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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Herping the Day Away

Early this week, I looked at the seven-day weather forecast and saw nothing but dark gray clouds with little lightning bolts shooting out of them. Not good for birding, much less photography, but nowadays I can always get my nature fix by doing a little herping. On a rumor that you can find Queen Snakes and Red Salamanders, Mark and I headed down to the concrete bridge at Duke Forest Gate 23.

Not a tenth of a mile into the trail, we found our first herp – a large Fowler’s Toad hopping next to the path. As we got low to photograph him, a fly came by and landed on his head. The toad didn’t seem to mind (or really even notice), and I half expected to see him flip up a long tongue and eat the thing right off his face. Of course, nature doesn’t really mirror Saturday morning cartoons, and he just sat there looking irritated like toads do. Perhaps a beetle or worm would make an easier meal.

Somehow I get the idea that this does not please him...

Herping in Duke Forest proved what I’ve found to be true time and time again – peeling off bark is a great way to find herps! This time, a rotten log accidentally came apart in my hand, and from under the bark slithered out a relatively large Worm Snake. Now, I say relatively large because he was only like a foot long, but he was a giant among Worms. He was very wriggly and tried to bury himself into my hand, using a combination of his spade-shaped head and a small spike at the end of his tail. Eventually we got him to settle down and so we could take this shot on his level.

Oddly enough, the most difficult to photograph snake I've ever encountered!

As we reached the concrete bridge, we found that last night's rains had raised the water level far higher than I expected. Water coursed several inches over concrete, and as our way was blocked, we decided to take a small dirt trail that ran parallel to the river. We couldn’t find any of the promised Queen Snakes and flipping logs failed to reveal salamanders, but while checking out a wood pile on the riverbank, I heard rustling near my foot. I looked down to see I’d almost stepped on a big thick Northern Water Snake! Knowing their propensity for biting, I quickly moved out of the way and tried to use a stick to move it out into the open. No luck, but I did find this much smaller one that nevertheless bit me three times and then musked for good measure.

At least he wasn't big enough to break the skin and inject some nasty serotonin.

On the way back home, we kept hearing peepers and chorus frogs calling from deep in the woods. At one point, as we passed a government building, the frogs were almost deafening. I remembered there was a small pond behind the building, and we pulled over to see what we could find. Sure enough, Spring Peepers were everywhere, and loud! Mark and I had to yell at each other just to hear ourselves! Apparently the males are in full breeding mode, because they would just sit there calling as you got down low to photograph them. Not that I’m complaining or anything. Just it was really cool!

Often heard but seldom seen - until you can find a pond with hundreds of them calling!

The next day I had a couple hours to kill, so ­I headed for Mason Farm to see if the herps were out. My juvenile Black Ratsnake was back under his bark (and yet again he bit me), but I wasn’t finding as much under the logs as I usually do. Peeking under tree bark again, I found this adult Five-lined Skink, and learning my lesson from last time, I attempted to catch it. After one hell of a chase (lizards are fast!) I finally nabbed it, and stopped it from wriggling just long enough to get this shot.

It sounds odd, but I found this large adult rather... squishy...

As I walked through the woods, I heard some rustling in the undergrowth, and yesterday rustling meant there was certainly a Ground Skink around. But when I found the source, I was surprised to find this White-spotted Slimy Salamander, my first free-walking amphibian. Eventually it decided to stop running and hid under some leaves, so I slowly peeled them back until he was totally exposed in the late afternoon sun.

True to its name, it was extremely spotty... and extremely slimy!

Man, the herping’s been pretty good recently – so good in fact that I almost forgot this is supposed to be a birding blog! Spring is definitely here, and the woodlands are full of Northern Parulas singing their heads off, with Common Yellowthroats wichity-wichitying through the fields.

Oh man. I almost forgot how awesome birding was!

In just a couple weeks, migration will be in full swing, and pretty soon all those crazy neotropic migrants are going to be gracing our state. Once the Black-throated Blues and Hoodeds start belting out from the forest, I’ll probably forget the yellowthroats even exist. But until then, this tiny warbler is way more colorful than anything I’ve seen all winter – and damn, it looks awesome!

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