Winter Herping

Prior to this winter, I never bothered to look for herps from about late October until maybe early March when the Spring Peepers started calling. Then late last year I had the sudden realization that a lot of salamanders probably aren’t hiding in subterranean lairs awaiting Spring. No, they’re hanging out in the creeks!

My office was closed for Inauguration Day, so on January 20 I visited a local river and a nature area in hopes of turning up some salamanders. The river yielded a Northern Two-lined Salamander beneath the first rock! I spent another 20 minutes poking around trying to find a bit more diversity, but all I found were more Northern Two-lined Salamanders. A young Northern Dusky Salamander eventually slid through my fingers at the edge of the river, but I declined to try and relocate it for a photo.

This Northern Two-lined Salamander was my first herp of 2017!

This Northern Two-lined Salamander was my first herp of 2017!

Tiring of not finding much, even though it was late January, I decided to visit a nearby location that holds breeding Spotted Salamanders. I found them in mid-March last year, so I was curious as to how early they might turn up at the breeding pond. Turns out they don’t show up in late January (or mid-February, for that matter).

Several Eastern Red-backed Salamanders kept me from getting skunked at the second area. Bless their hearts, they’re out in the woods beneath just a bit of cover every day of the year.

Eastern Red-backed Salamanders are incredibly abundant around here. I seldom return from trips where I managed to keep a count of every individual I encountered.

Eastern Red-backed Salamanders are incredibly abundant around here. I seldom return from trips where I managed to keep a count of every individual I encountered.

Just before Valentine’s Day Diana and Owen joined me on a hike to look for Spotted Salamanders with our friends Kate and Adrianna. The Spotted Salamanders did not show (the Eastern Red-backs did though!). We spent a lot of time hiking in a chilly rain to not find much, but I managed to corral a little Pickerel Frog just before it was time to turn back to the warmth of our cars.

The two adults in this photo tried to keep the two children in this photo out of the mud while I tried to find critters.

The two adults in this photo tried to keep the two children in this photo out of the mud while I tried to find critters.

Owen wants to hold all of the Eastern Red-backed Salamanders that we find.

Owen wants to hold all of the Eastern Red-backed Salamanders that we find.

The savior of a wet, chilly failed Spotted Salamander search was this Pickerel Frog.

The savior of a wet, chilly failed Spotted Salamander search was this Pickerel Frog.

Owen has been watching a lot of Coyote Peterson lately, and that’s spurred him to want to find “critters” and “creatures” with me whenever he gets the chance. On President’s Day weekend we went to a nearby trail and spent some time looking for salamanders together. He was always ready to check the next rock or log! We found several Eastern Red-backed Salamanders, including at least two with eggs!

An Eastern Red-backed Salamander with her (?) eggs.

An Eastern Red-backed Salamander with her (?) eggs.

Fresh off of finding several Northern Two-lined Salamanders!

Fresh off of finding several Northern Two-lined Salamanders!

When Diana asked me what I wanted for my birthday this year I told her I wanted an overnight trip to look for herps. She graciously agreed (look for a blog or two about a trip to North Carolina in late April/early May!), and on my actual birthday I got to head down to the river near our house to see what I could turn up!

I immediately found Northern Two-lined Salamanders everywhere I looked. The weather has been unusually warm (and relatively wet) the past month, so cold-blooded animals seem to be stirring more than I’d expect them to be during a normal year.

I opted to bypass most of my usual searching grounds in hopes of finding some runs or holes in the river that might produce some new fish species later this year. That turned out to be an excellent decision! For some reason, I decided to check under a rock I normally wouldn’t look under. It was big, bulky, not really in (or touching) the river. It ended up being a fantastic decision!

Once all the detritus I stirred up from lifting the rock subsided I was left looking at a stunning Northern Red Salamander!

Northern Red Salamander in situ after uncovering it.

Northern Red Salamander in situ after uncovering it.

Northern Red Salamander

Northern Red Salamander

The first time I've made use of my new Samyang 8 mm lens! It is a very challenging lens to use, and I have much to learn.

The first time I’ve made use of my new Samyang 8 mm lens! It is a very challenging lens to use, and I have much to learn.

I recently acquired a sheet of white acrylic to try and take some uncluttered field photos of small species I find.

I recently acquired a sheet of white acrylic to try and take some uncluttered field photos of small species I find.

I spent a bit of time photographing the Northern Red Salamander when I discovered a little Pickerel Frog hopping nearby. Normally, I would have probably ignored it after taking a quick photo for Herp Mapper, but something seemed strange about the way it was moving. A close inspection revealed it to be a 3.5-legged frog! It was missing the lower half of its left rear limb!

As there didn't appear to be any scarring, my guess is that this frog was born this way.

As there didn’t appear to be any scarring, my guess is that this frog was born this way.

Notice how there's no left hind foot on this Pickerel Frog.

Notice how there’s no left hind foot on this Pickerel Frog.

As February wraps up I’m surprised to find myself having already seen five amphibians in 2017. I expect Spring Peepers and Gray Tree Frogs to begin calling shortly, plus there are undoubtedly Spotted Salamanders at the breeding pond by now…

I received a snake hook for my birthday from Diana's parents. Owen has pretty much decided that it is his, and he likes to practice wrangling snakes.

I received a snake hook for my birthday from Diana’s parents. Owen has pretty much decided that it’s his, and he likes to practice wrangling snakes.

As always, high quality versions of many of these photos can be seen on my Flickr page.

Long time, no see!

Last weekend, I visited the creek near our home and started poking around some rocks in a new stretch of river. I didn’t find too much, but I did find a Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus)!

The Northern Slimy Salamander was recently split into 13 different species that pretty much look identical to each other and are best distinguished by range.


The ranges of the many species formerly considered P. glutinosus. From

This sighting was my first of P. glutinosus since I found several with my friend Matt in Ithaca, NY back in 2009! Needless to say, I was pretty excited, even if it wasn’t a lifer.


Northern Slimy Salamanders are much more terrestrial species than the salamanders I’ve been finding lately. I was surprised to find it so close to the creek.


Impossible to see here, but this guy was missing most of his tail!

I dutifully returned to the creek this weekend, but I failed (not surprisingly) to find a Northern Slimy Salamander. Instead, I found a young Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)! I hadn’t seen a Wood Frog since April 2008 when one was singing near our first apartment in Ithaca, NY! Again, while it wasn’t a lifer, it may as well have been.

Unfortunately, I was theoretically at the creek to fish (I caught several Common Shiners and Fallfish), so I didn’t have a good camera with me. The few photos I took ended up being out-of-focus. Luckily, we had an opportunity to return to the creek this morning.

Surprisingly, a Wood Frog (presumably the same) was beneath the same rock I found one under (and returned it to) yesterday afternoon! Since I had my good camera this time, I reeled of a few shots.


Wood Frogs can be tough to spot when they hunker down.


This guy was not the most cooperative frog I’ve ever encountered.


Now that I know where to find these guys I can’t wait to get back next Spring to hear them sing. I think they sound like mutant turkeys!

I also worked my way much farther down the creek this weekend and found incredible habitat and lots of cover to check in the future. I’ve also found a few trails that lead away from the creek, boosting my hopes of finding a Wood Turtle later this year!

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)!


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!


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.


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.


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.


  • 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.


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.


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.


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.


A beautiful Northern Dusky Salamander in situ.


Northern Dusky Salamander


Northern Dusky Salamander


Northern Dusky Salamander


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).


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.


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


Eastern Red-backed Salamander


Eastern Red-backed Salamander


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.


No fish in this creek!


Deer jaw providing habitat in the creek.


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.


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)!


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


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


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)!