Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Virginia Monologues, Part 1

The North American Field Herp Association's Northeast Chapter Annual Meet Up (or NAFHANECAMU for was planned for the first weekend in June this year. The place? Mount Rogers in Virginia, the southernmost edge of the chapter's range. Since Andrea is the chapter's president, el presidente, the top dog, the big honcho, the head cheese... it was to be my duty to be the beautiful first lady and accompany her. She and Vice Prez Mike had planned the trip so we headed out to meet up on Friday morning at our reserved campsite. Of course, with Andrea's sister Nancy in Richmond, VA, we headed there on Thursday morning to spend the night visiting with family, a mere 5 hours from the camp.

We we flying! Until Rt 95 in Connecticut. Oh well. So, the traffic sucked much of the way. We herped as many rest stops as possible but came up empty until the Clara Barton stop near the end of the New Jersey Turnpike, or as we call it, the njt! There, in a puddle, was a scraggly looking Green Frog, our first ever New Jersey herp!
I would have loved to get a better shot but our first NJ herp promptly handed me my ass and disappeared!

Here's how to say njt.

The only other notable animal on the way down was at another rest stop, I don't remember where...possibly in Virginia... hanging above some vending machines.
Automeris io
Say hello to Automeris io.

So we had a fine evening seeing loved ones, though admittedly (after 12 hours of driving), my brains were pudding. Sleep was rough, until about 25 minutes before our 5 AM wake up call. C'est la vie. Welcome to Friday, June 6th.

So, we loaded up and hit the road for the mountains bright and early. Traffic was fine and uneventful. Andrea took over the drive for a bit in the middle because I was dead tired already! But we arrived, about an hour later than planned and met the first day's crew. The crew included VP Mike and his charming better half Desirée, Matt and his lovely wife Siobhan and Cliff and his dad Carl. Up and at 'em... let's hit the mountain!

We drove a short spell to a nearby campsite to park and walked up the road a bit to get to the trail head. Mike and Matt were scurrying in a seep ditch alongside the road (men after my own heart) and came up with our first salamanders, our beloved Dookies... Northern Dusky Salamanders!

Right at the trail head, we found a small, feisty Garter, the Southernmost one I've ever seen.
As a Garter connoisseur, I like comparing them from different places. I like this guys broken-line dorsal stripe.

Matt, Siobhan and the two of us got behind while playing with the Garter so when we entered the trail, Mike was calling after us "Pygmy"!!! Now, Andrea isn't really tall, but that was harsh. I marched up the trail to give him a good talkin' to when we saw that they had found a Pygmy Salamander, lifers for us!
And another!
These diminutive beauties could jump like nobodies business. I got quite a few shots of empty moss.

This place was fast and furious... salamanders were popping up everywhere. This hike was Cliff's idea. He had been here before and it had paid off. We all eagerly set about flipping and searching. I got my first Blue Ridge Mountain Dusky pretty quickly. Lifer for us!
and another with similar markings...

Cliff then flipped a log and said "I'll bet I have another lifer for you here... Gray cheeked Salamander." He was right!
These new favorites were ubiquitous!

Here's a completely different looking Blue Ridge Mountain Dusky (heretofore known as BRMDs)

A nice, clean, tall-walking Gray Cheek!

I had asked Cliff if we were in Slimy range, as they are a favorite of mine. He said yes and almost immediately handed me the freshly flipped specimen!

Of course, I got behind the group again. Matt and myself were digging into a trickling seep stream and Andrea and I were introduced to the beautiful Black-belly Salamander, another Dookie relative.
Luckily, they're fairly easy to ID without flipping for the namesake belly.
^ Blinking!

I flipped this guy. I don't know what it is. I currently have him listed as a UFD: Unidentified Flipped Desmog.
Probably a Seal.

Why do I like Black Bellies so much? Because they're so fucking cute!!

Matt proved himself to be the King of the Spring with his first of multiple Spring Salamanders.

Another UFD... I'd have called it a small Northern but those sure look like eggs to me. Too small for eggs for a Northern? How the hell should I know! Desmog studies are under way!

I was lagging far behind by now. Not that it was speed-herping but I'm just not so agile! Few hours of sleep and some asthma and I was moving slowly. But, I finally flipped my own Slimy!
This might be the sorriest looking Salamander ever... missing an eye and skinny, but I still think he's beautiful.

Here's a slim-Jim Gray Cheeked!

Spring King Matt scored again!

Right around there, we slow-pokes heard calls from above... the crew had found one of our most coveted targets... the Yonahlossee Salamander!
Sure, it looks a bit like a Redback but this specimen was roughly 5 inches long, bright and alert! Gorgeous animal! I flipped another nearby but couldn't safely procure it and balance the stone, so he slid into a hole, out of sight.

Even the trees are cool and special around here!

Here's another wild example of a BRMD!

I went to flip off Andrea and discovered a small UFD on my finger!

By now, we were well up the mountain and were completely split into two groups. Matt, Siobhan and we were way behind and when we hit a crossroads in the trail, a quick panic set in. Until we noticed Mike's handiwork...
OK, well that helped!

Andrea had been very presidential the whole time, photographing us and the animals, offering encouragement and help, but she started noticing that she'd not flipped any finds yet herself! She remedies that with this UFD, probably a Dookie.

Between the two of us, we put together this United Colors of BRMD photo!

We next came up with this, which we didn't know at the time, but was our first Seal Salamander.
Pretty high elevation but I'm pretty sure that's what we have.

Andrea also flipped this, which I have as a UFD but the more I look, I think it's a Pygmy.

The ascent had been taking its toll on me. At one point, I reached to flip a flat rock and just kept going, falling on my face and rolling onto my back. I lay there panting like an asthmatic beagle. I drank a lot of water and tried to collect myself before Matt and Siobhan caught up. This age thing isn't so fun sometimes. (Though Carl has a couple of years on me and he was way ahead...)

No idea what this guy is, but he's cute as hell!

There was one more fairly steep ascent and I didn't think I could do it. But I didn't want to be a total pussy in front of everyone, so I pushed on. And I'm glad I did, for right at the top of the incline, the crew was there with our main target for the day... the rare Weller's Salamander.
Seeing this small Plethodon was worth all of the discomfort and time and money. He really made the trip worthwhile.
These guys have a very small range so it's possible we'll never see another. Many thanks to Cliff for knowing where to look and for heading this hike! This was, fittingly, our turn-around point.

The descent wasn't really a lot easier. Carl had already started down and soon Cliff and Desirée were on their way. The rest of us ambled down slowly, unable to resist further flipping. We realized that, while I thought that Desirée was with Cliff, nobody was certain. So hurrying back toward the parking lot commenced. I searched for my Yonahlossee that had disappeared but couldn't find the spot. But I did find one eventually!
I thought it might have been the same guy as earlier, but close inspection says it isn't! Same area, though. Yonahlossee Alley, I guess.

I caught back up to Matt, Siobhan and Andrea at a seep. They just couldn't resist the lure of wet flipping! Andrea got a nice Black Belly.

And an adorable larval Desmog... UFD.

Matt showed us our first bonafide Seal Salamander.

A couple more Black bellies.

Matt found this crazy UFD... young Seal?

By now, Mike was freaking out. We had to find Desirée and hoped she was at the car, waiting angrily to beat us all about the head and neck. Mike spotted a shortcut to the campground. It took us through new terrain, where Matt flipped a shoestring Garter!

We got back to the parking lot. I flipped three Grey Cheeks under some bags behind the dumpster.
But no Desirée.

We got into the cars in panic mode and split up, agreeing to meet later. On the way back to camp, we saw a large, black snake on the side of the road that appeared to be alive. We pulled over and ran back. It was a Black Rat Snake, but I think I saw its final death throw. Not sure what happened, I didn't see any marks as I moved it off the road.

We got back to camp and Desirée was not there. Hopefully, she was at Cliff's campsite. Nope. It turns out, she had done exactly what she should have done and at least one of us should have thought of... but didn't. She waited at the trail head. For a long time. Finally, she got a ride in a campground golf cart back to civilization and finally met up with Mike. *phew*

So, we all relaxed a bit. Mike had told us about finding a Ringneck on camp grounds earlier. It was at the place I had eyed upon entering... the stone-wall-surrounded seep ditch. He had just re-flipped it again! Then he flipped a young Water Snake!

I started working the other side of the wall and got a Water Snake by the tail...
He won the tug-of-war and christened me with a stripe of musk that made me stink for the rest of the night.

I next flipped a small Ringneck who fell to the bottom and scurried away. Drats! Foiled again! But then we flipped our first Milk Snake of the year!
Jeff and Ben, the last of our crew, had shown up and joined us at the snake-pit! This was Jeff's first Milk of the year as well!

Mike had flipped an in-the-blue Water Snake that wanted nothing to do with anyone! We shall call him Bitey.

The Milk endured much ogling and a long photo-session. The only other snake in the wall that night was this Ringneck, also blue, who musked me good and made my hands smell, along with the Nerodia musk, like rotted skunk assholes.

Andrea and I wanted to see the stream on the campground before bed, so we took a quick peek, finding this 3-legged Black Belly.

We stayed and talked with Jeff and Ben for a while, checked to make sure all was well with everyone else, and hit the hay. Sleep was tough, between sleeping on the hard ground, a Whippoorwill and just a cold whore-bath, but what a great day! 4 miles up, 4 miles down.

7 lifers! Herping with wonderful, like-minded people! Learning! Falling and having only Andrea see it! That's a full day! What would Saturday hold? Would I live to find out?

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