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)