Finally at sea!

Back in 2006, I was living in upstate New York. After growing up in the Midwest I was finally close enough (~5 hours) to the ocean to take a pelagic birding trip! Naturally, I signed up for a winter trip out of Lewes, Delaware (I was afraid to drive to NYC) as soon as I could. As luck would have it, that trip was cancelled.

Fast forward to 2015, when we moved from Missouri to Maryland. Again, I’m finally close enough (~2.5 hours!) to the ocean to take a pelagic birding trip! I was the first person to sign up for the January 2016 trip out of Lewes, Delaware…which was canceled due to 10 feet high seas on the day of the trip! Luckily, it was a pretty warm day for January and my friend Kate and I had a pretty decent day of land birding.

I thought about signing up for a summer pelagic trip, but we were planning to move last spring/summer, and I wasn’t sure if I’d have time. Plus, I really wanted to see a Dovekie. I eagerly awaited the release of the 2017 pelagic trip list, and I was a little relieved when I saw there was no winter trip out of Lewes, Delaware. I figured out that Belmar, New Jersey was the closest winter trip to me, so I signed up for that one.

This year, the weather could not have been more perfect. Temperatures were in the low 40s, winds were light, and I’ve been on kayaks in choppier lakes than the north Atlantic was that day.

Still, in order to get there on time I had to wake around 3:00 AM, drive 3.5 hours to the coast, then stand around until it was time to board. Luckily, there were a good number of birds to watch in the harbor, and I even met someone from Cornell who was familiar with my name through eBird!

The harbor was full of Brant and Mute Swans, with a few American Black Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Bufflehead milling around the edges. Someone pointed out a distant Peregrine Falcon perched atop a nearby bridge, and a Boat-tailed Grackle was spitting sound from atop a moored boat. All this before we even left the dock!

Needless to say, I was pretty excited to be standing up front along the bow railing as we departed. However, I was quickly reminded just how hard it is to pick out birds sitting on the water even in a tiny 2 feet swell. And most birds in flight stayed pretty far away, so it was tough to ID species I have limited experience with (and none in the past several years).

A group of White-winged Scoters took off as we approached.

A group of White-winged Scoters took off as we approached.

Black Scoters flying well off our bow.

Black Scoters flying well off our bow.

Luckily, the trip leaders were excellent in calling out birds and giving directions as to where the bird was/was heading. We even lucked out and had a Razorbill just sitting off the port side of the boat a few minutes into the trip!

The best look I had at a Razorbill all day.

The best look I had at a Razorbill all day.

It was quickly apparent that this trip would not be like the boat trips I’d taken in California, Alaska, or even Ireland. We would often go long stretches without seeing anything but the odd Herring or Great Black-backed Gull. The trip operators were not able to procure any chum for the trip, but they did bring a large box of beef suet on board. Unfortunately, that was used up pretty quickly.

On the plus side, when we did have suet to throw overboard it brought in a lot of gulls, including a potential Thayer’s Gull (I feel like it was an Iceland Gull, personally). I briefly glimpsed a very distant Black-legged Kittiwake, but just barely.

My first Iceland Gull in 2833 days, but who's counting?

My first Iceland Gull in 2833 days, but who’s counting?

Great Black-backed Gulls were kings of the wake.

Great Black-backed Gulls were kings of the wake.

No matter how many times I see them, I will never tire of watching Northern Gannets plunge into the ocean like giant lawn darts.

No matter how many times I see them, I will never tire of watching Northern Gannets plunge into the ocean like giant lawn darts.

The real highlight of this trip for me was the marine mammals. A couple Harbor Seals popped up near the boat early in the day. Later, I missed seeing a couple Harbor Porpoises, but about halfway through the trip I saw a Fin Whale surface a couple times! I couldn’t manage a photograph, but it was pretty cool to see my first Fin Whale since July 6, 2006!

A Harbor Seal slowly swam past the port side of the boat, but I was stuck on starboard. When I got around to the stern this was all I could see of the seal.

A Harbor Seal slowly swam past the port side of the boat, but I was stuck on starboard. When I got around to the stern this was all I could see of the seal.

I was lucky enough to see several pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, which became life mammal number 92! Most of them were swimming within about 50 yards of the boat, but some even went bow-riding for a bit.

These Short-beaked Common Dolphins were way too fast for me to get a solid photo, but at least I got something!

These Short-beaked Common Dolphins were way too fast for me to get a solid photo, but at least I got something!

Of course, I took my GPS with me on this trip to get an idea of how far out we went. Turns out we did a total trip of somewhere around 70 miles, getting just barely over 28 miles offshore at our farthest point.

New York City is just off the map to the north.

New York City is just off the map to the north.

As we were disembarking the Peregrine Falcon went screaming after a Bald Eagle, the rat of the sky. It was a fitting end to the day. All in all, it was a great trip. I ended up with a lifer mammal and added about 20 species to my 2017 list!

Cumulative list for the day:

Species Total
Brant 500
Canada Goose 11
Mute Swan 40
American Black Duck 14
Surf Scoter 1
White-winged Scoter 4
Black Scoter 10
Bufflehead 9
Common Merganser 3
Red-breasted Merganser 11
Red-throated Loon 8
Common Loon 12
Northern Gannet 35
Bald Eagle 1
Common Murre 9
Common/Thick-billed Murre 2
Razorbill 4
large alcid sp. 3
Black-legged Kittiwake 1
Bonaparte's Gull 4
Ring-billed Gull 4
Herring Gull 28
Iceland Gull 1
Great Black-backed Gull 18
Rock Pigeon (Feral) 7
Peregrine Falcon 1
European Starling 25
Boat-tailed Grackle 1
Harbor Seal 2
Fin Whale 1
Short-beaked Common Dolphin 14+

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!

Herping Pennsylvania

About ten days ago I decided I really wanted to head north to Pennsylvania and see what kind of herps I could find. I also wouldn’t mind if I stumbled upon a Black Bear, North American Porcupine, or even an Allegheny Wood Rat. With a little luck and an understanding wife, I got the okay to head up to south-central Pennsylvania yesterday morning! The only downside? I had to leave our house around 4:00 AM so I would have about 4.5 hours on the ground before I returned home before my son’s nap.

The Pennsylvania woods are dark at sunrise. I mean really dark. I needed a flashlight to find trail blazes! I also promptly lost the trail at a creek crossing and decided to see if I could bushwhack my way up the mountain to a rockfall I thought might hold some Timber Rattlesnakes.

Before I moved to far uphill from the creek I was visited by an angry horsefly. The thing kept buzzing around my head, biting my arms and back, and generally just making me wish it would die. It followed me for a good 100 yards, then all of a sudden it stopped, but I could still hear it buzzing. I focused my flashlight on the noise and found the horsefly being attacked by a large spider in a spiderweb! It was the most satisfied I’d feel all morning.

I was hoping to get to that yellow thumbtack on the north side of the mountain. As you can see from my GPS track, I gave up well short of my goal.

I was hoping to get to that yellow thumbtack on the north side of the mountain. As you can see from my GPS track, I gave up well short of my goal. For scale, a straight line from my starting point to the pin is about 0.8 miles, but gains about 700 feet of elevation to the peak of the mountain before dropping down the other side. Google Earth suggested slopes approaching 45% at times.

I found a ton of great looking habitat in the surprisingly dim morning light. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into any herps. I found my only snake of the day (Northern Ringneck Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii)) beneath a rock, but I spent most of my time peering under rock piles hoping to find a dozing Northern Copperhead or Timber Rattlesnake. After about 15 minutes I realized I’d end up wasting my entire morning trying to get up the mountain, so I turned around and headed back to the car.

So much habitat. The entire mountainside was like this for as far as I could see laterally. It would have taken hours and hours to properly search this stuff by myself.

So much habitat. The entire mountainside was like this for as far as I could see laterally. It would have taken hours and hours to properly search this stuff by myself. (This photo has been considerably lightened or you wouldn’t see any of the rocks!)

Along the way back I had to cross a small stream again, so I flipped a few rocks. It was almost too dark to see what was under them without the flashlight! I ended up finding three Northern Dusky Salamanders (Desmognathus f. fuscus) on a small island in the creek, but they weren’t what I was looking for so I quickly moved on.

I really didn't expect this Northern Ringneck Snake at 6:30 AM to be my only snake of the entire day.

I really didn’t expect this Northern Ringneck Snake at 6:30 AM to be my only snake of the entire day.

The first of 10 Northern Dusky Salamanders of the day.

The first of 10 Northern Dusky Salamanders of the day.  Note how I had to shine my flashlight on this guy and the snake above to even be able to take a photograph. I’m really not used to such dense growth.

I was really taken aback by how completely silent the woods were. No birds, no bugs, no squirrels. Just trickling water in the creek and me crunching through the understory. Birds and bugs finally started making some noise around 9:00 AM, but even then they were few and far between. I’ve never been in a forest so quiet outside of winter in my entire life.

My next stop was a pre-determined location to search for Northern Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus p. porphyriticus), which was really the only possible new salamander for me on this trip. I felt like the habitat would be good from talking with someone who was familiar with the area, but PARS only listed 5 records for the county, and none since July 2015. I had mixed feelings, but I was setting my hopes low.

I opted for a slightly long route to the next trail in hopes of stumbling upon a basking snake on the road, but no luck there. However, I did encounter a trio of Ruffed Grouse running across the road, my first in over 6 1/4 years! I hadn’t seen (or heard) a Ruffed Grouse since we lived in Ithaca, NY! That made taking the long route worth it! (I also saw an American Woodcock bouncing down the road before sunrise…a species I hadn’t seen in about 4 years…I always just heard them twittering around at night!)

I celebrated my first Ruffed Grouse in over 6 years by taking a terrible photo with a 100mm lens from a running car. I think you can see the chicken-shaped bird near the tree trunk!

I commemorated my first Ruffed Grouse in over 6 years by taking a terrible photo with a 100mm lens from a running car. See the chicken-shaped bird near the tree trunk?!?

The bulk of my morning was spent on and around one trail that took me to a small mountain stream. It was along this trail that I hiked past some campers, my only human sightings of the entire morning. The trail had a good number of rocks and logs as I wound myself down towards the creek, and I couldn’t help but check beneath a few.

The trail!

The trail!

Turned out to be a good idea! I started finding Northern Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon glutinosus) and I saw my only Eastern Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) of the trip.

Northern Slimy Salamanders are not fun to touch, so I didn't even bother to get good photos of any of the five I found. They leave an incredibly annoying sticky residue on your fingers if you touch them.

Northern Slimy Salamanders are not fun to touch, so I didn’t even bother to get good photos of any of the five I found. They leave an incredibly annoying sticky residue on your fingers if you touch them.

This is the red-back form of the Eastern Redback Salamander. There's also a form that lacks the red back!

This is the red-back form of the Eastern Redback Salamander. There’s also a form that lacks the red back!

I eventually found my way down to the stream, and I started flipping rocks in earnest. It was still pretty early (before 8:00 AM), but i could tell there was a lot of ground to cover before I had to leave. After only a few rocks I started to see Northern Two-lined Salamanders (Eurycea bislineata).

Northern Two-lined Salamanders have been abundant everywhere I've looked in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Northern Two-lined Salamanders have been abundant everywhere I’ve looked in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Northern Two-lined Salamanders were not my quarry, however. I was there to try and find a Northern Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus p. porphyriticus). Everything I could dig up suggested they should be in this area, but PARS only had five county records and none in over a year. I had my work cut out for me!

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Home to dozens of salamanders

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I kept waiting for an American Black Bear or North American Porcupine to come down for a drink, but no luck.

Northern Spring Salamanders are big salamanders, so I focused my attention on larger rocks. It wasn’t long before I saw a large tail in a hole beneath a rock, only to see it quickly disappear! It wasn’t the right color for a Northern Dusky, so I quickly scooped out everything I could and laid eyes on my lifer Northern Spring Salamander!

The salamander ended up being incredibly cooperative, and after taking over 100 photos I put it back more or less where I found it. I wish they were all so easy!

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Northern Spring Salamander in all its glory.

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The light lines from the eyes to the nostrils, bordered by dark, is a good field mark for this variable species.

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Peek-a-boo!

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Northern Spring Salamander in habitat.

Northern Spring Salamander in habitat.

I was so focused on finding a Northern Spring Salamander that I completely forgot the area was also likely to hold Red Salamanders (Pseudotriton ruber)! Previously, I’d only found big, dull, adults or larval stage Reds. This time I lucked out and found a pair of gorgeous, brilliant orange/red younger individuals! Unlike the Northern Spring, these guys were very active and not keen on being photographed.

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Red Salamanders are up there as one of my favorite Eastern species.

Red Salamander in habitat

Red Salamander in habitat

While I was continuing down the creek I heard a loud “plop” that sounded far too large to be a frog or something from a tree. I raced down to where I heard the sound and saw my lifer Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in a small pool off the main channel of the stream! Reaching into water up to my bicep, I managed to grab the turtle before it dove under cover and have a good look at my second lifer of the day!

I ended up laying on the forest floor watching the turtle for about 15 minutes before I gave up on it ever fully coming out of its shell while I was there. I was hoping I’d encounter this species, but I wasn’t really counting on it.

This Wood Turtle was happy to watch me, but it showed no inclination to move around.

This Wood Turtle was happy to watch me, but it showed no inclination to move around.

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The Wood Turtle sat just like this for a good 15 minutes while I watched from eye level.

Such a pretty shell!

Such a pretty shell!

When it was time to leave I planned on taking the trail back to my car, but I noticed that an intermittent stream descended from near the access road my car was parked on, so I decided that was a more interesting route.

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I turned this intermittent stream into my trail back to the road. I didn’t check my rocks, but I imagine it was teeming with more salamanders.

As you can see from my GPS track, I tend to get sidetracked by good habitat.

As you can see from my GPS track, I tend to get sidetracked by good habitat.

I saw a few fish in isolated pools in this side stream, but I couldn’t see any well enough to identify them. If I had had more time I probably could have easily spent an hour covering the 0.3 miles back to the road.

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Finally made it back to the road!

This area was a gem of a location, and I can’t wait to get back there as soon as possible.

Totals for the trip:

  • White-tailed Deer – 2
  • Fox Squirrel – 1
  • Northern Dusky Salamander – 10
  • Northern Slimy Salamander – 5
  • Eastern Redback Salamander – 1
  • Northern Two-lined Salamander – 9
  • Northern Spring Salamander – 1 **LIFER**
  • Red Salamander – 2
  • Wood Turtle – 1 **LIFER**
  • Northern Ringneck Snake – 1
  • Pickerel Frog – 1 (heard only)

Loads of Lifers!

Before my son was born at the end of 2012 I found myself fishing at least once a week, and sometimes as many as five times a week when the weather cooperated. The number of trips dwindled as 2013 wore on, and I pretty much didn’t fish at all in 2014 or 2015. Now that my son is a little older, and we have a lovely (read, not-crowded) stream a 10 minute drive from our new house I’m hoping to at least get out once or twice a month.

I made it out on the water last weekend for the first time in nine months, and I was rewarded with a lifer! I was targeting Fallfish (Semotilus corporalis) with my 4-wt fly rod, and that’s exactly what I got!

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One of four Fallfish I caught on 11 June 2016.

My first Fallfish actually came on only my second or third cast of the morning, which made the rest of the trip more palatable. I’m used to fishing Ozark streams teeming with schools of fish and groups of darters. The stream I was fishing seemed to have almost no fish at all! It didn’t matter where I walked, I was not spooking fish or crayfish. I was somewhat convinced the stream only held Fallfish and Creek Chubs.

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Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus) caught on a nymph fly.

Despite the overall lack of fish, I kept moving downstream in hopes of finding a nice hole or run before my time ran out. I reeled in another Fallfish, but before I could even remove the hook I saw something big hop in the water at the end of the pool, about 75 feet away. A few seconds later it dawned on me that I was watching my lifer North American Beaver (Castor canadensis)!

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The beaver swam lazy circles in front of me for several minutes, as if I weren’t there. It was fantastic.

 

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I was hoping I’d get to see/hear a tail slap, but the beaver just gently lowered its tail and started swimming around again.

The beaver swam right past me, nibbled on an overhanging branch, then continued up the creek. Then it wheeled around and swam circles in front of me for several minutes, passing within 15 feet of me several times! I only had my iPhone for photos/video. If I had my dSLR I would have had frame-filling images, but that wasn’t to be that day. Maybe next time!

Unfortunately for the Fallfish I’d just caught, I completely forgot I was holding it in my hand! It was out of the water for almost five minutes, but I was able to revive it and watch it swim off once I realized what I’d done. I spent the better part of the past 15 years actively seeking out a beaver across North America without any luck. The closest I came was hearing a tail slap at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, NY after dark one night. I ran after the sound with my flashlight, but only saw ripples. Today’s show made the wait worth it!

The beaver eventually headed well-upstream, but I caught another glimpse of it about a half hour later when I was hiking back to the car. It was a pretty good morning.


I returned to the same creek the following weekend, but I started a little farther upstream. It turned out to be a good choice, because I ended up with another life fish!

After walking for about ten minutes I came across a small, but deep hole beneath a rootwad that looked like it might hold a good-sized fish. My first cast with a medium-sized nymph drew a strike from a ~12″ long fish, but the hook pulled out before I saw what it was. The next several casts drew strikes, but I couldn’t get a good hook set!

I switched my fly to a Kreelex and brought in a 12 1/8″ lifer Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) on my first cast back into the pool!

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I don’t know why I use any fly pattern but the Kreelex. It catches fish when nothing else does in any kind of water conditions.

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I’m guessing this is the same fish I hooked on my first cast to the pool.

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I had my waterproof camera with me, so I tried an underwater shot before letting this guy back to his pool.

On my walk  out of the creek I noticed a lot of little minnows that appears to have quite a bit of red on them. I was hoping they might be Allegheny Mountain Dace, but I later learned they’re not found in this particular watershed.

However, on a return trip to the creek I had no trouble catching several on some size 28 flies, and I easily identified them as Rosyside Dace (Clinostomus funduloides), another lifer!

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I tied a few size 28 flies to target the minnows that live in the creek near our home. Live and/or scented bait is prohibited!

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I brought my photo tank to the creek so I could get a good photo of the Rosyside Dace.

On my walk back to the car I decided to flip a few rocks…and found another lifer! I ended up finding three Long-tailed Salamanders (Eurycea longicauda longicauda) in about 25 feet of shoreline. I’ve only found them again in one of three return trips, but the habitat looks fantastic for them.

The Long-tailed Salamander is my favorite Maryland salamander species...so far!

The Long-tailed Salamander is my favorite Maryland salamander species…so far!

So, in the span of about a week I netted three life fish, a long-awaited life mammal, and a life herp. Not a bad for a creek 10 minutes away from our home!

Delaware and Maryland Coasts

Back in August 2015 I signed up for a pelagic birding trip out of Lewes, Delaware with Paulagics in February 2016. Coming from the Midwest, I was very excited to get out on a boat and try to see a Dovekie. Back in December the trip got bumped up to January, and my friend Kate decided she was going to come along. Everything was looking up!

Until it was time to go on the trip. Unfortunately, a strong low pressure system worked its way up the Atlantic seaboard the night before the trip. The system dumped nearly 2″ of rain on Delaware and produced some high (>12′, possibly up to 24′) seas in the area the pelagic was to visit. The boat captain and trip leaders realized the trip to sea wouldn’t run, but Kate and I decided to make the most of our non-refundable hotel rooms and bird the Delaware and Maryland coasts instead.

Screen shot from the National Weather Service showing the center of the low pressure system that ruined our pelagic trip. It eventually moved north right off the coast of Delaware.

Kate had a decent chance at about 10 life birds with our new land route, and I had a very good chance at one. I was really hoping to finally see a Brown-headed Nuthatch, but Delaware state parks inexplicably don’t open until 8am! Since sunrise was around 7:25am, we decided to start our morning on Oyster Rocks Road, which ends at some tidal marshes on the south side of the Broadkill River.

So many places to visit in only 60 miles of driving!

Our first bird of the day was a Great Blue Heron just off the road. We were surprised to find an older gentleman just sitting in his car at the end of Oyster Rocks Road, but before we gave him much thought Kate saw a mammal bounding down the road. The mammal dove into the brush, and I jumped out of the car after it. Kate spied it down the road, which let me get my binoculars onto it…a Red Fox before sunrise!

Red Fox

After watching the fox (and the older gentleman) disappear we saw a Northern Harrier well off in the distance, but we didn’t find our hoped-for Barn and/or Short-eared Owls. Before we knew it, the sun was rising on the horizon:

Sunrise at the end of Oyster Rocks Road.

While we were enjoying some Greater Yellowlegs tooting unseen in the marshes, an adult Bald Eagle ki-ki-kied and alerted us to its landing spot on a snag near where the Red Fox disappeared a few minutes prior. We started walking that way and, surprisingly, the eagle was content to stay perched even when we walked even with its tree on the road.

The Bald Eagle did eventually fly off, but this was the most confiding individual I’ve encountered outside of Alaska.

I stopped Kate on our way back to the car because I heard a bird she was really hoping to find on our trip: Snow Geese! We stuck around long enough to see several flocks fly past, but we had no idea we’d see a much more massive flock later in the day.

Oyster Rocks Road eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26921710

Our second stop of the day was Cape Henlopen State Park, which sits opposite Cape May, New Jersey across Delaware Bay. I was really excited to visit this park because eBird suggested it was a really good spot for Brown-headed Nuthatches! This was to be my first chance at seeing this species (and my only potential life bird of the day) since I missed them when I was in Louisiana back in January 2005.

Kate and I milled around the parking lot at the Cape Henlopen Nature Center for a couple minutes, then we both heard a bunch of squeaky dog toys about 100 feet away…Brown-headed Nuthatches!

Brown-headed Nuthatch, my 769th world life bird!

A group of ~8 nuthatches appeared out of nowhere, noisily stayed high in the pines, then quickly vanished. Thankfully, they stuck around long enough for me to get really good binocular views, and I managed a few poor photographs. Before we knew it they were gone, and we didn’t see or hear any others the rest of the day.

After the nuthatches left we turned our attention back to the bird feeder near the nature center. We briefly chatted with another person who was signed up for the canceled pelagic trip, then Kate saw a couple more life birds (Pine Siskin and Red-breasted Nuthatch). We eventually headed into the woods to scan the bay for water birds, and we were greeted by many Surf Scoters and a few Red-throated Loons (another lifer for Kate) amongst others.

I was surprised how many Horseshoe Crab skeletons littered the beach.
Kate is probably trying to see a Red-throated Loon. They kept disappearing before she could get a good look all day.
All three shell types (not sure if there were two species or three species) comprised the bulk of material at the tide line.

We half-heartedly searched the pines between the beach and the nature center for Northern Saw-whet Owls, but the only birds we saw on our walk back were more Snow Geese.

The surf looked a bit rough all day. It’s probably a good thing we weren’t on a boat.

Cape Henlopen State Park eBird checklists:

Our original plan was to stop on both sides (bay and ocean) of Delaware Seashore State Park as we drove south, but the strong (~20 mph) west wind pretty much emptied the bay of any birds. In fact, we also struggled to find many birds on the ocean side. There were more scoters and loons, some very distant Northern Gannets, and a surprise Eastern Towhee in one of the sand dunes.

Indian River Inlet was easily the best stop at Delaware Seashore State Park. We were hoping for Harlequin Duck, Common Eider, and Purple Sandpiper there, but we missed all three. I later discovered that others saw the Harlequin Duck and Common Eider while we were there, but in a location we didn’t check.

The inlet did have a small group of cooperative Long-tailed Ducks though. An immature Great Cormorant flew past at one point, and Kate found a Brant hiding along a distant jetty.

Boat-tailed Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle
I called this a Double-crested Cormorant when it was swimming, but when it took off and flew back past us it was clearly an immature Great Cormorant!
Now I see why they’re called Long-tailed Ducks!

Delaware Seashore State Park eBird checklists:

I wasn’t holding out much hope for Fenwick Island State Park, our last stop in Delaware, but I asked Kate to stop there anyway. As we pulled up I saw a white bird with black wingtips and wondered aloud if it was a Snow Goose or a Northern Gannet. That question was answered when we stepped out of the car and heard LOTS of Snow Geese across the highway on the bay side.
Naturally, we ran across the highway and were stunned to find what I first estimated at about 60,000, Snow Geese. We started out alone, but  about a dozen others (non-birders!) eventually stopped to see the spectacle before we left.
I picked out four geese with neck collars. I submitted all of them to the USFWS yesterday, and I hope to hear back about where they were banded sometime in the next few months. I left the spotting scope in the car, so I didn’t have much hope of picking out a Ross’s Goose.
Snow Goose RJ62 – Female; Banded 11 August 2009
Snow Goose ?X27
Snow Goose TH45 – Female; Banded 07 August 2013
Snow Goose UK55 – Female; Banded 10 August 2015

The three Snow Geese with fully legible collars were banded on Bylot Island, Nunavut, Canada!

After several minutes, the Snow Geese took off, and Kate got to experience what it’s like to be in a Snow Goose snow globe! The geese reorganized themselves, and I was able to see that my original estimate was a bit low. I re-estimated about 125,000 Snow Geese! Later, we drove and found the southern end of the flock. Google Earth suggests that the flock may have been about 1/2 mile in length.

We were standing at the kayak concession stand (the brown area along the left side of the highway at top) and could see the flock extending past the northern point. We don’t really know how far up they went. When we later drove to the south end we could see the flock started just north of the houses at the end of the first access street we encountered.
I didn’t get a good video of the snow globe effect, but here are some photos that I did manage to take:
Imagine this many Snow Geese in every view through the camera for a half mile.
Snow Geese
Snow Geese
Snow Geese
Snow Geese
Snow Geese
Snow Geese
Fenwick Island State Park eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26926278
I don’t usually eat when I’m out birding, but Kate convinced me to go to Five Guys in Ocean City before we stopped at the Ocean City Inlet for one last try at Harlequin Duck and Purple Sandpiper. Luckily, a bunch of Purple Sandpipers were resting on a buoy just off the inlet, and a drake Harlequin Duck came screaming down the inlet with a pair of Black Scoters within seconds of setting up shop!
The Harlequin Duck (another lifer for Kate) eventually popped up along the sea wall and we were able to get good looks/horrible photos looking into the sun.
Harlequin Duck
After a brief stop at a small subdivision pond (eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26928972), we arrived at our final birding destination: Assateague Island.
I was really hoping to see the wild horses on Assateague, but with a population of only ~150 in Maryland I wasn’t holding my breath. Imagine my surprise when we saw a pair of them as we crossed the bridge onto Assateague Island! My 90th life mammal! We parked at the state park parking lot then walked back towards the bay so we could get some photos:
Assateague Horses
Kate photographs the distant horses.
The brush seemed to only hold Yellow-rumped Warblers (so many), so we walked back to the beach to see what was there (more of the same).
Unlimited waves
Sanderling
Sanderling (presumably) footprints
Since we weren’t finding anything new on the beach, we headed back inland and stumbled upon another couple horses.
I was stuck with my 400mm lens, which is not ideal for large mammals that closely approach like this Assateague Horse.
Assateague Horse
I heard at least one more horse moving in the nearby brush.
Some people did not seem to pay attention to the GIGANTIC signs warning everyone to stay at least 10 feet from the horses. This guy actually petted this horse after we walked away.
Kate and I moved back to the beach (not wanting to have to wait around for the idiots to be bitten by the horse) to take a few more photographs of the waves before we had to drive home. We both wanted to stick around to photograph the sunset, but we also wanted to get home and see our families. In the end, families won.
It looks colder than it really was.
A Ring-billed Gull was my last bird of the day.
We did stop for one last look at the sunset before we crossed the bridge back to the mainland:
 
Evidence of the horses was all over the place.
Assateague Island eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26933103
Before the trip started, I told Kate I expected to find 65-70 bird species, depending on how the weather panned out. It was a windy day (~15-25 mph), but the wind died down considerably when we were at Assateague. It was also very mild (~50°F) for mid-January. We tallied 68 bird species on the day, including 8 life birds for Kate (Snow Goose, Pine Siskin, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Dunlin, Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper, Harlequin Duck) and 1 life bird for me (Brown-headed Nuthatch). I also picked up Assateague Horse (feral horse), for my 90th life mammal!
The day turned out pretty well, despite being stuck at land instead of being out at sea. Maybe next Winter will finally bring me a Dovekie. I’m also pleased that I stuck to my 400mm lens (sometimes with a 1.4x teleconverter) for the entire day. I usually switch back and forth between lenses a lot, so it was interesting to try and find new uses for the big lens.

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)!