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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Migration Heats Up! (And I Have Little To Show For It)

For most birders, it’s their favorite time of year. During spring migration, male warblers are singing from the trees in their most audacious plumages, and other hard-to-find species make their annual acquaintance with North Carolina. For me, on the other hand, it’s all about gray mornings trying to locate the source of a song through trees newly thick with foliage. What a love-hate relationship.

I’ve seen plenty of great migrants, but I feel like I should be seeing more. American Redstarts have started singing, and I’ve had awesome looks at things like Scarlet Tanager. But none of these have graced my camera lens. And so, I turn again to the herps. Flipping a log next to a rushing stream, I found something that looked like a skink at first glance. Then I noticed that, while it retracted, it didn’t turn and run.

Oh, and he didn't try and bite me either. +1 for salamanders!

Not a skink at all, but a gorgeous Three-lined Salamander! I had trouble trying to photograph this guy – every time I placed him on a nearby log, he’d tumble off before I had a chance to reach my chosen photo site. Eventually I got something usable, but he’s got forest crud on his face. Ah well, such is life. The trek next to the creek was strenuous (I had to climb over several rock faces), but it became worth it when I found this large Black Rat Snake. He was about 4 feet long, and raised up with his mouth open when I caught him, but it was just a show – he soon calmed down and wrapped himself around my outstretched arm. Largest snake I ever caught!

Getting all contrict-y on my arm... lucky thing I'm too big to be prey!

A couple days later I traveled to Mason Farm with Mark and Ken to see what migrants we could turn up. Far from the promised birds, the best we could find were a couple Northern Waterthrushes and a singing Hooded Warbler. Oh well, at least the Indigo Buntings and Yellow-breasted Chats are back on territory. Just none of them would come close enough for a good picture!

Doesn't matter. Indigo Buntings are back! It's going to be a thing.

Along the canal, Ken noticed a snake basking on a sunny mud bank. But it wasn’t just any snake – it turned out to be an awesome looking Redbelly Water Snake, and only the second I’ve ever seen that didn’t immediately slither into the water. After getting some sweet shots, Ken decided to do his best Jeff Corwin impression and try to catch the thing by flanking it. Unfortunately it spotted him and slithered off, and it’s too bad Ali Iyoob wasn’t there. He really wants to catch one, and I’ve no doubt he would have dived into the canal and nabbed it!

Mason Farm is pretty much the western terminus of their range in the Piedmont. Lucky us!

Further down the canal, we found a couple turtles chilling on the nearly-submerged logs. One of the turtles didn't dive down as soon as he saw us, and it's a good thing too. He was a sweet-looking Painted Turtle, and it's easy to see why in the late afternoon light. The intricate yellows and reds that encircle this turtle positively glowed in the low sun, looking more like a work of art than an animal. Turtles don't get much better than this!

"I have no opinion on turtles. They're condescending." - Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation 

While flipping logs, we found this nice male Five-lined Skink, perhaps the largest I’ve ever seen at 7 or 8 inches long. He was pretty bold and I managed to catch him as he sat out in the open. As they like to do, the skink immediately turned around and bit down hard on my thumb with a force much more painful than a snake bite. He actually managed to escape and climb down my back, and only regained his freedom when he bit Mark, who flipped out and flung him into the woods. Last I saw, the smug bastard was chilling back on his log, probably laughing at us humans.

Haha, you humans think you can pick me up? I will simply bite you into submission!

The next couple days were good for migrants, but unfortunately cloudy. I got great looks at Summer Tanagers and Yellow-throated Vireos, but photography useless in the poor light. Luckily, Sunday proved to be a beautiful day, and I had several first-of-year birds, including a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The cuckoo was very secretive, so I had to make do with a displaying male Red-winged Blackbird that flashed his distinctive epaulettes at anyone who’d pay attention.

He's sexy and he knows it.

Pretty soon, James will be coming back from school and we’ll be tearing up the migrants big time. Can’t wait – summer’s almost here!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Birds are Back in Town!

After my herping success at Sandling Beach the other week, I decided to show Mark the site and see if we could whip up any cool snakes. However, we decided to take a small detour to Brickhouse Road and see if we could kick up any of the bitterns that had been reported there. Nothing doing, and aside from some odd Pied-billed Grebe mating vocalizations, nothing out of the ordinary. We were, however, pleasantly entertained by this White-eyed Vireo belting away his extraordinary song.

Belting out his favorite song, it won't be long; won't be long 'til summer comes!

Ever since I first started birding, the White-eyed Vireo’s song has captivated me. It’s a perfect example of the feats Passerines can achieve with their twin vocal cords, and far from the melody of a Wood Thrush or Hooded Warbler, it’s a random jumble of phrases that sounds like some kid messing around with a digital sound mixer. Normally these guys sing from a dense bush, but this individual was kind enough to venture out into the open shadows.

Guess who just got back that day? Them white-eyed birds that'd been away.

Once we arrived at Sandling Beach, I made sure to scan Falls Lake for any sign of the Horned Grebe or Common Loon I’d seen the previous day. Unfortunately, a strong wind blew across the water, leading to choppy conditions particularly awful for scoping. All I could muster were fifty Ring-billed Gulls violently bobbing up and down in the turbulent water.

At the cover boards, we found our fair share of snakes – almost a dozen Ringnecks, plus a beautiful little Mole Kingsnake, whose markings shone bright orange in the mid-day sun. Nearby, I noticed a pair of birds frequenting some manmade nesting sites hanging from a scaffold. They were Tree Swallows, a species that breeds sparingly in our region. Perhaps that’s what these ones were doing, singing a bubbling call to each other as they decided whether or not to stay and nest.

And that time over at the herping place? These swallows got up and flew all in my face!

Upon arriving at a second herping site, Mark and I heard the distinctive rising call of an Ovenbird singing in the woods. Usually these guys are pretty secretive, but the site had good edge habitat and we decided to see if we could coax him out into the sun. Despite our best efforts, he seemed determined to stay inside his arboreal sanctuary, and the best I could muster were fleeting glimpses and dim photographs.

Man we just fell up out the place - if that Ovenbird don't wanna show, forget 'im!

Still, our breeding birds have come back in force over the last couple of weeks, and I don’t think I’ll have many left to look forward to as migration continues its course. The migrants are starting to stream in though, and pretty soon our woods will be filled with Scarlet Tanagers singing from treetops and Black-throated Blues buzzing from bushes. It’s probably my favorite time of year!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the new gadget in our sidebar – now you can check out the Birding Bros. photo galleries, and see every animal we’ve ever found on our journeys. They’ll be constantly updated, so keep checking back for new photos!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Technical Difficulties...

Man, it's been a while since I've had a new post. Unfortunately, my computer's been out of commission the last week or so, and I haven't had access to the internet, email, or even my recent pictures! Rest assured, I've been out and about, and hopefully in the next day or so I'll have a new post detailing everything. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Of Newcomers and Stragglers

I’ve got to admit, birds weren’t my primary focus last Friday. Rather, I was going to check out the cover boards at Sandling Beach on Falls Lake, but I couldn’t help stopping by my old birding haunt on the way. Over the causeway at Cheek Road, I watched my first-of-the year Cliff Swallows careen around the bridge, and I scoped out a couple pairs of nesting Ospreys. I even caught a glimpse of an odd gull with a black head, and I got excited until common sense took over. The white leading edge to its wings meant this was a Bonaparte’s Gull, and while I’ve seen countless thousands of these guys, this is the first I’ve seen in breeding plumage – almost as good as a lifer!

But, I had herps on the mind, so I kept on my way. As I stepped towards that first cover board, I distinctly noticed all the birds singing around me – a White-eyed Vireo in the bushes, Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers in the trees overhead, even long-forgotten friends like Summer Tanager and Great-crested Flycatcher. Of course, none of these graced my camera lens like herps are so willing to do, so I shifted my focus. Under the very first board I flipped, I found this fat ol’ Eastern Narrowmouth Toad trying to do his best field cricket impression. No dice, toad! Consider yourself photographed!

My first adult too! It's a frog that I've always wanted to see.

Now, I had a singular goal in mind that day. Ali told me that Ringneck Snakes were can’t-miss under the boards at Sandling, but I knew better than to get my hopes up. I shouldn’t have been so worried though – a couple boards later, and I had my first Ringneck, a little one missing the tip of its tail. A few more boards, a few more snakes, including three Ringnecks under the same one! Posing snakes by yourself is apparently difficult, and these guys kept slithering away before I could snap my shutter. But all it took was that one shot, and I got it with this large individual that finally sat still for a half-second.

And by 'large individual' I meat about a foot. But man, that musk packs a wallop!

Thankfully, Ringnecks weren’t the only snakes I found. Under one of the boards, I found a nice big Black Racer that was content to chill until I tried to grab him, at which point he slithered away faster than I’ve ever seen a racer slither. Nearby, I noticed something that looked like an odd root tucked under one of the boards. Halfway buried, I pried it out to reveal this nice Rough Earth Snake, an extremely common serpent that I really should have seen by now. Luckily he was an extremely easy snake to pose, and sat still while I took shot after shot.

Not the prettiest of snakes, but one every herper needs to see.

After I’d overturned every possible board, I decided to check out the lake itself, just to see if anything was out there. Sure enough, I heard an odd screech and watched as two Caspian Terns flashed by. I got back in my car and drove in the direction they were flying, and upon reaching the swim beach I saw one of the terns sitting atop the yellow swimming barrier. Out in the water, I saw dozens of Ring-billed Gulls, and a couple basic plumage Bonaparte’s, but one dark spot made me look again.

This dark spot to be exact. Not the best shot in the world, but it gets the point across.

It was a Horned Grebe, and a far cry from most of the drab birds I see in winter, this guy was nearing alternate plumage, and his distinctive tufts of feathers had already grown in! Encouraged by my find, I scanned the lake to see an odd bird swimming and diving near some comorants – bulky, with a short neck and long beak, but I couldn’t quite place it at first. What waterbird has a dark head with a white underside? That’s when I realized I was looking at a breeding-plumaged Common Loon, something I’ve never seen inland!

Maybe our mild winter means that some of our feathery friends haven’t realized it’s spring yet, but all the better for me. It’s the first time I’ve seen some of these species in the plumage they’re always illustrated in my field guides. That day was the first good day of birding I’ve had in a while, and a welcome respite. Because man, birds are awesome. And I guess herps are cool too.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Study in Scarlet

Herping the Sandhills Gamelands is a totally unique experience, and not just thanks to the range-restricted fauna you can find there. Because the military uses the area for active-duty training, the floor of the pine forest is littered with what looks like the remnants of a long-forgotten war.

Strewn beneath the pine straw are MREs, bullet casings for sniper-grade rifles, and discarded det cord. Dodging rusty coils of barbed wire and camouflaged foxholes, we also found an ammo clip, a pair of army-issue boxer shorts, and what was possibly a deactivated land mine. It’s hard to believe snakes thrive in this environment, but given the right set of circumstances, you can unveil a real beauty. That’s when Mark flipped over a log, causing some of the bark to rip off in the process, only to find perhaps the most beautiful snake in the world resting underneath.

I dare you, I double-dare you, to find a more beautiful snake in North Carolina!

We’d found a Scarlet Kingsnake, a tiny little one, not more than eight inches long. It was feisty for such a small creature, constantly trying to wriggle out of our grasp and even raising up to strike once or twice. Apparently this species gets confused with the venomous Coral Snake, and after seeing it in person it’s hard to see why – the pale bands are a stark white, a far cry from the yellow on a Coral, plus the head is nice and red. Like the old adage goes, red on black, friend of Jack. Not that I need a rhyming pneumonic to identify my snakes.

Red on black, kills Jack; red on yellow, probably a different snake. Wait, that's not right...

After our elation at finding an elusive Scarlet Kingsnake, the rest of the trip was pretty much a giant bonus. We walked through some more pine forest, which is basically the only thing to do in the Sandhills. Unfortunately, we weren’t finding much – a Southeastern Five-lined Skink here, an Eastern Fence Lizard there. Mark and I were talking about the possibility of finding Coachwhips when he stopped mid-sentence and yelled out: “Snake!”, for he’d almost stepped on one!

If you look closely, you can see the reflection of the three of us in its eyes, which is kinda awesome!

Lying at his feet was a good-sized Eastern Hognose, but not like the black ones I’ve seen around the Triangle. This guy was beautifully patterned, with blotches of brown and black intertwining with ochres and tans. He looked like a two-foot long cob of Indian corn! As often happens with snakes, we tried to hold it a bit, but the Eastern Hognose wasn’t having any of it – as soon as I lifted him up, I saw his cloaca evert and dropped him just before he squirted a fowl-smelling musk on me. Immediately, the snake turned over, mouth ajar and tongue hanging out – the perfect amalgam of a dead animal. Luckily, this is just a defense mechanism, but it was super cool to see!

We flipped him over and he flopped right on his back again. You're not fooling anybody snake!
Photo thanks to Ali Iyoob.

On the way back, Ali did that thing he does where he randomly jumps down a hillside when he sees a herp. This time, he stuck his hand into a random creek and pulled out this exquisitely patterned Common Musk Turtle. A couple weeks ago, we found another Musk Turtle, but because it was a big adult its stripes were faded and it refused to musk. This young one had bright white lines around the eye and smelled awful – truly living up to its colloquial name of ‘Stinkpot’!

At least he didn't bite me like that stupid Mud Turtle. Stupid, stupid Mud Turtle...

Our next stop would be the terribly-named 17 Frog Pond. In the best of times, it’s a bad name because there are actually 21 species of frog living in the shallow pool. In the worst of times, as today, there aren’t any frogs to be had, as the pond dried up over our mild winter. Hopefully it’ll fill up with some strong summer rains and the frogs will return, but for now I’ll have to live with this small Corn Snake Ali found under some loose bark – honestly, more than one hell of a consolation prize!

At least he sat still long enough for one photo... that's all I really care about!

Maybe it had been a cold morning, and the snake was sluggish for a bit, but after being held in our warm hands the Corn Snake was incredibly active, darting into the leaf litter the moment we let go. Of all the snakes we found in the Sandhills that weekend, he was by far the most difficult to photograph. The same can’t be said for this stately Southern Toad we found under some nearby cover – he just sat like a statue while we shot him!

You can tell it's a Southern Toad because of the giant post-cranial ridges...
otherwise I find toad ID next to impossible!

After all the rare and beautiful herps we found that weekend, it would be a shame to leave without finding one of its more common denizens. We heard them everywhere, like insects in the reeds – Southern Cricket Frogs, probably the most abundant herp in the area. We found a ton, but every time something was wrong – either we’d find an abnormally dull individual, or it would hop away just as I snapped my shutter. Finally, we found a small pond full of them, and I could do nothing but take my time.

Not so bad! Even the baking evening sun can't stop the Southern Cricket Frog!

It’s honestly hard for me to believe that traveling just an hour south of where I live can have such a dramatic change of the biota I find. I’m lucky to have such a unique habitat as the Carolina Sandhills in my fair state, and I think I’m going to take full advantage of it every chance I get. There’s no telling the weird and wonderful wildlife you’ll find when you’ve got pitcher plants blooming in your backyard.

These pitcher plants, as a matter of fact!

Yeah, that totally happens down there. The Sandhills are awesome.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Most Dangerous Creature That Ever Bit Me

Now that I’ve been herping a while, I’ve inevitably been bitten by the animals I’ve found myself trying to catch. At first it was a Black Rat Snake, then a Northern Water Snake, and I’ve even been close to being tagged by a Black Racer. But nothing comes close to the pain and severity of the bite I received that day, which to this point, is the most dangerous creature that ever bit me.

The afternoon started off well enough. We’d barely even entered the fish hatchery when Ali darted to the side of one of the ponds, darted his hand in, and came out with this nice Banded Water Snake. According to both Daniel and Ali, it’s a pretty darn dull one, looking more brown than banded, but it’s still a cool snake. As soon as I handled it, it tagged me, briefly piercing me with needle-sharp teeth. It may have stung at the time, but it was nothing compared to the bite I’d soon receive.

Honestly, the musk is the worst part of handling Nerodia sp. The bites, not so bad!

Taking a small break from the herps, I decided to turn my attention to the multitude of swallows that jinked and juked over the man-made ponds. Among them was my first-of-the-year Tree Swallow, along with a couple Barn Swallows and Northern Rough-Winged Swallows that made some pretty close passes. I found one of the Northern Rough-wingeds perched atop a chain-linked fence, and remembering that this is supposed to be a birding blog, I decided to snap a shot. Too bad he wouldn’t let me get closer, but swallows never do!

These guys never give me a good look. This is honestly the closest I've ever gotten.

As we surveyed the edge of the ponds for frogs and turtles, Ali announced he’d found another snake chilling in a low-hanging blackberry bush near the creek. It wasn’t just any snake, though – it was the rarely seen Ribbon Snake, a serpent that looks much like the common Eastern Garter Snake save for the fact that it’s often seen near rivers. It’s also incredibly docile – never did the snake attempt to strike at me, and it posed perfectly the first time around! We ended up hanging out with the snake far past the afternoon, and she (at least, she seemed like a “she”) became our unofficial mascot for the trip. We still miss you, Ribbon Snake!

I kind of fell in love with this snake! So chill, so cool, and so way awesome!

As if the day couldn’t get any better, just as we finished photographing the Ribbon, Ali told me he found the snake of snakes down by the creek, the very target we came to the fishery to find. For safety, he carried the snake back in an old pillowcase, and dumped it on the nearby lawn. Tumbling out came a decent sized Cottonmouth, an extremely venomous pit viper. I had to get down low to get my shot, and boy did it pay off!

Don't bite me don't bite me don't bite me don't bite me!

That’s when the snake’s behavior changed. Ignoring Ali and his trusty tongs, the poisonous serpend turned towards me, and started slithering in my direction. I decided to stay still, under the rationale that if I got up and moved out of the way, the sudden movement would attract the snake’s attention and cause it to strike. So I remained statuesque, hardly moving a muscle. Did it work? Did the snake bite me? Did I escape the promise of an early death? Scroll down to the next paragraph for the exciting conclusion!

Don't move. He can't see us if we don't move!

No, actually, pretty much the opposite of all that. The Cottonmouth was almost disappointingly calm, and we couldn’t get it to flash its trademark white mouth at all. Still, it’s an awesome snake to have such an up-close experience with. And by up-close I mean I got to touch it, because Ali in his infinite wisdom decided to pick up the thing, at which point I finally saw its cottony-mouth as it reared its fangs. Luckily, Ali was holding it behind the head like the competent herper he is, and no damage was done to either party.

One day, I'll reach this level of herper. But it is not this day!

After finding our target, we decided to check the nearby pond for other herps. It didn’t take Ali long to dart his arm into a pond and pull out a wholly unique reptile. He gave it to me to hold, and I wish he hadn’t. Sure it seemed fine at first, and the thing hardly struggled. But while we were examining the source of an odd frog call, I felt an excruciating pain on my thumb – while I wasn’t paying attention, it had reared back and struck with deadly accuracy. I tried to pull it off, but it just bit down harder. I couldn’t help but yell out in pain, besmirching the accursed turtle! Oh yeah, it was a turtle by the way.

This turtle, as a matter of fact. This bloody infernal demon-spawn of a turtle.

An Eastern Mud Turtle to be exact, and a species I’d only seen once before. It’s only the second turtle I’ve been bitten by (the first when I was a child), and I was relieved to find it didn’t draw blood. But a deep purple bruise remained where it chomped down on my thumb with a force that can crush, I dunno, really tough plants? I guess that’s what turtles eat.

In any case, over the course of the weekend I was mere feet from extremely venomous snakes like slovenly Pigmy Rattlers and tame Cottonmouths, and even a feisty water snake or two. But the only animal that attempted to do any damage was that one stinkin’ no-good excuse for a turtle. Not that I’m complaining, he was pretty awesome. I just wish he wouldn’t be so bite-y next time.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

One Day in the Sandhills

I can’t tell you how excited I was that morning. I rarely get to visit the unique Sandhills of North Carolina, and I’ve never herped there. Sure I’ve birded, and gotten things like Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, and that one time a Cassin’s Sparrow, but I wasn’t expecting any of those species. Sure, they’d be nice, but I came here for the herps.

Our first stop was a small pond inside an RV community. Normally it wouldn’t be anything special, but the pond housed a small population of Eastern Newts, and they proved to be of a unique subspecies. Most places you can find “Red-spotted” Newts, but down in Florida they’re entirely lineated. In the Sandhills you get something in between, which means the newts I photographed that cold morning were Broken-striped Newts, a lifer for me, though to be fair any newt would be a lifer.

Surprisingly active for an amphibian on a 40-degree morning!

At the newt spot, we met up with a young herper by the name of Daniel, who’d been in the area all week. Thankfully, he knew a couple spots, and right away we were off for a snake that’d been seen in the same spot for an entire week. Braving the thick sand, we walked down a path that led us to a random grove of trees. Flipping the only board in the area, I saw a small serpent retract into a tight coil. He was beautiful – copper coloration upon a slate body, small but with a presence. He was a Pigmy Rattlesnake, and probably the coolest reptile I’ve ever seen.

He even buzzed his rattle at us once, but it sounded more like an insect than a rattlesnake.

Keeping to our schedule, Mark, Ali and I headed to a random creek. As I enjoyed my first-of-year Yellow-throated Vireos and Prothonotary Warblers, Ali dipped for a very special salamander, and before long he’d caught them. They were Dwarf Waterdogs, a small salamander related to the mudpuppy, and utterly impossible to photograph outside of water. To compensate, we placed them in a small plastic container and shot from above. It’s not the most natural shot in the world, but it shows every part of the Dwarf Waterdog – from the paddle-shaped tail to the feather-like gills, it’s one awesome salamander!

I feel like I'm on a mission to photograph every Necturus salamander in NC now!

Still, we had a schedule to keep, and dilly-dallying at the Dwarf Waterdog spot was not an option. We proceeded on to a residential location that was supposed to house tins full of snakes and lizards, but on arrival we found nothing. A nearby patch of burnt forest produced a single adult male Southeastern Five-lined Skink, easily identifiable by its red head and perfectly shaped genitalia. Flipping more tins, we found this nice Copperhead, a little more colorful than the ones I’m used to. Apparently, the Sandhills are in range for the Southern Copperhead, a subspecies where the color bands contrast far more than usual.

Prettier, maybe - but not nearly as confiding as the ones I get around here.

While the Copperhead was pretty, I couldn’t help but notice that we’d only really found two species of snake. Sure it was only halfway through the first day, but it was the Sandhills dammit! I’d been promised cottonmouths, kingsnakes, and coachwhips, and by the end of the weekend, I’d manage two out of three. Not bad odds for awesome snakes!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Holy Mole-y!

Spring migration is tantalizingly close now. As Ali and I walked into Mason Farm, we could hear the rambling of a Red-eyed Vireo up in the trees and the ripcord of a Northern Parula down by the canal. My first White-eyed Vireos of the year babbled up a storm from some willows, and yet I still found myself missing the Indigo Buntings and Scarlet Tanagers that should show up in just a couple weeks’ time. We kept the birds on our mind, but it wasn’t our primary focus that morning. Instead, once again, we were herping.

The so-called "Blue-tailed Skink" is the first herp I ever learned as a kid.

Didn’t take long before we found a couple Five-lined Skinks, including this nice immature with an electric-blue tail. It had rained a couple nights before, and the forested areas were pretty wet, which meant that Marbled Salamanders were out in force. Every other log seemed to have a fat silver-and-black salamander hiding under it, until the whole thing became routine. Log, flip, salamander. Log, flip, salamander. Log, flip, salamander – wait, what the? Along Siler’s Bog, we flipped a log and found the expected salamander, along with a big gray blob that I honestly didn’t comprehend at first. Without thought, Ali reached down and grabbed the furry mass, just as it dawned on me what we were seeing – an enigmatic Eastern Mole!

Man, for a blind animal he could sure run away from us pretty well!

Unlike herps, which are quite easy to photograph under the right conditions, the hot-blooded mole kept trying to scurry away. We even set it in the middle of the hard gravel path, and true to its nature it attempted to dig, leaving a deep furrow in the rocks. In any case, all good things must come to an end, and we had to let the mole go. We decided to have one last bit of fun and watch the mole do his moley thing. Letting it off close to some soft mud, the mole upended and burrowed, disappearing in less than a second. Between its lack of eyesight and large paddle-shaped feet, moles are perfectly evolved for life underground.

It makes for an awesome shot, but holding moles is NOT RECOMMENDED. They bite!

After our euphoria at catching a mole, and the dismay at cleaning mole turds out of my camera bag (how else was I supposed to transport it to the trail?), Ali turned his attention to finding water snakes and I turned my attention to the birds. Several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers sang from the nearby shrubbery, a garble that sounded like a tin whistle dueting with a kazoo. The Northern Parulas started getting interested in the noises, and this nice male popped up to see what was going on.

The most confiding of warblers and STILL all you can see is the blasted underside!

While having Parulas foraging in the shadows just three feet away is kind of awesome, they couldn’t keep my attention occupied for long. I heard rustling in the grass, and expecting a small snake or perhaps a quick little Ground Skink, I was pleasantly surprised to find this bright green Carolina Anole. I quickly caught him, and was astounded to see him change colors before my eyes – where he had once been completely green, his auriculars became dark in my hand. He’d even grown his trademark red dewlap, and while he wouldn’t show it to me, I was still able to stretch out the loose skin for some facsimile of a mating display.

Like they say, the anole is always greener on the other side!

Along the canal, I noticed a large Yellow-bellied Slider lounging on an exposed log. Usually these guys dive in at the first sight of a human, so it was cool that he stuck around for a little photography. We found another one just as we were driving out of the preserve, a big female intent on laying eggs somewhere on land. Thankfully, Ali jumped out of the car and moved her back into the water, so she wouldn’t become roadkill.

Who'd have thought turtles to be the most difficult to photograph of all herps?

When you see turtles on land, it’s a sure sign that spring is here. Their clutch survival rate has a lot to do with temperature, and a late frost could be detrimental to the offspring. But it seems the turtles are confident the warm and sunny days are going to be sticking around, and I’m pretty confident too. If only I could find somewhere in North Carolina, akin to but not necessarily the Sandhills, to enjoy these spring-loving herps… 

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Biggest "Bird" EVER (Was Pretty Much T. rex!)

Remember watching the movie Jurassic Park for the first time, and there’s that scene where the big scaly Tyrannosaurs rex busts through the fence and walks between the stalled Jeeps, growling and snarling and eating goats? It’s scary, intense, and pretty darn realistic – after all several top palaeontologists served as scientific advisors to the film, like Jack Horner, whose current theories are still well respected in the scientific community (/sarcasm). Yeah, turns out that, like most everything Hollywood puts out, Jurassic Park is just a movie, and real life is nothing like it.

To be fair, Jurassic Park was an awesome movie... mostly because of Sam Neill. Sam f'in Neill.

I’ve talked before about the Liaoning shale gardens in northern China, where scientists have been finding exquisite fossils of dinosaurs and birds with their feathers preserved in mind-blowing detail. Until now, these fossils have been of smaller animals, perhaps crow or raven-sized at the largest, but dinosaurs living there ran the size gamut, and some were much larger than their tiny maniraptoran relatives. Much, much larger.

The tiny maniraptoran Mei long, looking just as much bird as dinosaur.
By Ferahgo-the-Assassin via deviantart.

Enter Yutyrannus, a 30-ft-long tyrannosauroid dinosaur that looked decently enough like the Tyrannosaurus we all know and love – top-heavy, with a powerful head filled with sharp teeth, strong muscular legs, and tiny little arms. In all, three Yutyrannus fossils were discovered, and at least one was preserved very similar conditions to recently famous feathered dinosaurs like Microraptor and Anchiornis. All along its body, in long down-like plumes, the Chinese scientists found something never before seen on such an enormous dinosaur – feathers.

Fuzzy tyrannosaurs have been scientifically proven. Your argument is invalid.
By Gorgosardia via deviantart.

Ever since the primitive Dilong, we’ve known that tyrannosaur-like dinosaurs could possess feathers. However, there’s a biological theory that as an animal grows larger, it requires less integument to regulate its internal body heat, much like elephants are pretty much hairless today. So, everybody just kind of assumed that even though the tiny Dilong had feathers, Tyrannosaurus rex was huge and probably just scaly. Now we know that Dilong wasn’t a fluke in the tyrannosaur lineage, and it’s likely all tyrannosaurs were feathered to some extent.

You're gonna have to zoom in to see them, but Yutyrannus's filaments don't lie!
Photo via Sci Tech Update.

Yutyrannus, however, took “some extent” to its full extent. Its feathers were pretty primitive, and lacked the vanes and intricate barbs of bird feathers, so in life the it would have looked pretty furry. Much like northern China is pretty cold today, it may have been even colder in the Cretaceous, meaning Yutyrannus’ feathers were probably used to regulate its body temperature. This has implications for dinosaur fossils found in extreme latitudes like Antarctica and even Australia. Back in the day, the two continents were found quite close to the South Pole, and dinosaurs like Cryolophosaurus probably had similar integument to brave these frigid climes.

Once this reconstruction of Cryolophosaurus was merely speculation - but now it's looking more and more likely!
Photo by Kyoht via deviantart.

There’s another implication, of course. Dinosaurs like Dilong and Yutyrannus were fairly early offshoots of the coelurosaurian family tree, and not particularly closely related to maniraptoran dinosaurs and their progeny, birds. So it seems that feathers, or at least down-like integument, was a primitive feature for these animals. But how primitive? Could the early Dilophosaurus have possessed feathers? Or Coelophysis, one of the most basal therapods?

A slice of life from the Cretaceous? A maniraptoran Mononykid dinosaur feeding its chicks.
Photo by Deinowilly via deviantart.

Dinosaurs evolved along two main lines – ornithischians (plant-eating dinosaurs) and saurischians (meat-eating dinosaurs). All the feathered dinosaurs I’ve talked about today have been saurischians, but the very same shale gardens in China have unveiled several ornithischian dinosaurs that possess odd, hollow, quill-like structures – not feathers in the strictest sense, but similar integument. Some, like the ceratopsian Psittacosaurus, only grew them on the tail, and probably used them for display. But a much more primitive ornithischian, Tianyulong, grew these structures all over its body, and perhaps used them for heat regulation. In short, it was another furry dinosaur, albeit one from a completely different side of the family tree.

Man, dinosaurs have really changed from when I was a kid... for the better, in my opinion!
Photo via MSNBC.

These and other recent fossil finds confirm what paleontologists have known for some time now. Those dinosaurs we today know as birds are not as unique in the ways we once thought. Most dinosaurs grew some type of feathers, and other dinosaurs could fly, some perhaps even capable of powered flight. But truly avian dinosaurs are indeed unique in that everything about today’s birds is completely and totally specialized for one purpose – life on the wing. It’s important to realize that dinosaurs were not the lumbering, scaly beasts depicted in children’s books not a decade ago. Like birds, they were graceful, active, and most importantly, beautiful.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

#51: Bewick's Wren - Cabrillo National Monument, CA

Long ago, it was possible to find the Bewick’s Wren in North Carolina, high up in the Appalachians. Apparently, the expansion in range of the House and Carolina Wrens extirpated them as a breeding species from the state, which means that in order to get my lifer, I had to travel West. Much more West.

I distinctly remember my lifer. Just after visiting the second parking lot down by the tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument, I heard an odd song coming from the chaparral brush by the sea. It honestly sounded like a weird sparrow, a far cry from the melodic Carolina Wrens I get at home. Yet, sitting atop some evergreen was a wren, a Bewick’s Wren, singing away not feet away from a steep cliff-face.

I brought James back to Cabrillo to find multiple lifers, but the Bewick’s Wren eluded us for some time. We saw Cooper’s Hawks drifting just off a viewing platform, and a covey of California Quails running through the thick cover before I recognized its song once again. A little pishing later, and the wren was chattering quite close to us, yet never giving us those perfect looks. This seems to be commonplace with wrens, and I’m grateful to get the view I did. I had to travel all the way across the country to see it, which is kind of a shame considering they used to nest in the mountains of North Carolina. Species' populations are always in flux, and perhaps they’ll make their way back East on day, but until then – I’ll just have to be satisfied with the Bewick’s Wrens of San Diego

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Hairful of Snakes

Last Thursday was already a legendary day of herping, what with a Copperhead and a Black Racer, plus those salamanders in the morning. But I had no idea how awesome it was about to get. Enter Duke Forest.

Things started off pretty mundane, and being the late afternoon, there weren’t even birds singing from the trees around the gravel parking lot. As Mark, Ali and I walked down the path, I became startled by what I thought was a rodent running across my feet. Turns out, it was actually an enormous female Eastern Fence Lizard, probably fattened up to start laying eggs. She ran up a tree and just sat there while we watched her, and with a quick grab I managed to catch her. For a good half-mile, she sat in the palm my hand like an Egyptian sphinx, unmoving and beautiful.

Oddly enough, I've never seen a Fence Lizard on a fence.

I had to let her go at some point, and it’s a good thing I did, because not a hundred yards later, I heard a loud rustle of dead leaves on the forest floor. I saw two Black Racers, a smaller male and a huge female, racing down a nearby hill, and without a second thought, Ali ran after them at full speed. When I finally caught up to him, he had his hand down a snake hole, grasping the big female’s tail. With some careful effort, he was able to pull her out, and using Mark’s snake stick, we took turns holding the feisty serpent. Every once in a while, even from a prone position on the ground, she’d rear up and try to bite us on the hand. Not an experience you easily forget!

The big girl almost tagged my finger. Missed me by that much!

As we neared the concrete bridge, we heard the twittering of Chimney Swifts overhead, the truncated songs of Ovenbirds in the deep woods, and the descending melodies of Yellow-throated Warblers from atop old oaks. Truly, spring was here, and this did not escape the notice of snakes. Once we stepped foot on the bridge, Ali bolted into the water, catching Queen Snakes and Northern Water Snakes by the handful. All in all, we saw at least twenty snakes that day at the bridge, and the Water Snakes we saw ran the patterning gamut – some looked banded as they should, and some looked dull brown. But one looked exquisite, sporting bright rufous bands on an ecru background. By far, the prettiest Northern Water Snake I’ve ever seen.

Totally worth it - he nailed my hand, drawing his fair share of blood. My first battle scars!

At one point, mid-way between running after Water Snakes in the rushing creek, Ali reached into the water and pulled this guy out from between some stones. Turns out, we aren’t the best at turtle identification, because we waffled between IDing him as a Musk Turtle and a Mud Turtle. Of course, his lack of a hind plastron hinge over his back legs should have been a solid clue, but it wasn’t until later that we finally decided we was a Musk Turtle. Oddly enough, he didn’t musk at all, and didn’t live up to his species nickname of ‘Stinkpot’. Perhaps it’s because I’d been musked by captured Water Snakes all day, which smell just God-awful.

I almost wish he smelled worse - at least we coulda ID'd him right away!

After successfully photographing a sweet new turtle, Ali decided to go into crazy herper mode and grab a handful of the snakes we’d caught, placing them atop his head to look like the odd love-child of Twisted Sister and Medusa. After coming into some semblance of reason, he let them loose on the bridge, and snakes scattered in eight different directions. Quite the sight to behold, and an awesome ending to an epic day of herping!