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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!

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