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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Possibly Impossible Identifications

What do three self-proclaimed herpers do when they’ve got a free weekend? Head down to South Carolina of course! We’d heard through the grapevine that the Sandhills of South Carolina are even better than those in North Carolina for photographing things like Scarlet Snake, Mud Snake, and Canebrake Rattlers. Before we got far down the road, I noticed the bird life starting to change. Mississippi Kites became a common sight soaring through the air overhead, and one field we stopped at had five individuals hunting in the mid-afternoon sun.

Would've got a better picture, but I had an inferior camera at the time. Still - Mississippi Kite!

Once we reached our destination, we immediately began looking for herps, but we couldn’t find much. Turtles basking on nearby logs dove down to quickly for us to identify them to species. So I turned to the next best thing – there were a bunch of fish around, so I decided to start a fish life list! Before long, I’d netted one of the insanely common Eastern Mosquitofish that frequent pond shores around here.

Almost impossible to swing the net without catching one of these guys...

As we watched Eastern Kingbirds flycatch from road signs and Anhingas preening on tall snags, the skies began to darken around us. Huge rain clouds moved in and pretty soon raindrops began to splatter on the hot asphalt. Good thing too, because it turns out herps love rain! Just after I’d donned an ill-fitting parka, we found an Eastern Box Turtle crossing the path, and over by our car, we found this little guy trying to make it off the road. We’re still not great at turtle identification, but we got a couple photos of his plastron that secured him as a little Musk Turtle.

Hard to believe how much time we spent debating the Musk Turtle ID... he stank to high heaven!

Once the herps started coming, they wouldn’t stop. Green Treefrogs and Southern Leopard Frogs began to join the chorus of Southern Cricket Frogs, and we even found an Eastern Mud Turtle in the middle of the road. Circling back towards some of the ponds we’d checked earlier in the day, we found this big female turtle hauled out onto a sandy hillside. If the Musk Turtle was hard for us to identify, the complex of cooters and sliders is even worse. Luckily, she showed some pattern in the shell, which meant she was a cooter – but South Carolina gets two species. So we decided to photograph her at all angles for documentation, and it turned out to be a good move. Our suspicions were confirmed, and this big South Carolinian turtle has a plastron that perfectly matches the Florida Cooter.

This has got to be the epitome of impossible turtle ID. No idea how herpetologists first described these things!

By now, the sky had grown black and the rain poured down. We couldn’t find any snakes in this dismal weather, but soon enough our headlights glared with bright dots hopping across the road. Mostly they’d end up being the mundane Southern Toad, but every once in a while we’d find a Green Frog or something better. Something better ended up being this nice Pine Woods Treefrog, which you may remember we found on our last visit to the Sandhills. But back then, we found the frog hopping through the ashes of a recently burned forest, meaning he had bits of crud all over his face. This one kept getting rained on, preserving the intricate pattern on its back.

It's a less natural background than the first one, but at least he didn't try to jump away!

While we were photographing the frog, a large white SUV came barreling down the road with its hi-beams on. As it slowed up, the driver turned on his blinding blue and white beacons, and a mustached man stepped out shining a Maglite in our face. “What’re you guys doing out here?” he asked in a thick southern accent. Truthfully, we answered: “Photographing a frog.” A similar situation we found ourselves in when we ran into the Army a couple weeks ago. “Y’all caught anything out here tonight? Mind if I check your vehicle?” Quickly we realized we weren’t being hounded by the police, but rather a National Fish & Wildlife officer looking to stop the poaching of snakes from the Sandhills Gamelands.

Wasn’t long before he realized we weren’t catching the herps, just photographing them. Plus he seemed impressed when we differentiated the calls of a Common Nighthawk, a Whip-poor-will, and a Chuck-wills-widow in front of him. He let us go without so much as a warning, but with the caveat that we had to be out of the Gamelands within an hour. Wouldn’t be an issue, we told him, as the heavy rain seemed to have kept our promised snakes underground. As we were heading towards the highway, Mark noticed an odd lump by the side of the road. “Looks like a toad,” he said as he pulled aside it, and Ali stuck his head out the window to check. “I think it’s a rock, man,” but Ali kept on looking before it dawned on him. “Wait – it’s a baby nightjar!”

Okay, I can pretend to identify difficult herps, but I just give up when it comes to fledgling Caprimulgids...

Sure enough, the fledgling nightjar did his best to stay motionless while we peered down at him. With all three local nightjar species in the vicinity, we couldn’t be quite sure which one we had. Overall, the shape of the bird suggested Common Nighthawk, but it had some odd brown flecking reminiscent of a Chuck-wills-widow. For the last week, we’ve been asking every birder we can think of, but apparently juvenile nightjar identification is difficult at best, impossible at worst. It’s too bad we didn’t stick around to see if a parent came down to feed it, but we had to get out of the Gamelands or risk a hefty fine.

With the NFWS ranger still cruising the roads, I decided to move the chick back into the forest, but as I cupped my hands the little bird got up on surprisingly long legs and ran off the road. All’s well that ends well, and we still had a whole night of rural road herping ahead of us. Turned out to be far more awesome than I could have possibly anticipated!

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