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)