect I know whose pet it was. It was ours.

Of course if it had escaped from our apartment I would have known more certainly, but that's not what I mean (and we don't have any turtles). Our building is blessed with a huge garden space on the roof of our one-story parking garage. The Upper Garden, as we call it, actually has a duck pond in the middle of it. Over the years it had become highly eutrophied, loaded with nutrients that kicked off chocking algae blooms, turning the water to the consistency of spinach souffle - yum.

Upper Garden, showing pre-mucked out pond and turtle DOR location

Early this spring a couple neighbors and I finally decided to clean out the pond (our management has shown a high level of indifference to the Upper Garden - great in that it lets us garden the space how we see fit, which is why I have an enormous vegetable garden in the middle of a high city), employing a rented pump, shovels, and buckets to empty it of about 20,000 gallons of water and muck. Then one of the building's plumbers took over. It turns out the guy is a backyard pond enthusiast, and pretty soon our duck pond was hosting a range of aquatic plants and a school of goldfish. It was really gratifying to have our hard work pay off to the point that an expert wanted to take it from there and make a real pond out of our former muck pit.

I wasn't happy, though, when he tossed in a RES. I was thinking basic husbandry thoughts like, 'so, who is going to feed the turtle? What do we do in the winter - who is going to take it in to hibernate?'

I hadn't imagined that the turtle might somehow get out of the pond, cross the grass to a section of the edge of the Upper Garden with a fence that a turtle could fit under, tumble over the side onto the sidewalk, and then walk into Pine Street to get mashed into the asphalt. But it's been a few days since we've actually seen the pond turtle, so now I'm really wondering if the mystery turtle is ours. I guess if we see the pond turtle again we'll know who the mystery turtle isn't, but if we don't...?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Check out page 24 of the latest issue of Grid.

I finally wrote about my Philly milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) obsession. The article features a photo of a gorgeous Valley Forge milk taken by local herper Dave Fitzpatrick.