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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!