rotating banner

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ol' Blue Eyes

Don’t you just love it when everybody’s schedules match up? Mark, Ali and I all had a free afternoon this past Thursday, and what a better way to spend it than to herp! As Mark was going to show up a little later, Ali and I decided to check out the creek that runs through Battle Park for whatever we could find. ‘Whatever’ turned out to be a whole bunch of adult Southern Two-lined Salamanders, a species that’s pretty common in our area and happens to love running water.

This is the most colorful one we found, in all its mustard-yellow glory!

In all, we caught five salamanders, a pretty good score for being literally on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus! After Mark showed up, we headed for the venerable transect at Duke Forest’s Gate 22. True to form, a Copperhead was back under one of the boards, thankfully right in the middle and away from anybody’s fingers.

Don't move - a Copperhead can't see us if we don't move!

Ali, being the crazy herper that he is, decided to pick up the venomous snake with the aid of Mark’s snake stick. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach the level of being able to hold Copperheads, but Ali seemed to have no problem with it. Heck, he even kissed the thing! Apparently you’re supposed to do that as a thank you to the snake for not biting you and injecting venom.

Yeah, pretty much the closest I'll ever get to a Copperhead!

We sat the snake down in an open area for better photographs, and he couldn’t have been a more generous subject. A far cry from the Mole Kingsnakes of late, the Copperhead just sat there in a perfect pose, allowing shot after shot, without moving a muscle. Of course, once he did try to get away, Ali employed the snake stick once again, and the Copperhead reared back and struck the stick. As we saw no dripping venom, it looks to’ve been a dry bite, and the snake stick seemed no worse for wear, but it’s a humbling reminder that these snakes are in fact dangerous.

Like the eponymous character in the movie Kill Bill - beautiful, yet deadly.

Off the transect, we flipped boards over by some dilapidated barns. Nothing much going on except a nice White-spotted Slimy Salamander and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher singing from the low trees. As we flipped one promising tin, Ali noticed a small black serpent, and immediately grabbed it. It was a Black Racer, but far from normal racer behavior, it didn’t thrash and refused to bite. Then I saw why.

Would that make it a Blue-Eyes Black Racer?

The snake, it turns out, was very close to shedding its skin. As it gets closer to molting, the membrane over the snake's eyes becomes cloudy, and in racers this leads to an interesting phenomenon – its eyes become a brilliant shade of Carolina blue. I could have photographed this docile little racer for hours, but after getting our shots, we decided to let it have some peace and quiet as it began to shed its skin. The whole thing was an amazing up-close experience that I rarely get to have with these snakes. But we had other spots to hit this afternoon, and like the Beatles song, the day just kept on getting better, and better all the time...

To be continued!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Linus and the Queen Snakes

When I was a kid, I’d read the daily comic strip Peanuts in the papers. I may have been too young to understand its genius, but the classic image of Lucy pulling away the football just before Charlie Brown kicks it is too good for anyone to ignore. But another Peanuts tidbit always stuck with me – occasionally, Linus would find a branch on the ground and mistake it for a Queen Snake.

Until very recently, it never registered that a Queen Snake was in fact a real animal, and no different from the Rough Greens and Black Rats I’d been finding for several weeks. Yet, like so many species for me, it seemed so far out of reach. So when Ali and I met up with Duke University professor Jeff Pippen to find some herps at his old transect sites, we had a mission in the back of our minds: we must find a Queen Snake.

Of course, as often happens in life, we came up empty. The old plywood boards had rotted away and the salamanders they once held had ventured underground to await another season. We did find one large Five-lined Skink, but we couldn’t find the snakes we so craved. At one of the sites, we found this Eastern Fence Lizard chilling on a log right in front of us. It didn’t seem to mind us standing there photograph it, and we were only happy to oblige.

Pretty cool, but not what we came for.

Eventually, we ended up at a large field littered with plywood and tins to flip. As Jeff grabbed the corner of one of the boards, he let out a small “woah.” He’s a seasoned pro, and he’s not about to let a sight like this faze him. Under the very corner he’d just lifted lay a fat, coiled Copperhead.

Better to stay cool than make it angry. You won't like it when it's angry.

Copperheads are by far the most common venomous snake we get in these parts, but for some reason I’ve not come across one in some time. Perhaps I’ve just been looking in the wrong places, but here on the edge of the forest under a bit of wood seems to’ve been the perfect spot for this snake. As with any venomous snake, we respected its space and photographed it from a distance. Well, not too far a distance – I mean, I did want an awesome shot!

Awesomely enough, the song "Copperhead Road" came on the radio as we were driving home!

Flipping more boards revealed networks of tunnels likely dug by Hispid Cotton Rats, pretty much the default rodent around here. That doesn’t escape the notice of our local snakes, because one flip later we found this guy curled up next to a small mammal nest of dried grasses. He was a Mole Kingsnake, a rather secretive serpent that prefers to burrow underground rather than cruise in the open. Luckily, he happened to be curled up in a couple mammal tunnels, and we were able to check him out at close range.

Apparently not a snake you get to see every day - lucky me!

After our success at the transects, Ali and I decided to check one more spot – the Korstian Division of Duke Forest, a great place by any means. Mostly I’ll bird there, but recently the herping hasn’t been bad either. In fact, just a couple hundred yards down the trail we found this nice Ground Skink among the leaf litter.

And moved him out to the trail for better pictures of course!

As I lay on the trail to photograph him, the skink stopped scurrying away, and started towards me – apparently he needed some kind of cover, and I was the closest thing to it! The Ground Skink kept on creeping into my shadow, and I would move to get it in the light again, a kind of tango that lasted for several minutes. Eventually I gave up, content that he was so unwillingly obliging.

No, what're you doing? Get farther away from me!

We walked down to the old wooden bridge and checked the rocks for snakes. Nothing doing, and the nearby dirt path held nothing but Cricket and Pickerel Frogs. Dragonflies zoomed to and fro, taunting us as we continued to search for our quarry. Every once in a while, we’d spot some movement in the trail ahead, only to find a snake plummeting from a tangle of branches just above the water’s surface, disappearing into the rushing creek. Suddenly, Ali stopped in the path – “That’s it!” he exclaimed! “It’s a Queen Snake!”

"It's on the branch. No the branch right in front of you. No, the other branch right in front of you!"

With deftness I didn’t possess, Ali bounded down the river bank and grabbed the snake in what I swear was mid-plummet. While he held it, the Queen Snake tried to bite him like any water snake would, though not as ferociously. As it transferred hands, the snake musked me, and unlike its larger Nerodia cousins, it smelled almost pleasant, like freshly crushed oak leaves.

The things security blankets are made of.

As Ali posed it, I couldn’t help thinking that with its dark olive coloration, the snake could easily be mistaken for a branch. Only, Queen Snakes don’t like to hang out in the middle of paths where Linus would have seen it – perhaps Charles Schulz knew this, and put it in his comic as an in-joke to snake lovers. Or perhaps, like with me, the Queen Snake was an unattainable species that he could only have dreamed about. We’ll never know, but I like to think that maybe the creator of Peanuts was a secret herper. Just maybe.

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!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Totally Accurate Scientific Theory on Avian Physics

Over the past six months, I’ve taken up what can only be described as bird photography. While I’m still not as good at it as James, I’m getting there, and you can see many of the results right here on the blog. But bird photography is frustrating, and on more than one occasion I’ve had my viewfinder perfectly focused on a subject only to have it disappear just before I depress the shutter. It’s happened so many times, in fact, that I’ve been able to come up with a rigorously tested and undeniably scientific theory as to why. Simply, birds exist in a separate quantum state from every other living thing on Earth.

How else can you explain this nth-dimensional Ruby-crowned Kinglet?

You may ask yourself, how is this possible? How do I work this? Where is your large automobile? As the days go by… dang, lost my train of thought! Back to the point: like I said, The Quantum Theory of Birds is simple, much like quantum physics itself. Literally anybody can understand it. If a bird occupies a position in space, but that position is struck by photons reflected by, say, a camera lens or a pair of binoculars, the bird switches quantum states and exists in a dimension that we, as humans, cannot perceive.

Ready your optics and... poof! No Northern Cardinal!

To put it in laymen’s terms, Δx Δp ≥ h/4π, where Δx Δp is the bird’s position in space and h/4π is like tacos or something. In physics, variables are whatever we want them to be. So while I was eating a taco one day (totally unrelated taco), I noticed a nice Yellow-rumped Warbler sunning itself on my porch, right in the light. How could I refuse the opportunity? I took my camera, aimed it out the open window, and fired a single shot, and… it worked! Finally, a bird whose quantum state remains unchanged when faced with a camera!

Mwahaha, a successful photograph! Man: 1, Quantum Physics:...8642... wait, that can't be right...

But the bird was preening, I wanted that perfect look. I steadied myself for another shot. All of a sudden…

Gone! Vanished! Disappeared! Dematerialized! Apoptosed!

Damn you physics! The Yellow-rumped Warbler had clearly and spontaneously flipped dimensions on me. Perhaps it still existed in some five dimensional space where time has little meaning and quarks control the media. But to my eyes, it had disappeared, forever lost to humanity and our lackluster quantum existence.

Or you know, maybe it flew off or something. I didn’t really see what happened. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

Oh man, it’s almost here. I can smell it on the wind – the sweet aroma of blooming flowers and fresh grass that means spring is here and migration is on its way. There’s an old adage that says robins are the first sign of spring. Now, any birder worth his salt knows that’s not true, and that American Robins are present throughout the year, weathering our coldest winters and breeding in our hottest summers. But that hasn’t stop huge flocks of robins from forming all around the Triangle recently, noisily foraging in suburban lawns and dense forest.

For being so common, it really is an awesome looking bird!

The warm temperatures are encouraging our winter birds to do strange things. Hermit Thrushes have started singing in the woods, and I’ve been hearing the ascending tunes of both kinglet species. But among them, I’ve begun to hear the songs of my familiar summer birds, finally back after this mild winter. At Mason Farm today, I heard both Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Northern Parulas, a welcome respite from my normal roster of White-throated Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Plus the herps have started moving too, and I managed to find several immature Five-lined Skinks with their electric blue tails.

Unfortunately I couldn't get one to sit still! Quick little buggers...

While herping, I’ve found that flipping logs is a perfectly fine way to find reptile and amphibians – just today I found my fair share of Marbled Salamanders, and last week it was the best way to find Brown Snakes. But recently, I’ve found loose bark to be even more productive, and every time I see a tree with its bark hanging off, I peek behind it to see what I might find. Mostly I’ve found Carolina Anoles and a couple adult Five-lined Skinks. But yesterday I found this beautiful adult Eastern Fence Lizard hanging out, perhaps the largest I’ve ever seen. You can even see a bit of that reflective blue underside showing from just beneath its chin!

Of course, the sun disappeared just as I took this shot. Figures.

But lizards aren’t the only thing I’ve been finding as of late. Sure, I’ve uncovered my share of termite nests and ant colonies, and immediately I’ll lay the bark back in place (I had a bad experience). But today, when I peered behind the dead bark I found the unmistakable black and gray pattern of an immature Black Ratsnake. Now, I’m far more used to seeing his larger brothers, but this little guy had some fight in him. As I dragged him off the tree, he immediately struck out and dug into my pointer finger like it was his last meal. Of course, being so small, his needle-sharp teeth barely drew blood, but it was a good experience for me – any good herper has to learn to be bitten by snakes, and this was my first step into a larger world. Eventually I got him under control, and learned how difficult it is to photograph a snake in one hand while holding the camera with the other.

He was an extremely wriggly little guy!

With my herping pretty much done for the day, I got to admire the birds, and there were a lot of them. For some reason, the White-throated and Song Sparrows took to flocking in the path looking for food. Occasionally a cardinal or mockingbird would join them, and on one occasion I saw a Hispid Cotton Rat make his way amongst the flock. While I watched one particularly large group of birds, I noticed an enormous yellow blaze hurtle to the ground and land among the sparrows. It took me a half second to realize it was a Northern Flicker, a large woodpecker that’s particularly keen on hanging out land-side. As I crept closer, the flicker ignored me for food, and I was more than happy to sit there and photograph him til he took off for a stand of trees. What a way-cool bird.

I mean, who can say no to a woodpecker with polka-dots?

Seeing as I had to get back and watch Lehigh kick some Blue Devil tail, I left the birds and herps as they were. In just a couple weeks time, the trees will be full of singing warblers, the trails full of cruising snakes, and the woods full of nature yet to be discovered. I can’t wait.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

#50: Black-headed Grosbeak - Cabrillo National Monument, CA

Oh man. The Drip. It’s a legendary site among birders visiting southern California. During spring and fall migrations, songbirds will flock to a leaking pipe at the Cabrillo National Monument to drink and bathe. Of course, James and I visited in the middle of summer, so we didn’t see nearly that kind of action. Still, I got more than my share of lifers there, including a Bell’s Vireo that belted out its favorite song. Then this guy showed up.

Honestly I couldn’t identify it at first. Not because it isn’t distinctive, but mostly because I’d only been in the state a couple days and he was in an odd plumage. Clearly it was a grosbeak, but a far cry from our Rose-breasteds that like to hang out high in trees and out of site. Rather, he was an immature Black-headed Grosbeak – the expected species that breeds in California, just without the namesake black head.

This guy was my lifer, and I honestly couldn’t complain – I mean, he hung out just a couple feet from us while we watched him drink from that eponymous pipe dripping into a manmade bowl. Yet always the greedy birder, I wanted to see an adult male before I left, in his breeding best with an onyx mask and bright ochre underparts. I got my wish just a week later, when one flew out of a stand of trees near the San Elijo Lagoon. But none could match the awesomeness of the first Black-headed Grosbeak I ever saw – the one that day at The Drip.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sweet Georgia Brown

Seeing as it’s extremely common throughout its range, it’s no wonder the Northern Mockingbird has become the state bird of no less than six US states. But when you think about it, there’s nothing really special about the mockingbird. Sure it’s conspicuous, but ultimately rather monochromatic, and while its song is extremely variable, it becomes repetitive after a while. Nothing, however, can really compare to the intricate random garble you can hear just once a year around spring. Come that special time, Brown Thrashers will ignore their secretive tendencies and perch out in the open for the world to see.

Of course, it’s not nearly that time of year yet, nor was it when I took these photos. But when I visited the Rufous Hummingbird on UNC’s campus a couple weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to view a couple Brown Thrashers foraging out in the open, a far cry from the sepia blur I usually see flitting through thick hedges. When I stepped too close, one of the thrashers attempted to fly into a bush and conceal itself within the vegetation. However, being early March, the bush hadn’t yet sprouted leaves, and while the Brown Thrasher thought itself camouflaged, I could clearly see it through the maze of branches

Occasionally, the bird would mumble a couple notes of its song, perhaps in anticipation of the spring breeding season, but never would it move a muscle. From farther away, no one would suspect that the small bush held such a bird, mostly thanks an intricate pattern of streaking that lets it melt into its surroundings. Had I been a predator, I could have easily plucked the bird from the bush and made a meal of it, but being a birdwatcher I merely enjoyed.

So far, only Georgia has recognized the Brown Thrasher’s beauty and made it into a state bird. While I watched it, I was instantly reminded of that old Django Reinhardt tune which seems to perfectly encapsulate the bird. Even the melody is reminiscent of a thrasher singing from the top of a hedge in late April, all while maintaining an atmosphere reminiscent of its Southern home. Thanks to my latitude, I can enjoy Brown Thrashers year-round, and even in the dead of the coldest Carolina winter, I can look forward to seeing this exquisite Mimid do it’s thrasher thing. Thank God for small miracles. Oh, and by the way, the Rufous Hummingbird is still looking nice, and has molted even more of its gorget.

He’ll be looking his summer best in no time!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thar She Honks!

It all started over five months ago, when local birder Jennifer Schrand noticed an odd white goose hanging out among her local Canada Geese. Turns out, that goose was a rare midwestern Ross’s Goose, albeit a young and dingy one. James chased it then, twice. But each time, we missed it – the rare goose appeared to have headed back to its rightful home.

Fast forward to late last month. Another birder reported the goose continued, just a couple miles from its previous location, at a suburban lake. After seeing the pictures, and a promising report that it could be seen from a nearby field, James and I attempted to chase it once again, a full four months after we’d last tried. Arriving at the lake, we found only a couple Canada Geese, some Ruddy Ducks, and a Bufflehead. Still, we could celebrate that day after finding a confiding Canvasback working his way across the lake – my first wild drake, and the closest I’ve ever been to one. But there was no sign of the goose. It was becoming a nemesis for James, his Moby-Dickey bird. The White Goose.

A bittersweet consolation prize. Wait, that's not the word... a sweet consolation prize!

Disappointed in our birding experience, we turned to our old standby of Mason Farm. Of course, being rather windy and cloudy, the birding turned out to be rather mundane. But now we’ve got a new hobby, and no matter the weather there’s always the allure of herping! After just a few logs (and several Marbleds), we found a nice White-spotted Slimy Salamander, the very unknown species I’d found last week. Luckily, this guy decided to not be as slimy as the last guy, and was rather photogenic instead.

Peter Venkman quotes need not apply.

Working through the same grove of pines, we continued to find Marbled Salamanders, albeit in fewer numbers than before. It seems like they really like logs with cool earth underneath, but are relatively dry. With our recent rains, most of the land I’ve been finding them in has become saturated, and the salamanders seem to’ve taken up residence elsewhere. Still, there were other herps to be found, and under the same burned log as last week, James and I found this beautiful juvenile Eastern Narrowmouth Toad!

The same individual? For some reason, it seems more colorful.

After the Rough Green Snake my two Brown Snakes last week, I’ve had pretty bad luck with the serpentine aspect of herping. Still, you have to try, and every so often you’re rewarded. Under a small log James suspected of hiding a Marbled Salamander, he instead found this tiny snake, not more than three inches long when outstretched. It’s spade-shaped head, pink underbelly, and tail spine mark it as a Worm Snake, an incredibly common reptile in these parts, but one difficult to see thanks to its subterranean habits.

In all honesty, this is the smallest snake I've ever seen!

Not all herping is turning over logs, of course. Sometimes you can find herps chilling in the middle of the path, but other times you have to be more inventive. Perhaps there’s a rock that looks nice, or some old plywood that looks flippable. At one point, I found a tree with some loose bark, and on a whim I decided to pull it back, revealing this male Carolina Anole. You may be asking – how do I know it’s a male? After all, it’s quite brown. When I caught it, the lizard attempted to bite my finger, and at the same time flashed his trademark dewlap, betraying his gender and making for one totally cool experience.

Now if I can just get a green one doing the same thing1

The day wore on and the herping grew thin, so we began to plan for the next day. We decided to try for the Ross’s Goose a fourth and final time – after all, Jennifer had seen it in the field several times that week, and it’s hard to turn down such a regular lifer. Early in the morning, we pulled up to an old corn maze to discover a large group of Canada Geese working the fallen millet. Even from the car, I could see the blazing white of another creature. Like old Queequeg, I called out from my shotgun seat: “That’s it  – Ross’s Goose!

"Thar, thar - She honks, she honks!"

James rushed out of the car and snapped his lifer photo. After so many attempts at the bird, he seemed relieved to’ve seen it, and at such a close range. But the question remains – is this the same bird that made its home in the suburbs over the winter? I find it unlikely that another small white goose found it’s way into Cary, North Carolina. Perhaps, outside of our watching gaze, our juvenile goose molted into the adult plumage it’ll keep for the rest of its life. There’s really no way to know, lest you drag yourself into a sea of uncertainty. For now, I think I’ll enjoy the bird I have – my White Goose. 

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! 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Life in the Concrete Jungle

Having recently moved from the suburbs to a much more urban location, I’ve found it difficult to find a good diversity of wildlife in my day-to-day. Most of the time I’m hearing Yellow-rumped Warblers chipping from the myrtle trees, and I’m much more used to Common Grackles being in my neighborhood. But for some reason, I just can’t find the birds like I used to.

However, earlier this week one of my neighbors put up a feeder in a large oak that towers above the communal parking area. Suddenly, the trees became alive with Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees, and nuthatches and woodpeckers started to become commonplace. Even a flock of Cedar Waxwings has taken up residence, feeding on the ornamental Bradford pears. You’d think having waxwings so close all the time would mean I’d get amazing pictures of them foraging, but not so – turns out, waxwings like to hide out towards the middle of trees, probably for protection. Even still, I’ve been able to weave through the branches and pick out one or two bathing in the sun.

One of these days I'll get that perfect shot... but it was not this day.

After taking an afternoon bus downtown, I decided to visit the Rufous Hummingbird that’s been hanging out on UNC’s campus. While its Coker Arboretum hangout seems nice enough, it’s bordered on two sides by large, brick buildings, and on a third by the hustle and bustle of Franklin Street. In this oasis amidst urban life, the tiny Selasphorus has continued to feed off an enormous honeysuckle bush. Hopefully he decides to stick around – every time I visit, he’s further along in his molt. He’ll have a full-on gorget in no time!

Finally I got him to sit out in the sun for me!

I like to walk back to the apartment from downtown; it gives me a chance to check out some of our more common denizens. There’s the Northern Mockingbirds that strut across people’s minute lawns, and the House Sparrows that flock onto any available perch. Turkey Vultures cruise around the city heights, just barely above a pair of enormous construction cranes. As I rounded a corner behind my local supermarket, I noticed a mixed flock of birds feeding on some spilled birdseed along the asphalt’s edge.

These have got to be three of the most common species around here.

I tried to get closer to photograph the male Northern Cardinal, because for as common as those guys are, I can never seem to get a really good picture of one. One step too far, and the sparrows all flushed into some nearby bushes, leaving one large brown blob to continue stuffing his face full of birdseed. At first the form didn’t register, but then I realized it wasn’t a bird at all, but a mammal – a large Hispid Cotton Rat had been just as much a part of this mixed flock as the birds.

Not nearly as nasty as those introduced Norway Rats... he's got a kind of elegance about him.

Normally I see these guys scurrying for cover on the trail’s edge, so it was cool to finally see one out in the open and unafraid. He must not have noticed me with the harsh glare from the sun, because as soon as I stooped down to eye level, he too rushed off into the bushes. That just left the male Northern Cardinal, now perched on a gnarled branch, waiting to return to the cornucopia before him. As I walked home, a Ring-billed Gull loafed overhead, and a Hairy Woodpecker called from a stand of pines. Perhaps it’s not that it’s difficult to find birds in the city. Perhaps I’ve just been looking in the wrong places.

Yeah, pretty much the best part about living in the eastern United States.

Oh, by the way, if Sir David Attenborough and/or the BBC wants to co-opt this post’s title for their next nature series (perhaps about wildlife coping with increasing urbanization), feel free – I think it’d be an awesome idea! Raccoon Dogs living on the edge of cities, Greater Adjutants living on dumps in India, the list goes on!