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Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Merry Un-bird-day

That awkward moment between the end of winter and the beginning of spring is pretty painful for me. The birding has slowed to a standstill, and the mass of White-throated Sparrows can’t slake my thirst anymore – yet there’s the promise of neotropic migrants any day now. So, to ease my pain, I decided to try something new – no longer will I look to the sky for my daily biota fix. Instead, I’ll turn to the ground.

The first herper I saw in action was a guy leading the reptile portion of a nature walk to the heron rookery at Glennstone. I was leading the bird portion, and even though I’d been to the spot many times before, I never found more than cricket frogs hopping into the small vernal pools. Yet here this herper was, finding and catching snakes that would have been totally invisible to me. Chief among them was a large female Red-bellied Water Snake, a nasty creature who repeatedly struck the herper on the arm and hand, leaving bloody wounds that wouldn’t clot thanks to some specialized anticoagulant saliva. This guy is crazy, I thought to myself. No way I’d ever take up such a dangerous activity. Smash-cut to this past Tuesday.
While I still can’t see myself handling some of the larger snakes, I decided to give this “herping” thing the ol’ college try. As the days began to grow warmer and cloudier, James and I headed off to nearby Mason Farm to see what we could turn up. Start small, I told myself, and while Painted Turtles and Upland Chorus Frogs are nice, they’re not nearly enough to get me jazzed about non-avians. We started flipping logs in the forest, finding a ton of earthworms and bess beetles, but nothing truly awesome. But it only took one log.

This log, to be exact.

As I removed the dead wood from the damp forest floor, I could see a small creature contract itself into a distinctive S-shape – we’d found a beautiful Marbled Salamander, something I’d dreamed about seeing as a kid but never managed to follow up on. Yet, here it was, practically in my own back yard, and not particularly difficult to find. In fact, after flipping quite a few decent-looking logs near the trail, we ended up with seven individuals, including a couple big fat ones (females, flush with eggs?) that took up the majority of my hand.

If I call the females "Sally Manders", then would the males be "Gerry Manders"?

Finding the salamanders super-cool, James and I couldn’t help but continue to turn up logs, hoping to find some new creature totally unbeknownst to us. Pretty soon we’d left the forest and its nice stockpile of logs, so as we reached one of the fields we decided a random 2 x 4 would have to meet our flipping needs. Good thing too, because coiled under the board was a beautiful little Rough Green Snake, who really couldn’t have been more chill. The snake let us photograph it at point blank range and hardly moved when we picked it up. Maybe this herping thing wasn’t going to be so hard after all.

Maybe it'll just be awesome instead! True story.

After getting the hang of it, I decided to take some friends to test my herping skills. Mostly just because I boasted I could show them all Marbled Salamanders, which I did – an even 15 in the morning, plus two Brown Snakes and a Carolina Anole. But my favorite herp of the day came when I turned over a burnt piece of bark to reveal a small black frog trying to hop away. It’s almost too bad it was a juvenile, because the tiny amphibian turned out to be a young Eastern Narrowmouth Toad, my first ever. Now I just need to find a big orange-and-brown adult!

Man, this iPhone thing takes some really decent pictures!

In the afternoon, Mark and I went to find more Marbleds, and ended up with ten more individuals in a completely different section of the forest. As I continued flipping, I came upon a wholly different salamander. Where the Marbleds will stand still and hope you don’t notice you, this guy tried to make a dash for the leaf litter. I grabbed him, but he wriggled out of my fingers, and I had to grab him again, this time taking a handful of leaves and pine straw with him. Mark and I had to text Ali and figure out what kind of salamander we had, because for all my research, I somehow failed to miss this one.

A certain Peter Venkman quote comes to mind after an encounter with this guy. Photo credit Mark K.

Turns out, I’d found a White-spotted Slimy Salamander, a decently common one in these parts. He’s got an interesting defense mechanism, which I witnessed first-hand – he’ll excrete a whole bunch of slime (hey, that’s the name of the salamander!) and thrash about until he slips out of a predator’s grasp. Lucky for me, the handful of leaves I picked up with him shielded me from even more sliming. Ali texted me later to let me know that I’d be washing my hands for days after this encounter, and it seems I will be – even after a full half-hour of scrubbing, I’ve still got spots of dirt that got caked on after the slime dried. Wish I’d known about this whole ordeal ahead of time – sounds like a job for Captain Hindsight!

Thus ends my first week of real herping. Three lifers, two snakes I hardly ever get to see, and an increased appreciation for nature. Which is really what this hobby is about, I think – at the very least, I’ll keep it going until migration picks up around here. Then, it’s back to the sky, and back to the birds! 


  1. Seriously. You have to take me herping some time.

  2. You probably have better herping in GA than I do here in NC! lol Just gotta know where to look ;)