When October wanes and November approaches, I start to wonder about when my herping season will end. What will be the last herp of the year? Can I see one more new thing, or have I already added the last new species? And most importantly, how can I prolong my herping season?
I’ve been working for most of this year on a book project (one of the reasons blog posts here have been scarce) and needed to meet with my co-author, Josh Holbrook. The last week of October I made the nine-hour drive to Josh’s home in western North Carolina. Josh teaches biology at Montreat College, nestled in a picturesque valley along the edge of the Pisgah National Forest, and we did most of our work on the manuscript in his office at the college. A small stream runs behind his building, and each time we passed by I wanted to walk over to it and look for salamanders. “There are Blackbellies in there,” said Josh. I hoped we might have a little time to look at some point.
Breaking for lunch on Saturday, we drove a little further up the valley, to where a small seep emerged from the ground close to the road. Turning over rocks there produced a handful of Carolina mountain dusky salamanders (Desmognathus carolinensis). I hadn’t seen this species in over ten years and I was happy to renew my acquaintance with them. More than that, it just felt good to be salamandering in Appalachia again. Later, over lunch, Josh said that rain was expected that night, and that we might see a number of salamanders out on the road after dark. I was interested – we had been putting in some hard work during my visit, and a herp diversion would be a good change of pace.
Sprinkles of rain were coming down as night fell, and we stopped off at Josh’s house to change clothes and gather cameras, flashlights, and rain gear. The air temperature was in the low fifties, which boded well for the night’s work. Just off the main highway, and still on our way to good roads for salamanders, Josh said “there’s one,” and he pulled over. It was a Blue Ridge two-lined (Eurycea wilderae), lemon-yellow with black flecks and the characteristic pair of dark lines running down the dorsum. Josh has a pretty good eye for spotting small caudates on wet roads, picking them out among the twigs, earthworms, and leaf stems that littered the asphalt surface.
Our next find was an American toad, sitting in an upright posture. Large, reddish orange, and charismatic, it was worth stopping to have a closer look. From its distended belly, we guessed it had been slurping up earthworms off the road, and we ended up seeing several more toads of similar size, color, and girth that night. Like all of the salamanders we stopped for, we eased the hefty toads off the road to keep them from being flattened by the next car to come along. It would be a shame to lose any of these winners of the tadpole lottery.
The next two finds were spring salamanders (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus), with their distinctive paddle tails and paired stripes running from eyes to nostrils. Gyrinophilus taxonomy is a bit murky, and porphyriticus has recognized subspecies; these specimens were danielsi, the Blue Ridge spring salamander, last seen by me in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2006. “We might get dunni on the roads over towards South Mountain,” said Josh. That sounded good to me.
The rain continued, hard in some places, slacking off to a sprinkle elsewhere. The next salamander to show up on the road was a new one for me – a seal salamander (Desmognathus monticola). It was an attractive specimen, with an orange stripe that zig-zagged down the tail. Somehow I had missed this species on two previous trips to the area, so I was very happy to finally see one.
We decided to try another set of roads over towards South Mountain, and on the way there, Josh said “that was a red!” I hadn’t seen a thing, but when we turned around and went back, I could see the orange blob of salamander on the blacktop. It was a Blue Ridge red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber nitidus), another lifer for me. Hefty, chunky, and fat-headed, its glaring orangeness in the headlights is something I won’t soon forget.
Photographing salamanders on wet roads in the pissing rain is a challenge. I don’t mind getting soaked, but how to get the shots I wanted, while keeping water off my camera? I didn’t want to miss out on this story. I brought a large umbrella with me, which worked to keep most of the moisture off my camera as I knelt in the road. Josh, equally wet, held the umbrella for me whenever things got really awkward. I used a few paper napkins to give my camera a wipe-down before turning it off. Wet, clumsy work, but I did what I could to get the shot, and to avoid frying my trusty Lumix.
‘Fuskies’, or more precisely, northern dusky salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus fuscus) were out in numbers on the new set of roads, along with more two-lines and a few seal salamanders. On a sharp curve we turned up two of the ‘other’ Gyrinophilus – Carolina spring salamanders, Gyrinophilus porphyriticus dunni. They didn’t appear to be much different from G. p. danielsi – the face stripes were a bit duller, and one had an interesting herring-bone pattern on the dorsum. Big salamanders, these adult Gyrinophilus, and likely out on on the roads looking to scarf down the smaller fuskies and two-lines.
On another road we started seeing spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum), ranging from small young-of-the-year to large adults. More photo opportunities! Most of the spotties posed themselves perfectly, with their heads raised off the road, but we ceased stopping for them after the first half-dozen. How many could I shoot? How wet could I get? When was sunrise? A single four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) also put in an appearance, and several more red salamanders. The steady rain covered the road surface with a thin sheet of water, and some salamanders were practically swimming as they wiggled off the road, looking like tiny salmon.
“That looks like a mud,” said Josh, and once again he was correct. The last two salamanders of the night turned out to be Pseudotriton montanus montanus, the eastern mud salamander. They resembled their red ruber cousins in color and spots, but were more slender in appearance. Another new subspecies for me.
I suppose we could have kept at it all night, but another long day of work lay ahead of us, so we headed for home as midnight approached. We had stopped for more than thirty salamanders, and passed up many more; I had prolonged my herping season, and added a couple new species to my life list.
After another long day of collaborative writing stuff, I headed for home on Monday morning. Always looking to prolong the season, I thought I would stop at a spot on the way home to try for Plethodon yonahlossee. I parked at the base of a mountain, and hiked up a trail; the wind howled and cut right through my thin layers of clothing. Icicles hung from rock outcrops, and the ground was covered with frost flowers, resulting from a combination of super-saturated soil and a temperature snap. In the mountains of Appalachia at least, the door had slammed shut on the herping season. I texted Josh: “Wow. Snow up there, frost flowers, howling wind, most rocks stuck to the ground, 28F. Heading for the barn.”
And then I drove home. But I don’t think the season is over just yet.