Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Hard-Fought FOY. 9-17-17

Mid to late September and we still hadn't seen a Green Snake, a Hognose or a Racer. We had been wearing out our Plymouth County spot during the summer in hopes of seeing one of those three species, so we'd been cooling it for a month or so. But since the season will be all-but-over in a month, we trekked back on a cloudy Sunday morning in hopes of some luck and First Of Year sightings.

We got there at about 11 AM and the temps were in the mid-60s; that was fine for our plans. We hit the spot we've tentatively been calling "Redbell Land", named after an amazing spot I had as a kid for Storeria occipitomaculata back in New York State. With one flip of a log, Andrea solidified the name of this spot.
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She's a bit in-the-blue... can you imagine how beautiful she'll be after a shed?
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Orange Striped Oakworms. There were literally thousands of them crawling everywhere. We swerved to avoid them on the road, we had to watch our step as we walked and we flipped them under things. Luckily, these bountiful, beautiful caterpillars are native.
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Pine needles and sand... where else would you find a Redback?
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(They are so adaptable that I'm never surprised to find them... even in this seemingly non-salamandery habitat.)

Tracker Andrea spied some more snake tracks but we never saw who made them. This guy was in a hurry.
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Talk to the hand, 'cause the Fowler's don't understand.
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That was just our first stop and even though we were only out for about a half hour, we were soaked with sweat. The sun wasn't even burning bright; it was just 1,008% humidity. We glugged some water and went to the next area to look around.

I jauntily marched down the trail towards a bog while Andrea was bringing up the rear. She quietly said my name. I said, "I walked right by one, didn't I?" I had. She had seen a tiny bookmark, a new hatchling Hognose Snake sitting in the brush just off the trail.
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We are most likely the first mammals it has ever seen so I'm glad it had the instinct to flatten out. Of course, it made it look silly as hell.
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How big? Not too...
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So we finally had our First Of Year Hognose. That was a long time coming.

We watched the wee one crawl off and then went down to the bog. We immediately saw a Bull and a Green Frog watching us.
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This large Green looks like he smells something bad.
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There were many Bullfrogs being Bullfrog stereotypes, sitting on lilypads.
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This small Painted Turtle was obviously enjoying himself.
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A beautiful Pickerel Frog jumped in front of us and we realized that in just over an hour, we'd photographed 8 species.
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And that was about it on the day.

We went to two more spots, one to check the ponds, and saw some distant Painted Turtles basking and a couple of frogs but we couldn't get usable pictures. When we got out to look around the last spot, we realized that we were absolutely gassed and dragged our feet along the trails as best we could. We saw a few Fowler's Toads and plenty of mushrooms. Andrea snapped a shot of this perfect egg-cup.
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But running out of gas isn't so bad when the first hour was so full of excitement and fun. We'll still push ourselves while we can and whether we see animals or not, we're giving it our best shot and enjoying our time in nature.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The 4th Annual Westfield River Watershed Blitz. And more. 9-16-2017

For the third time in four years, we were honored to be asked to be the Reptile and Amphibian "specialists" at the Westfield River Watershed Blitz. "Specialists" might be being generous but we know and love our Massachusetts herps and love talking about them to people, so we're happy to truck out to Western MA to spread the love of the cold-blooded. We got up at 4:45 AM (on a Saturday?!) and hit the road before 6 AM. It was a 2 1/2 hour drive to our meet up place in Hampshire County and we actually made it on time. Will wonders never cease!

It was bustling there when we arrived; the specialists were getting their lists and gear together. Meredyth, who does an amazing job putting this shindig together, hooked us up with our instructions and the list of participants. We would have roughly nine people. While Andrea did important, responsible stuff, I went into the field across from the meet up and found a large, orange Spring Peeper, the biggest I've seen in a long time.
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I must admit, I was really wanting to go down into the gorge behind the meet-up... beautiful.
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Everybody arrived and our "Frogs and Newts" group (we really should change that to Reptiles and Amphibians), along with the Plant Group, all piled into cars, then into pickup trucks and went deep into the wilderness, a place that Andrea and I would never have seen otherwise. Our mission was to walk a mile in on a trail, then explore the river on the way back. Our group hit the trail and we walked along, talking about ways to see the animals while still respecting their habitat. Our first sighting, made by a young woman who had great eyes (she found many of our small creatures) was a very small Wood Frog.
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I should note right now that there will be plenty of hands in the pictures. Even though I prefer in situ photos, this was a teaching and learning hike and we thought everyone deserved up-close looks. Everything was handled very gently, like this small American Toad.
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Also, I didn't check with anybody about using names on the blog, so I will not be naming anyone.

Andrea found our first Reptile, a neonate Garter Snake. It is just starting to go blue, getting ready to shed, so it was an excellent educational snake.
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We were trying to keep track of our finds but Wood Frogs soon became "too many to count". Here are two more, showing their color variations. (Everyone soon learned to ID them by the "mask".)
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The same young woman who found the first Wood Frog was also the one who spotted our first Eastern Newt. A late-stage Eft, the tail is flattening and the color is changing. It will be returning to the water before too long.
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I finally contributed with a Redback.
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We got to the river and discovered that there was no trail along the side. We all stayed there for a bit, looking around. I went in, as was my plan, in hopes of finding some aquatic salamanders. It was a very open, sunny part of the river so we knew that Spring Salamanders would be out. But man, doesn't that look good for Wood Turtles? I was getting giddy.
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I put up a bounty of $20 to whoever could find me a Wood Turtle. Just look for the rocks that are walking on red feet. We saw none.

At this point, our group split into two. Andrea took the land-lubbers and I took four other nutty people who walked in the river with me. We found some shadier spots and finally saw some Pickerel Frogs (though getting pictures proved very tough) and the only herp I'd promised, Two-Lined Salamanders.
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My half-crew was enthusiastic and capable. They were finding Redbacks and Two-lines with ease.
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One of our group made a wonderful lunge to corral a Wood Frog, who then corralled her!
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We finally broke the Pickerel seal and started getting them to pose for us.
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We Wet-Feet finally met up with the Dry-Feet about half way back and we all proceeded back to the main trail. Our idea was to go back to the parking area and look in the river right there. That way we wouldn't make the rides late getting back but we could still explore.

I don't remember who had found this but some of us had walked past it and Andrea called us back. This is a Gallium Sphinx Caterpillar and while it's not a Reptile or Amphibian, it was just too cool to pass up. It pooped in my hand.
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This Redback was another good educational specimen as it looks like a regenerated tail.
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The Dry-Feet hadn't seen a Two-lined Salamander but Andrea remedied that by flipping one down in a damp gully. A large and beautiful one, at that.
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One thing I like about going out with people with varying interests is that I get to learn things, too. I was told about these horsetails, primitive plants in the Equisetum family. Living fossils, they are. (Thank you, Carol.)
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Our last group herp was this sandy Eft who was walking along the trail.
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We went down to the river and I made a beeline to the other side where it was shadier and nobody else would be dumb enough to try to cross. I had visions of a Dusky, maybe a Wood Turtle, some Springs, maybe a Bog Turtle and a Hellbender... a Gila Monster. In reality, I saw a few Two-lines who were too quick for my camera. On the other side, Andrea had caught a medium sized Garter (no picture) who musked and bit her. When it came time to cross back through the river, I got soaked and had a rough time but managed to keep the camera dry. I saw another neonate Garter on the way to the trucks.

We all headed back to base (except the Mammal crew who had encountered a roaring river and had to double back) and announced our findings. We'd had 9 species. The seven photographed as well as multiple Peeper calls and we saw a Green Frog but couldn't get a shot. Like birders, we counted them even without a photo. (Shameful!) Everyone had enjoyed themselves and hopefully the data will be helpful to the future of the river. We all talked and ate and enjoyed the day.

It was roughly 4 PM when it all wound down and we two "specialists" wanted to see some more river. Right down in the gorge, below the meet-up area, we finally found our first Northern Dusky Salamander, which we lovingly call Dookies.
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Walking through the gorge is truly awe-inspiring.
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Coffin rock!
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What could make this even more beautiful? How about Andrea being in the shot?
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There was plenty of trickling water seeping out of the mountain as we went along the trail. Some small streams lead from the rock to the river. It was a very good place for salamanders, both Dookie and Redback.
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This massive, jowly Dookie was down there. It might be the biggest one I've ever seen; over 5 inches.
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There were some puddles on the trail, also fed by the seeping mountain, and it was there that we got our cameras on some Green Frogs, officially bringing our own species count to ten.
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Down by the river, things were still active. This wee Peeper took a leap of faith from the sand to a rock, legs all akimbo and very ungraceful. We chuckled but look at his camouflage after he settled...
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Speaking of legs akimbo, Andrea flipped a nice Dusky and when she moved in for a photo, slipped and fell... almost on to the Dook! He skittered to safety.
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By the way, Andrea will bruise if you sneeze on her hard enough. Now, two days after the fall, you should see the spectacular purples all down her left leg. Like a beautiful rainbow of pain.

Of course, it was evident that we were toast by now and we still had a 2 1/2 hour drive home so we headed back. Our last riverside flip was a large rock that had a Two-line, a small American Toad and a behemoth American Toad. I'd rolled it back onto my toe but couldn't let it go until I'd cleared the salamander to safety. The toads made their own getaway. I finally limped into the river where the big guy went so we could get a photo of the magnificent anuran.
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We were falling to pieces but it was worth it!
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Walking by the Green Frog puddles, we stopped to observe them and count them. At least five Greens in there. Andrea saw something smaller in there, too. It looked like a fish but turned out to be a Salamander larvae.
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Our first thought was Dookie but that big shovel head and the skinny legs and long toes suggested an Ambystoma to us. After we got home I shot the picture over to my friend Kyle and he agrees... Ambystoma. We're going with maculatum, a Spotted Salamander larvae. Most have already metamorphed but things have been so staggered this year that nothing surprises me. Evidently, that seep keeps the puddle full for a long time.

Of course, we were exhausted by the time we got home but we were still buzzing with the fun we'd had hiking with other interested people, seeing old friends, and seeing eleven species. I really wish we could spend a lot more time out in that part of the state. It is so beautiful, there are so many different animals and everybody is so darn nice. We'll definitely return for the Bio Blitz next year if we get asked.