Lifers With A Twist Of Lyme

Earlier this year I decided to take a few days off of work around Labor Day weekend to look for salamanders in western Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. What I wasn’t planning on was catching Lyme Disease shortly before my outings! I brought home a small, pinhead-sized tick on my August trip up to Pennsylvania. Despite one round of tick searching when I got home, I missed the little bugger and didn’t notice it was on me until nearly 60 hours had passed.

I knew I picked up the tick in Pennsylvania, the nation’s hotspot for Lyme incidence. I was able to get a good look at the tick with my 10x loupe, and it was apparent that it was an Ixodes sp., the type that carries Lyme. I also knew the tick was on me for quite awhile. Adding all that up, I knew I had to be extra careful to watch the bite for the next month.

I didn’t even have to wait that long. Twelve days after my trip, a light, diffuse rash showed up around the bite. Within a couple hours I was at an urgent care center getting my three-week long doxycycline prescription. For the 36 hours I was starting to wonder if I really had Lyme or if the rash was even real.

Then, out of nowhere, intense pain started hammering at all of my joints and the bulls-eye rash turned up around the bite. Denial was pretty short lived. I never did feel sick, and I never had a fever. All I had was intense, unrelenting pain for about three weeks. After the antibiotic course was completed the pain slowly started fading away. It lingered longest in my left shoulder, where it was still smarting a full six weeks after the rash first appeared.

The bulls-eye rash around the tick bite on my ankle appeared several days after a faint red rash. The bulls-eye waxed and waned in intensity for about two weeks before finally fading away.

The bulls-eye rash around the tick bite on my ankle appeared several days after a faint red rash. The bulls-eye waxed and waned in intensity for about two weeks before finally fading away. It was painless, but occasionally itched.

Today, slightly over three months since the bite, I occasionally have shooting pains in my arms and legs that are very reminiscent of the pain I endured during the first three weeks of the disease. I have no way of knowing if the pain is connected to Lyme, but I suspect it is. Given I started antibiotics within hours of noticing the rash and within a couple weeks of the bite, I’m optimistic that I won’t suffer any long-term effects from Lyme.

Unfortunately, this is the second disease I’ve picked up from ticks. Back in 2011 I came down with ehrlichiosis after a tick bite in southeastern Missouri. My advice to anyone who goes outdoors: check for ticks twice: once when returning home, then again 24 hours later so you can grab any missed ticks before they can sit on you long enough to transmit infectious agents.

All that said, I decided I would not allow a little Lyme disease to get in the way of my planned outings. Friday, September 2 found me in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. I had hopes of finding a Timber Rattlesnake atop a ridge, but I was noticeably slowed by the Lyme and only had 10 minutes at the top of the ridge before I had to turn around and head back home. The trip was mostly a bust; the only herp I encountered was an Eastern Box Turtle. I found some fairly fresh bear scat in a couple places along the trail, but no other signs of bears.

Eastern Box Turtle in Franklin County, Pennsylvania

Eastern Box Turtle in Franklin County, Pennsylvania

One of several rock piles I found in Google Earth that I hoped to search for rattlesnakes.

One of several rock piles I found in Google Earth that I hoped to search for rattlesnakes.

On September 6 I headed over to Fayette County, Pennsylvania. My target species was Green Salamander, which is quite rare in Pennsylvania and apparently has highly localized populations. I spent a lot of time overlaying various maps in Google Earth in hopes of pinpointing where the species might be found. In the end, I came across the habitat I was looking for, but it was drier than I’d hoped. I plan on returning to the general area next spring with hopes that this year’s knowledge will lead me to my most desired salamander species.

The trip did not start well. I found a piece of slate once I entered the woods and peaked beneath it to find more slate. Naturally, I tried to flip the underlying slate, and I promptly sliced a large gash in my left ring finger! I had no bandages or tape in the car, but I remembered I keep a small washcloth in my backpack for drying camera gear. It spent the rest of the day wrapped around my left hand.

For the first bit of my walk I was traipsing through fairly typical deciduous forest. I found a few Eastern Redback Salamanders here and there beneath logs. Then a Northern Slimy Salamander. Then, surprisingly, a Wehrle’s Salamnder! A lifer! I knew the species was a possibility, but given the paucity of recent records in the area I wasn’t really expecting to find one, especially so early in the day! I took a few (many) photos, then put him/her right back where s/he was before I came along.

My first Wehrle's Salamander. I didn't expect one on the trip, let alone six!

My first Wehrle’s Salamander. I didn’t expect one on the trip, let alone six!

Having a 100mm macro lens is sometimes a pain when trying to photograph large species like this Wehrle's.

Having a 100mm macro lens is sometimes a pain when trying to photograph large species like this Wehrle’s.

After another quarter mile I started seeing a lot more rocks in the woods, then I hit the hidden limestone wall I’d predicted based on all my map overlays!

Literally miles of cracks to check for salamanders.

Literally miles of cracks to check for salamanders.

You don't find big boulders in the middle of the woods like this very often back home in Missouri.

You don’t find big boulders in the middle of the woods like this very often back home in Missouri.

The limestone bluffs!

The limestone bluffs!

I walked for at least a mile down the ridge, sometimes picking my way through island boulders in the woods, but generally checking every crevice I could get to up along the bluff. I encountered a few damper areas, but the bluffs were quite dry overall. Every once in awhile I saw a salamander in a crevice, but it was never the Green Salamander I was after.

At least six Northern Slimy Salamanders were found hiding back in the limestone crevices.

At least six Northern Slimy Salamanders were found hiding back in the limestone crevices.

A Wehrle's Salamander peeks out at me from deep inside a crevice.

A Wehrle’s Salamander peeks out at me from deep inside a crevice.

Eventually, I left the bluffs and made my way towards an old forest road, which I followed about 100 yards to a little used side trail. From there I decided to drop down a steep ravine to a creek, which I could follow to another road which would take me back to my car. I was surprised to find that an entire hillside along my route ended up being one giant seep! I had to boulder hop to keep my feet dry for at least 50 meters laterally across the hillside. I checked under rocks and logs here and there to find several Northern Dusky Salamanders of various ages.

One of several tiny Northern Dusky Salamanders I found in the seep.

One of several tiny Northern Dusky Salamanders I found in the seep.

Northern Dusky Salamanders are the fastest salamanders I've tried to corral thus far.

Northern Dusky Salamanders are the fastest salamanders I’ve tried to corral thus far.

This Northern Dusky Salamander kept poking its head out of a hole beneath its rock, then when it saw me it darted out, paused, and then went under a different rock.

This Northern Dusky Salamander kept poking its head out of a hole beneath its rock, then when it saw me it darted out, paused, and then went under a different rock.

I came across two Northern Dusky Salamanders that were apparently content to just hang out in the open.

I came across two Northern Dusky Salamanders that were apparently content to just hang out in the open.

The creek hosted a few more Northern Dusky Salamanders, but I couldn’t find my other targets for the day: Seal and Allegheny Dusky Mountain Salamander. They would have to wait for the next trip. I can’t find my notes from this trip to Pennsylvania, but I believe my totals were around ~15 Eastern Redback Salamanders, 6 Wehrle’s Salamanders, ~18 Northern Dusky Salamanders, ~5 Northern Two-lined Salamanders, 1 Northern Spring Salamander, and ~12 Northern Slimy Salamanders over ~4.5 miles of walking. The majority of my time was spent looking in crevices rather than looking under cover.

Creeks like this seem to always have their fair share of salamanders.

Creeks like this seem to always have their fair share of salamanders.

The next morning, September 7, had me venturing over to very dry Garrett County in extreme western Maryland. I was hoping to find the Seal and Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamanders I missed the day before, and then maybe get a little fishing in before I had to head back home. I also had my eye out for a Valley and Ridge Salamander.

I knew the streams might be low before I left home, but I was surprised to find that they were barely trickling when I stepped out of my car. My hopes plunged immediately, but since I was nearly three hours from home I wasn’t about to call it quits before I even started. As luck would have it, my very first rock of the day concealed the only Seal Salamander I found! Another lifer!

Even though the flow was almost non-existent, this creek was still home to many salamanders when I visited.

Even though the flow was almost non-existent, this creek was still home to many salamanders when I visited.

It's a great day when the first rock hides a lifer like this Seal Salamander.

It’s a great day when the first rock hides a lifer like this Seal Salamander.

And it only took three more rocks to find my lifer Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander! My two target species were found within 15 minutes of my arrival! I couldn’t believe my luck. I then turned my attention towards a steep, rocky hillside to look for Valley and Ridge Salamanders. I’ve never seen the species, but the habitat seemed almost perfect for the species from what I’ve read. Unfortunately, I only turned up a single Northern Slimy Salamander after an hour of uncomfortable searching.

Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamanders were abundant once I figured out where to look for them.

Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamanders were abundant once I figured out where to look for them.

Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander. The salamander with a name as long as itself.

Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander. The salamander with a name as long as itself.

Looks good for Valley and Ridge Salamanders, doesn't it?

Looks good for Valley and Ridge Salamanders, doesn’t it?

I thought I’d try fishing the Savage River for Brook Trout before I left western Maryland, but I didn’t see a single fish of any species after 15 minutes, so I turned back to the rocks. My heart skipped a beat when I flipped a nice, flat rock and saw a gray snake beneath…but it was just a Northern Ringneck Snake, not the Queen Snake I was searching for all summer.

Long-tailed Salamanders are rather striking.

Long-tailed Salamanders are rather striking. This was a bonus find under a rock I literally tripped over. I didn’t even intend to look beneath it!

Curses! Another Northern Ringneck Snake resting along a creek!

Curses! Another Northern Ringneck Snake resting along a creek!

Deciding I might have better luck fishing on the Potomac River, I headed back east and stopped at a quiet spot along the Maryland/West Virginia border and pulled out my fly rod. I saw a lot of fish fleeing a predator while Common Ravens circled overhead, but I never saw what was making the minnows fly out of the water. I only had about 90 minutes to fish, but I was pleased to catch several Redbreast Sunfish (my first since 2012) and a few smaller Smallmouth Bass. It turned out to be a pretty nice way to end my weekend of salamander hunting.

I forgot that Redbreast Sunfish like to hang out mid-current. I'm used to catching sunfish in slow flow areas!

I forgot that Redbreast Sunfish like to hang out mid-current. I’m used to catching sunfish in slow flow areas!

Always a pleasure to catch Smallmouth Bass on a fly rod.

Always a pleasure to catch Smallmouth Bass on a fly rod.

Looking at West Virginia along the upper Potomac River.

Looking at West Virginia along the upper Potomac River.

All in all, it was a pretty productive weekend. Three lifers (Wehrle’s Salamander, Seal Salamander, and Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander). I’m eagerly awaiting spring, when I plan to target Green, Cow Knob, and Valley and Ridge Salamanders. But first we have to get through winter and my never-ending quest to find a flying squirrel!

Salamander Spaghetti

The DC Metro system was closed for emergency inspections today, so I opted to commute to my favorite herping location before I headed back home to start my work day. Turned out to be an excellent decision!

When I failed to find any Ambystoma salamanders on my previous trip I was hoping I was just a bit on the early side, so I decided to head straight to the fishless pond and start looking under cover. My first rock of the day had a couple of Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), so my hopes were pretty high.

I moved into some wetter soil and struck out immediately and often. It didn’t take long for me to give up and move to drier land a little closer to the pond. I flipped a few rocks before coming to a nice downed log. Turning the log revealed a rather plump Spotted Salamander (Ambystona maculatum)!

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Spotted Sandpiper at her breeding pond.

Spotted Sandpiper at her breeding pond.

I started finding additional Spotted Salamanders as I worked my way around the pond, and I noticed that I exclusively found them beneath wood. In fact, one large log held a single grouping of 12 Spotted Salamanders, bring a toad knot to mind!

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Salamander spaghetti…coined by my friend Nick March!

I flipped several more pieces of cover hoping for Jefferson Salamander, but I didn’t have any luck. I moved on towards a small seep/creek since I was short on time, flipping good looking cover as I came upon it. There were lots of Eastern Red-backs, but still no Northern Slimy Salamanders.

One of the larger Eastern Red-backed Salamanders of the day.

One of the larger Eastern Red-backed Salamanders of the day.

Before reaching the creek I stopped to check the rocks on a beautiful hill that looked like a perfect spot for a Copperhead. Unfortunately, I only found a single Eastern Red-backed Salamander beneath the several dozen rocks and logs I checked! I guess it’s still just a little too early for snakes (after all, it’s still winter and snow is in the forecast this weekend).

I eventually made my way down to the seep, and I almost immediately noticed a thick “stick” moving against the current. It turned out to be a larval Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber)! I think this is only the second time I’ve ever seen a salamander out and about in broad daylight.

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This Red Salamander was moving pretty quickly. I eventually figured out that manual focus was superior to auto-focus since reflections off the water surface was confusing the camera.

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I was pretty happy to end the day with some true in situ shots of the Red Salamander, so I packed up to leave…only to accidentally drop my camera’s flash in the creek! It fizzled and popped and died. And that’s why I’m glad I took out insurance on my camera gear a few years ago! A replacement flash should be here before I head out again in my quest to find Wood Frogs…

I only had about 45 minutes to search this morning, so I’m pretty pleased with the day’s totals. Still looking for my lifer Jefferson Salamander and my first Wood Frog in a decade though.

Totals

  • Eastern Red-backed Salamander – 12
  • Spotted Salamander – 17
  • Red Salamander – 1 (larval)
  • Pickerel Frog – 2
  • Spring Peeper – 1 (heard only)

Winter Salamanders

A lot of precipitation fell last weekend, and it was over 60°F yesterday, so I decided to try my luck with salamanders this morning. I know it’s a little early in the season (and there’s still snow on the ground!) but I had some hopes that Spotted Salamanders, or maybe even Jefferson Salamanders, would be heading towards the fishless ponds. I struck out with both of those species, but ended up having a pretty good day overall.

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The main trail was a mess of snow and ice despite a week of above-freezing temperatures.

It took me longer than I expected to reach my target creek/seep because I stopped at a fishless pond to search for Ambystoma coming to breed. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much cover and I didn’t find anything in the cover I flipped. The pond was completely frozen over all the way to the shoreline. Right before the mouth of the seep I encountered a really nice hillside that I intend on revisiting in a few months.

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Look at all those south-facing rocks!

This was my first visit to this creek/seep, and it was much smaller than I was expecting.

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Not much to this creek, but it had a steady flow.

After about 20 minutes of finding nothing, I finally flipped a rock that held a salamander! It was a nice, plump Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus fuscus). The water was pretty chilly, so this individual was pretty torpid and allowed me to take a few photographs before I replaced the rock and guided the salamander back to where I found it.

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A beautiful Northern Dusky Salamander in situ.

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Northern Dusky Salamander

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Northern Dusky Salamander

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Northern Dusky Salamander

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The first time I’ve tried to take a photograph of a herp with a wide-angle lens. Northern Dusky Salamander near its home creek.

I found a tiny Northern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea bislineata) near the Dusky Salamander, but I didn’t bother trying to get a photo (there will be plenty of opportunities when it warms up later this year).

As I continued along I started flipping rocks that weren’t necessarily in the wet parts of the drainage. I was hoping I might luck into an Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereous) or a Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinous).

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Nailed it! The first four Eastern Red-backed Salamanders of the day. Both the ‘red-backed’ and ‘lead-backed’ morphs were under the same rock

I ended up finding quite a few Eastern Red-backed Salamanders, and some of them were awfully tiny.

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This Eastern Red-backed Salamander really wasn’t a whole lot bigger than a pillbug.

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Eastern Red-backed Salamander

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Eastern Red-backed Salamander

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A trio of tiny Eastern Red-backed Salamanders.

As I moved up the creek I found a lot of really great habitat that I can’t wait to come back to in another 6 weeks or so.

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No fish in this creek!

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Deer jaw providing habitat in the creek.

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This is a nearby stream I did not really check out today. However, I was around this stream last August, and I hope to find my first Queen Snake here in a few months.

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Getting close to the head of the seep.

On my way back to the car I lucked into a single rock that was hiding five or six Eastern Red-backed Salamanders and five Pickerel Frogs (Lithobates palustris)!

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Some of the Eastern Red-backed Salamanders and Pickerel Frogs I found under one rock.

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Green Frogs (Rana clamitans melanota) like this one will be much more abundant here in a few months.

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Right before I left I found this larval Northern Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber ruber) way up at the head of a seep!

For a late February morning, I’m pretty pleased with the day’s results:

  • Northern Dusky Salamander – 4 (3 adults, 1 larval)
  • Northern Two-lined Salamander – 1
  • Eastern Red-backed Salamander – 15
  • Northern Red Salamander – 1 (larval)
  • Green Frog – 2
  • Pickerel Frog – 5

Welcome to Maryland!

Welcome to Maryland!

Since we learned we would be moving to Maryland back in May, I’ve been planning for all the potential life animals that awaited me. There won’t be many new birds for me in Maryland unless I take to the sea (first pelagic, weather permitting, will be in February out of Lewes, Delaware!), so I thought I would focus on fish and herps.

I haven’t spent too much time chasing fish in the two plus months we’ve lived here. I tried to see what I could turn up at Lake Frank in Montgomery Co., Maryland (Bluegill and Largemouth Bass), but I haven’t taken the time to go microfishing. Part of that is probably because my micro rod broke before we moved and I haven’t gotten around to ordering the replacement part!

So, with no new birds and no new fish on the horizon I have focused my attention to herps. Unfortunately, it has been incredibly dry here this summer. I’ve flipped literally hundreds of rocks and logs in great looking deciduous forest habitat with nary a snake or lizard to show for my work.

I have lucked into a few species while just walking around. Mostly Eastern American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus americanus) and a couple Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina), plus a Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatusthat was too fast for Owen to glimpse.

Owen was the first to spy this Eastern Box Turtle! His first self-found herp!

Since the woods have been dry, I recently started focusing heavily on nearby streams. An outing to a drainage with Owen just 1/4 mile from our home paid off on Labor Day weekend. We found about a dozen Northern Green Frogs, a few Eastern American Toads, a pair of Northern Watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon sipedon), and my first Northern Two-lined Salamanders (Eurcyea bislineata bislineata) in over six years!

Owen was willing to pet the first Northern Green Frog we caught. After that he just wanted to see them hop.
Owen really wanted to see a salamander because it took us a long time to catch one, but he didn’t want to touch it.
We ended up seeing four Northern Two-lined Salamanders, but we only caught this one.
We found a pair of Northern Watersnakes. Owen is not a huge snake fan (yet).
When you see them in their habitat the color pattern really makes sense!

While looking for salamanders I also found one of our most noxious caterpillars, the Saddleback Slug Caterpillar (Acharia stimulea). Owen was very good about not touching it, and I brought it home to get some photographs. It was about 1/2″ long; it would be scary if these things were bigger!

If I had touched this guy there’s a good chance I would have instantly regretted it.

We also visited our friends over Labor Day weekend, and they happen tohave a creek in their backyard! We found more Northern Two-lined Salamanders and a Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris)!

One of at least seven Pickerel Frogs at our friends’ house.
These Northern Two-lined Salamanders are everywhere I look for them!
Another Northern Two-lined Salamander, this time from 20 September.
Last week, I was able to take my first herping trip in Maryland without Owen in tow. Since the weather has been so dry, I decided to focus my attention on small creeks (salamanders and frogs!). I had been doing a little research to figure out which species of salamanders I could expect in Montgomery County, and was surprised to find the county has a pretty good webpage. Based on the location I had time to visit, I was really hoping for an Eastern Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber ruber) or a Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus).
In the end, I settled on a location that appeared to have creeks of various sizes. I picked out one on the map beforehand and jogged to it (allowing a little time to flip the some of the many rocks and logs I found along my way). When I finally got to the creek I had a feeling I was going to have some luck…just a trickle of water, but the creek banks were muddy!
Such a nice little seep for amphibians.
I’m sure this creek has a name, but I don’t have a clue what it is. The number of crayfish found in the creek makes me think I might find a Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata) in the area someday.

I flipped a few rocks, then came to what would be my fifth rock in the creek. It looked like it was stuck in the bank pretty tightly, but it came clear without much effort. When I glanced below I spied two (!) large (!) reddish (!) salamanders! I quickly grabbed the redder individual, laid the rock back towards me (so as to not crush the other salamander), then began a game called “don’t drop the salamander.”
At this point I wasn’t sure if I had my Eastern Red Salamander or a Mud Salamander (P. montanus), but I knew I had a lifer. The only question was whether I’d be able to ID it or if it would slip into the creek and out of sight. I imagine a bystander would have been laughing at me. The salamander kept slipping out of one hand, falling about a foot, only to be caught again, and again, and again. Eventually, I got the salamander calmed down on a mossy rock and took several photographs before putting it back where I found it. He wasn’t as intensely red as I had hoped, but that just means I’ll be all the more excited when I finally find a really red specimen!
This trip taught me that Pseudotriton is an incredibly slippery genus, and that I need to start bringing an aquarium dip net to keep the stress level down for myself and the salamanders.
See those yellow eyes? That eliminates Mud Salamander, leaving me with my lifer Eastern Red Salamander!
When I went to put him back I realized there were eggs on the underside of the rock I left sitting wrong-side up in the creek!
I imagine only a couple of these 97 Eastern Red Salamander (presumed) eggs will make it to the adult stage.
I very carefully replaced the rock, making sure I didn’t damage the eggs or the other adult that was still in the area. Then it was up the creek to see what else I could find! It took awhile, but I eventually found a couple more Northern Two-lined Salamanders and finally got a proper photograph of the species.
Northern Two-lined Salamanders do not like to sit still.
While flipping rocks, I had a very quick glimpse of the tail end of a salamander just before some silt moved in and clouded my view. I was certain it wasn’t an Eastern Red, and it was too big to be a Northern Two-lined. I had a hunch it would have been a lifer, but I’ll never know.
That said, after my next capture, a Northern Dusky Salamander, I’m relatively certain that the mystery salamander was another Northern Dusky. The Northern Dusky that I caught was my first experience with the genus Desmognathus. I was left thinking, “How can something with such tiny legs be so fast?!?”
This guy (or girl) was a speed demon. S/he bolted every time I gave him/her a chance. I think it was frustrating for me, and needlessly stressful for the salamander. But, after just a couple tries I was able to calm it down and take a few pictures before returning him/her to its initial rock.
Once the Northern Dusky Salamander calmed down it was extremely cooperative.
A deceptively handsome little guy (or girl).
In the end, the creek only turned up two Eastern Reds, one (probably two) Northern Duskies, and two Northern Two-lineds, but I can’t wait to get back there and to the other streams in the area. I have my hopes up for a Long-tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicauda) or a Northern Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus)!