Monday, March 30, 2015

Herping Through the Snow 3-29-2015

We could have used a one horse open sleigh, too.

So, it was raw and cold but it was supposed to just about hit 40° and be sunny. That's good enough for us. We gathered up Teá (sans Mike this time, sadly) and headed towards Ponk.

But first, we stopped off at a favorite spot in Suffolk County to see if the sun had brought anyone out. No Premature Garters but we did manage to find a plump Blue-spotted Salamander!

Then we headed to Ponk. Our goal was to inspect a vernal pond that we'd hoped had been utilized last Fall. Also, we wanted to see how the place had fared the winter since our last visit (December 27th). A quick turn into the parking lot answered our question... unplowed, unshoveled... unable to park! So we went around and parked in the golf course parking lot and headed in.

It was cold but the course's walks were clear. Not so much when we hit the dam. Icy, slushy and slippery with only occasional sightings of rocks poking through the edges. Not what we'd hoped. The sun was warm and frankly, we'd hoped for a squamate noggin or two. Nope. In fact, the dam and much of the trail looked just like this:
Walking was not fun in this shit.

Finally, we got to a part that is used by cars and it had been plowed a bit. Walking got easier. Finding the running streams remained difficult, however. We found one and went to poke around for Two-lined larvae, figuring it was all we'd see in this winter wonderland. I managed to disturb the slumber of a very thin little Pickerel Frog who looked at me with much disdain.
The first thing I'm going to do when he comes out of hibernation is buy him a cheeseburger.

A little further up, Teá made it 3 species when she found a beautiful adult Two-lined Salamander!

Not bad... snow, cold and aggravation still reigned but we had three species!

Then we headed toward the vernal. It was very tough going as the trails leading that way were all but unused. We were sinking in, nearly falling, and having a rough time of it... and Teá was still in her boot! But we persevered.

We got to the vernal, which was swollen with melt-off and rain, and dipped away. It was filled with stringy green algae and decomposing leaves but we just didn't find any salamander larvae. Teá, who is smart about such things, noted that there wasn't really anything for the larvae to eat in the pool either. So, who knows where young salamanders spend the winter. We decided to put off further investigation until a later date.

Things picked up over at Ringneck Hill when we found our First-of-Year Redback Salamanders! Never have we been so happy to see our common little Plethodons!
Three beauties! They made it worth the effort we had put in.

But, we were way out there and had a long way back to the car! We slogged through the slush and ice and snow until our legs were rubber. It had become pay-back time for seeing four herp species. We finally made it and plopped into the car. I definitely worked off the two donuts I'd devoured on the way up.

But we were happy, having seen some herps that had survived the winter. This winter has been killing us on the inside, slowly but surely, and the only way to live again is to get out there and HERP! And that's just what we'll be doing.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Nature Stick's Week of Worries

OK, Boston has broken records with snow and shitty weather... it's OK to stop now. But it wouldn't. Friends in states south of us have been out finding salamanders and frogs, happy in the knowledge that Spring has sprung. We, however, still have heaps of snow and ice.

On Friday, March 20th, I went to a nearby vernal pond to check out the progress.
Umm... nope. With a warm-up mid-next-week in the forecast, it was worth a peek but this pool wasn't going to thaw any time soon.

On the following Sunday, our good friends Teá and Mike once again invited us to join them on a search for birds, this time on the North Shore. With Matt S. also along for the adventure, we had a good group of people and many sets of eyes should anything be up and about.

When we stepped outside of our house to await our pick up (thanks, guys!), we noticed it was pretty fucking windy. Surely it wouldn't be bad up North... on the ocean! Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures and we all wanted some nature, dammit! Yeah, it was pretty damn windy when we hit Gloucester, but it was pretty.

Andrea stepped into the middle of The Evil Dead and barely broke free before being traumatized by these branches which were indeed... alive.
Why was she dressed like this? Because it was barely above freezing and the wind chill brought it down to "Holy Shit!"

There were a few birds around, some Buffleheads and this Scoter.

A female Red-breasted Merganser was floating by.

Tide pools provided us with a little bit of nature, like periwinkle shells. And yes, Teá was slogging through snow and ice and scaling rocks with her foot still in a boot.

After some lunch, we headed up to Halibut Point in Rockport. Our goal: Harlequin Ducks. We parked and headed toward the ocean...

When we got there, the wind was ferocious; biting cold gusts slashing right through to the bone. It was full-on painful. I hid behind rocks, trying to shield myself and I went into full-on pussy-mode. I tried to stick my head up and photograph far off dots in the water that may or may not have been animals. I finally went down to where the others had braved it, the wind cutting through me like a chainsaw. There were some Harlequin Ducks out there, I was told. So I steadied myself, with tears freezing to my cheeks, and tried to photograph the ducks that were bobbing up and down on huge, violent waves. My camera shook in the wind. These two shots are the very best I could get and I feel pretty good about getting them at all! Harlequin Duck, Life List #127...
Harlequin Duck #62 Life #127
Harlequin Duck #62 Life #127
To make me feel like even more of a weakling, these ducks are sleeping in the tumultuous water while I whine like a baby, dressed in layers.

We pretty much all agreed that atop that hill overlooking the ocean, we were the coldest and most uncomfortable we had been all Winter!! But we survived to tell the story and I wouldn't change anything about it!

So, that mid-week warm-up I'd mentioned? Well, after driving to work in 19° on both Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday showed signs of promise by the late afternoon. It had reached the mid-40s. I checked the local vernal again but very little had changed. Thursday, March 26th, however, was supposed to hit the mid-50s (!) and be rainy! Could some confused salamanders emerge, lookin' for love?

Some friends were thinking the same thing and asked if we wanted to join them for a moonlight hike through a spot in Bristol County. Our hopes were to see some Blue-spotted salamanders and/ or Wood Frogs... the former being a species that likes to come out a bit earlier than others. Driving an hour to see a salamander, in the rain, in the dark? You betcha!

We met up at about 9 PM and hit the trails. It was still about 50°. The trails, of course, were still covered with ice. Oops. Perhaps we came a bit early! Still, intrepid herpers that we are (read: insane animal lovers), we pushed on in hopes of something... anything!!!

There were a few bare spots where the sun had melted the snow over the past few weeks and these were inspected closely. Pools were forming below the trail. This would be a good place, eventually! I was exploring one of the clear spots when our friend spied exactly what we had come for... "Blue-spotted!"
This little beauty was trucking along the edge of the path in a clear spot... tiny and vibrant, he instantly made our wet clothes and cameras worth it!
Success felt great, if a bit foreign!

A bit further up, while getting out of the way of a possible ATV that never turned up (ghostly lights? This place does have a haunted reputation!), right at our feet was another laterale!
This cantankerous lil fella made it very hard to get a good shot as did the rain that then decided to pour down in buckets.
This is where we all started to get really soaked... the bag I had over my camera had filled with water, all of our clothes were drenched through to the skin... we'd found what we came for and we decided to turn back before pneumonia could get its icy fingers latched onto our spines.

But due to a very good set of eyes, a last Blue-spotted was found, swimming in a puddle on the ice!

So we consider the night a huge success! We saw exactly what we set out to see... some confused salamanders. Soaked to the skin, we said our thanks and farewells; we were all happy with ourselves.

Despite the snow and ice that makes in not seem so, Spring is definitely here.
Our first Massachusetts Spring!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Ch-ch-ch... Ha-ha-ha Friday the 13th: Attempting to Herp 3-13-2015

The temps hit the high Fifties on Wednesday! We all went outside and thought that Spring is surely here! Salamander Migration is upon us! The horrid winter is over!!!!

But it isn't.  Friends in states to our south are teasing us with pictures of amphibians and even a few reptiles, making us think that yes... there might be a chance! With that in mind, I decided to use my Friday off to fit in some herping between my errands. My final destination would be the streams of Worcester. Surely some salamanders would be up, enjoying the crisp cool water, frolicking in the joy of another winter passed.

I stopped off at the Arboretum on the way to the highway. Teá had tipped me off that my friend the screech owl was back in his favorite place from last year so I figured it would be worth a quick walk to see if he was still there. Not being able to find the footpath... there's still over 3 feet of snow... I took the long way and found him a half hour later.
Screech Owl #61
Worth the walk to see this perfect fit!

So, I did a few things along the way and arrived at Cascades at about 1 PM, ready to flip some stones in the stream and look for Two-Lines, Dooks and hopefully, Springs. Sadly, despite the luck that our friends to the south are having and the fact that we had one nice day, the stream still looked like this:

Whatever. Armed with a new pair of rubber boots, I dug in and started bending and flipping... a practice that I am really feeling now, the morning after, in my butt, thighs and back. In an hour, I managed to pull up a number of Two-Lined larvae.
Various sizes (that one looks to be about ready to lose the gills) and all cute.

I decided to take a look over at Kinneywoods, since I was practically there. As I entered, I saw a half dozen White-tailed Deer running up a hill, frolicking in the snow. I couldn't get a photo through the trees. It turns out that, besides the deer, not much activity has been going on here. There were very few human footprints. I had to follow deer paths to avoid going into over-the-knee snow. The deer tracks lead me to a beautiful seep.
There's just gotta be Springs in this place!!

My new boots enjoyed the squelchiness!

I followed the muddy deer tracks over to the steam, which I thought would be raging but it was still mostly snow covered and icy. An hours worth of flipping netted me just one 3/4" Two-Lined larvae.

So, with snow in my boots (from missteps that took my leg up to the knee) and wading in the icy water, my feet were cold and I called it a day. I headed back home (through Friday afternoon traffic) and got home to a hot bath. For any Massachusetts herpers that think "Spring is here... we'll be herping in no time!"... think again. Despite the melting off a couple of feet of snow, there's still a lot to get rid of. It's still damn cold out there.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Back to the land of ice and snow... 3-8-2015

With the Everglades 6 days behind us, we readily accepted out friends Teá and Mike's invite to take a walk around Castle Island on Boston Harbor. We hadn't seen them in what seems like forever and needed to get on our feet again, regardless of how cold it might be. It really wasn't too bad, low 40s and sunny. Teá, however, was going to try this on her first day without crutches... just a foot brace to protect her healing, fractured ankle.

I figured we'd be moving slowly but I was proved wrong. We hit the water and saw plenty of Common Eiders right away.

There were some Common Loons there, too.
Common Loon #55

There were some Red-breasted Mergansers, which I needed for my Life List. It clocked in at #123.
Red-breasted Merganser #56 Life #123

This massive boat made a couple of them scurry closer to our camera lenses.

I saw a duck way out, nuzzling some ice. I wasn't sure what it was, but Teá informed me it was a Common Goldeneye... another need-it. Life List #124!
Common Goldeneye #57 Life #124

She also pointed out some more need-its... a group of Brants (Life list #125)
Brant #58 Life 125

Earlier, we had been watching some House Sparrows. Teá mentioned that one time here, she shot some sparrows only to notice when she uploaded the images that she had gotten a Horned Lark. With that in mind, we kept our eyes wide open and sure enough, some Horned Larks turned up! Life List #126.
Horned Lark #59 Life #126

Among the Black Ducks, Ring-billed Gulls and Buffleheads, we saw a few other birds that I still needed for my 2015 Contest Count. This Black-backed Gull got me an extra point for eating!
Black-backed Gull #60 (eating)

Mike checked it very close for us... yep, still frozen! And it will be for a while.

We made the whole hike and hit up Sullivan's for some lunch. There were plenty of birds there begging, mostly Starlings and Gulls. And a few obese Rock Doves.

That was a couple of hours very well spent! Hanging with friends, seeing new birds and eating greasy food with Starlings! It couldn't get much better than that. Unless of course we could have herped as well.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Everglades Days Three and Four. Mar. 1 and 2, 2015

Being brave, we wanted to check out a different part of the Everglades for a change. I, for one, have always wanted to check out Big Cypress, a place about which I always hear wonderful things. Many are the herpers who have sung the praises of Loop Road and the natural beauty of BC. With that in mind, we woke up more or less on time and started our drive... which took a while.

Route 41 goes right into and through Big Cypress National Preserve. That's good and bad. The good thing is, it's easy to find and get to. The bad news is, it's 65 MPH going through and most drivers view that as a starting off speed. I'm not a happy highway driver, even less so when there are animals around but we found our way to the visitors center, interested in the bathrooms and the chance to get our bearings. We encountered our first herps later than usual with a bunch of Brown Anoles bounding around the buildings.
Nice crest there, big guy!

There were loads of American Alligators basking along the shores of the canal as well.

So, we went back to the road and looked for smaller roads to explore. We found our coveted Loop Road easily enough and decided to scout it out for the night's herping. Our friend Mark calls this road the most beautiful place on Earth and it's hard to disagree. Every couple of hundred yards, there is a scenic pull-off, filled with lush cypress swamps, birds, Gators and nature at its finest. Our first stop was a trail the evidently stays flooded for most of the year. This day, however, it was muddy at best. The dryness of the region reared its ugly head once again. We eventually stumbled onto a wet area that was animal-less, but gorgeous none the less.

We headed back to the car and decided to just slowly cruise the road, stopping at all of the open spots to enjoy the view. This way, we found many Gators.

One particularly rewarding stop had us observing some baby gators sitting on Mom's back!
There are a few on the shore as well. From Andrea's vantage point above, even more youngsters were visible.
We counted nine small gators here and even got to hear the chirping distress call.

It was here that I thought of our good friend Teá and got this shot of a Long Tailed Skipper.
Long Tailed Skipper

Birding is also excellent here and I added a few species to my contest and even one for my Life List, this Black Crowned Night Heron, clocking in at #122.
Black-crowned Night Heron #45 Life #122

There were some cute Brown Anoles along this stretch too.

Gators were sometimes in the road and we'd have to wait for them to move off. Usually getting out of the car would do it... the guys here aren't nearly as used to humans as the ones in ENP and skitter away pretty quickly.

Check out this natural beauty...
The anhinga above seems to enjoy living here!

Gators Gators Gators.

We had almost reached the end of the road and decided to keep going back out to Rt. 41 and get some food and gas, to prepare for the night's road-cruising. We passed this along the way...

Also a DOR Scarlet, unfortunately.

We went to the restaurant at the Miccosukee Indian Village, a place where we had enjoyed breakfast on a visit in March of 2008. (Hey, right! We had been through Big Cypress before! Just not much.) We enjoyed traditional Native American food like this Orange Creme Dream Cake!

After eating, we looked around back, where the sea of grass pretty much begins and goes on forever. Back in 2008, we had flipped a skink... in fact, here is a shot from that day...

This day, however, there was no flipping to be seen. A couple of decent sized gators were back there, though.

Some non-white White Ibises were scouring the lawn for treats too.

We headed back into the fast lane and looked for some more cruisable roads in the late afternoon sun. We got a few more birds, but my goal was turtles. What's a guy gotta do to see some turtles, anyway?! This large Redbelly fit the bill!

I finally added Mammal #2 of the year when a group of young Common Raccoons wandered to the road and back, following their mum.
Mammal #2 Common Raccoon
They hid in the safety of a tree cluster.
Mammal #2 Common Raccoon

We had seen a couple of DOR Moccasins on this road so we were really happy to see this very young and feisty individual very much alive!
Andrea has a new favorite snake!
She moved him off the road with a snake-stick... her first sticking ever!
He didn't seem to appreciate the gesture.

Dusk had settled so we went back to Loop Road with high hopes. Our first herp encounter was a slim Southern Leopard Frog!

Southern Toads started popping up all over!

We wanted a snake, dammit! Eventually, we saw this:

Surprisingly, looking at it now, we were confused for a few seconds. The kinked body was pure Rat Snake but we didn't recognize the blotches. But within seconds we both realized... duh... juvenile Yellow Rat! It was pretty obvious after all.
He liked my flavor.
YR nibble

He was a tough one to release. We just adore these guys!

Toads, and then some... they started becoming quite ubiquitous!
(Yellow Rat blossoms on hand...)

This guy made me think we had discovered some new toad and we'd become famous. But the prominent cranial crests prove that it's a fancy Southern Toad.

Our next (and last) snake was a chubby Moccasin who was all dusty.
We named her Springfield.

More Southern Toads!
I love their variety.

We cruised along, nearing the end of the road. There was a lump ahead. Andrea got out to inspect. "It's... umm... a catfish. A live one."
Road cruised Placo
Now there's something you don't cruise every day! It seems we had scared a heron (we had a couple of times along this road) and he dropped his Placo dinner. I took him back to the water and he jetted off like a streak.

Next up. we cruised a snail. Things were slowing down.

Our last herp on the road was a beautiful Green Tree Frog, a new species for the trip!

It was a grueling drive back, particularly on Rt 41 which was stained red with road-kill. Even if we were able to see anything living, the traffic kept you moving along and a pretty fast clip... pulling over would have been suicide. Luckily, the koi pond at our hotel (which we did reach eventually) had a slew of Bufo marinus hopping about, keeping us entertained.
FC Bufos
There was a massive one that I tried to catch but he hopped into a nook under the building, thus handing me my tired ass.

Admittedly, Big Cypress didn't give us the huge number that we get in ENP but we'll definitely explore it further next year. With experience comes greater success.

We slept well and awoke early, knowing our last few hours of herping were upon us. We checked out and enjoyed a "continental breakfast" at the hotel, then headed to the car. Or rather to the rocks on the grounds where we got our morning Southern Ringneck on!

We headed straight to the park, intent on seeing as many places as possible in our short time. On one of our favorite roads which had been pretty good for us this weekend, we scored three juvenile Florida Water Snakes in just a short stretch of road.

It was here that we also got Mammal #3 of the year, a group of White-tailed Deer!
Mammal #3 White-tail Deer
Mammal #3 White-tail Deer

Andrea pointed out a Brown Anole to me.

We went back to Royal Palm, Anhinga Trail to be specific, because we wanted to see some animals before we left and, let's face it, this place is practically a petting zoo. There were many Redbellies grazing at water's edge.

It would also be our last chance for Gators.

A Wood Stork was being atypically un-shy and Andrea got this gorgeous shot.

We also added a few more birds, including this Black Vulture munching on a catfish.
Black Vulture #53 (eating)

A stunning Brown.

The cormorants here are not shy at all. I almost stepped on one's tail.

But we had to get going. Just as we were leaving, this small Gator emerged from the depths to say goodbye.

We stopped at the visitor's center on the way out and I spied these two wee Redbellies basking under the boardwalk.

Last stop, Robert is Here- for just one last milkshake. The turtles in the pool said goodbye to us. (Actually, they always looked expectantly for food... even begging at times.)
Begging isn't beneath this small ferox either!

One last nose-nip...
and we were off.

We did, however, have to hit the rest stop on the turnpike, so I was calling out "Last call for Brown Anoles!" This guy peeking out from safety was our last herp of the trip.

We made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. We waited on American Airline's shitty service until boarding time. We thanked the kind folks who let us ahead of them in line, in the TSA line too, and ran (Andrea in her socks) to our gate and just made the plane. Fuck you, American Airlines. You suck.

But we made it home, for better or worse, to our 5 feet of snow and subfreezing temps; also a warm house full of cats and herps that we had missed. We racked up some great memories and wound up with 25 species of herps and 30 birds. This will have to hold us over until Big Night which, judging by the depth of the snow, might be a bit late this year. Thank you, Southern Florida, for existing.