Buckeye Herps Blog

A photographic journal of the reptiles and amphibians of Ohio, Michigan and other places interesting wildlife call home.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Long Weekend of Herping

My brother Brian headed up a couple weeks ago to spend a few days camping and canoeing with me and my dog Cid in northern Michigan. (You may have already seen a couple of the pictures below in a previous post entitled New Field Partner) Molly had plans to head into the big city, and the boys took advantage to get the hell out of it.

The trip started by getting together with some other like minded people at the Midwest PARC meeting. I felt bad just attending the first field trip day and skipping out on the actual conference, but I don't get days off very often, and we had big plans for the other days. PARC (Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation) is a wonderful organization dedicated to conservation of herps and their habitats. PARC is made up of people from all walks of life, and really works to break down barriers between different groups of people to try and encourage cooperation in working towards common goals. Membership is comprised of academics, zoo institutions, government, students and hobbyists.

The first day of the meeting was spent surveying the grounds of the nature center where the meetings were held. We showed up a little early to help set up some turtle traps to check at the end of the day.

Working hard to bait and set the traps.

Max, one of the interns, also got nominated to place the traps.

The rest of the day was a blast and turned up some interesting creatures. Despite it being the middle of August, Ambystomids were the most commonly found creatures. We turned up a bunch of Ambystoma laterale-ish looking creatures.

And one of the bigger highlights were a few tiger salamanders, Ambystoma tigrinum.

Other animals included painted turtles, wood frogs, spring peepers, american toads, eastern gartersnakes, brown snakes and tree frogs.

The next day, Brian and I headed out for our first day of canoeing. We had a decent drive ahead of us, and got off to a little later of a start than we wanted due to a great BBQ the night before.

En route we checked out a few nice back roads, and couldn't resist stopping to flip logs and objects of cover. Oddly, we totally struck out, except for these interesting eggs. I haven't seen any skinks in Michigan yet, but I am fairly certain this is the nest of a female Five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus. Unfortunately, she was not to be found nearby.

We pulled into the livery right around noon, and were on the river in a span of about 30 minutes.

Cid wasn't too excited about this canoe thing.

Right from the start we were seeing common map turtles. I convinced Brian that they were fairly easy to catch with the right technique, and he quickly decided to give it a go.

Here he is practicing the wrong technique. He needs to be even lower in the water.

And after his failure...

He had plenty of opportunities to refine his skill though. We ended up seeing 60+ map turtles and got our hands on quite a few.

Here are some of the fruits of our labor.

Same turtle as above, a couple seconds before the action picture.

We also managed to see one of Michigan's iconic turtles, the Blandings Turtle. Not as commonly seen actually on rivers, this one was found in a slow wide section of the stream.

After returning the canoe we tried to find some more spots to flip cover but ended up driving aimlessly for a while. We decided to head west to a new area, and set up camp there for the next two nights. This ended up being a good idea, but I will have to fill you in about that at a later date.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Since relocating to Michigan, I miss some of my favorite Ohio species and the much greater herp diversity. The wolverine state isn't a total crap show though, as some animals are actually a little bit more commonly seen up here. People say it is one of the last massasauga strongholds, but I still haven't totally cracked that nut yet. No today we are talking about another awesome beastie - the tiger salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum.

My first run in with these behemioths was actually when I was living in the suberbs of Detroit while growing up. We had a small woods a little down the road behind our subdivision that harbored redback and blue spotted salamanders in decent numbers. My brothers and I found them with ease back in the day and enjoyed looking them up in our fathers worn Peterson Guide. Although I can't recall ever actually flipped a tiger salamander, our close friends frequently found them in the pool and window wells every spring/summer. One year, we kept one, and my younger brother even took it in to school were it thrived and was extremely well taken care of.

Unfortunately, the places I lived in the southern and eastern parts of Ohio weren't really known to harbor tiger salamanders. I always hoped I could turn one up in south central Ohio, or along the Ohio river floodplain. It sure is not out of the question, and Carl Brune's spectactular Ambystoma find this year further reiterates the fact that we learn new things about these animals every day. Even Cincinnati was known to have a few older records, but alas, it was not to be for me. I traveled north a few times and was able to observe 3 tigers at 2 different locations during my time in Ohio. Usually this required some extensive planning, epic rain dances, a good deal of gas and even more luck. If you can find some of the right areas, they can actually be fairly common at the right times of the year.

Amystoma tigrinum are monsters. They can reach 12 inches, but most adults fall in the 7-9 inch range. This is still a good deal larger than most other Ambystomids, and they tend to run a bit thicker too. These guys are the Barry Bonds of the salamander world. They also have monstrous heads, far bigger in proportion to the rest of their body when compaired to their brethren. The larva also tend to get quite large, and some populations have been known to retain their larval form, although this is much more common in the west.

In Ohio, tigers are primarily found in the glaciated region of the state. You can draw a rough line from Cincinnati to Cleveland. I have had most luck around the Dayton and Columbus areas. In Michigan they tend to be much more commonly found, and range throughout most of the lower peninsula.

I have yet to find any Michgan monsters, but I have seen more tigers this season alone than I ever did during my years in Ohio. Admittedly, much of this is luck. I didn't see any last season, (but I was still in Ohio during the spring) and I just found 3 at one location last week. Interestingly, all of the ones I have seen have had very dark coloration and minimal amounts of spotting, suggestive of faily young animals. All three found last week were like this, but they were a decent 5-6 inches long.

If you play your cards right and get out to the fields in the spring or fall during some nice night time rains, you might really hit it big and see a few of these in a night. If not, keep checking your neighbors pool because you never know when a monster might turn up.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

New Field Partner

We rescued a new puppy back in April this year. His name is Cid and he is a wonderful and welcome addition to our little family. I have always been a big dog kind of guy, but Molly was leaning more to the 5-10 lb range. We decided to compromise on a 40ish lb dog (he currently is about 35lbs and slowing down). We have a large apartment without a real yard so this actually worked out well. The rescue agency labeled him a lab/terrier mix, but we just call him our Detroit mutt. I have to admit he has a little bit of a pitbull look to him with his wonderful brindle color. Despite that, he is only friendly, maybe even too much so. Basically he is a terrible watch dog, never barks, and just licks anything that will pet him.

One of my main criteria in searching for a dog was ensuring that it would be very active and able to go on hikes with me in the field. I finally got to test the little guy out this past weekend on a 3 day camping/canoeing trip with my brother Brian. Cid is deathly afraid of water, but he tolerated the canoe well and was very good about hopping in and out of it on his own. His favorite activity was the hiking. We took a a few long hikes and he loved the freedom of running through the woods. He is great off a leash and never strays farther then 20-30 feet. He basically ran around sniffing and chewing on sticks. When we did catch some herps, he calmy laid down nearby and waited until we were done photographing the animals. I could never have wished for a better hiking companion.

The little herper in the making, with his turtle and snake, both now long chewed to bits.

He didn't start out too active - catching up on sleep with the snake.

Due to his fear of water, I decided to get a life vest for him in case he decided to leap off the canoe. He can swim, although his rear end tends to drop down a bit in his state of panic.

Sporting the vest, prior to the first trip. He knows something is up and is hanging back a little.

Still not sure about this... We had been canoeing for a while and he was as far from the water as the tall grass would allow.

Showing some love for his new buddy, Brian, prior to another attempt at swimming.

The aftermath of the swim, hating us...

Doesn't mind the canoe too much...

At camp the last night.

Enjoying one of the hikes, and his biggest stick of the weekend.

I can't wait to get him out for some more hikes in the future. I look forward to many finds with my new little buddy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Hill Country of Southern Ohio

On the front page of Buckeye Herps, I have a quote from the late and great Roger Conant that had been included in his landmark, Reptiles of Ohio - "Southeastern Ohio was unquestionably our favorite collecting area."

I really started cutting my teeth in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio, and have spent much more time down there than any part of the state. It is not surprising that I feel a great fondness for that area. I mention this because my good friend, and mentor, Carl Brune, just put together a wonderful post on Fieldherpforum from his experiences in that part of the state during this year. His account is rich in history, visually stimulating and full of Ohio gems. He is also fond of Conant quotes. Everyone should check it out!

Carl Brune's 2009 in Southeast Ohio

Here are some shots of Carl from days past... I haven't been able to hit the field with him in Ohio this year, but we did make a great trip out of state. Ohio herpetology is lucky to have him.

Return to civilization

Wow, an exhaustive 4 days of herping across Michigan with my brother. No teaser images to post with this yet, but I hope to get through the 300+ images in the next day or two. We struck gold on a few things, and struck out miserably on others. Just more reason to go back...

It was very nice to be away from the internet, with patchy cell service and sans TV for a few days. Everyone should try it at least once in a while.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Buckeye or Wolverine?

Actually, both...

I realized all the posts on my "buckeye" herping blog were actually from Michigan. Seems to me there is a bit of false advertisement going on here...

I have grown up in Michigan and Ohio. The last 10 years of my life were basically spent living in various parts of Ohio as I traveled around for school. It is during this time I really started to get outdoors more and actually herp.

I herped Ohio hard. Initially, I was mainly interested in things that had always fascinated me, such as rattlesnakes. My interests expanded and I began to really enjoy all reptiles and amphibians. While my posts so far have primarily been reptile based, I can assure you I don't discriminate in regards to the presence of a larval stage of development. In my fervor, I started to try and see every reptile and amphibian in Ohio. This was important to me for a little while, and although I am very close, I realized I would rather spend my time meeting more specific herp goals.

Recently though, I moved to Michigan. Michigan holds new challenges and new rewards. My posts have been centered around Michigan, because they reflect my most recent projects and trips. I can assure you more Ohio stuff is on the way soon.

I leave today for a multi-day trip to the north. It will be my first attempt at herping with my dog, a pure bred Detroit mutt. It should be a good time.

As promised though, here are some classic Ohio turtles.

Eastern Box Turtle found spring of '08

Smooth Softshell Turtle, in the evening glow
And a Common Map Turtle sharing a log with a Midland Painted Turtle, although shot in Michigan, both are common Ohio species. I just wanted to post the 2 for 1 shot.

Plenty more awesome Ohio turtles out there. Hopefully we can discuss them in further depth soon.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cashing in on paid dues

The last couple days have been hotter then hades up here in SE Michigan and today was no exception. I spent the previous night working, which ended up being a blessing in disguise. It served the much needed purpose of ensuring I was awake(actually not asleep yet) at a very early hour. Unfortunately, after around 930 am I really started to crash. It didn't matter, the trip was quickly a success.

This yearling Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake found basking in the early morning glow of 830 am.

Cute enough to kiss, no?

Shortly after, fatigue and general "cloudiness" started to set in. It hit the 90s, and the humidity was off the charts due to the recent storms that have been blowing through. A couple eastern gartersnakes were also found, as well as a few butlers garter snakes. My counterpart and I enjoyed the morning after the early success and took it easy hoping for another Sistrurus.

I was just reliving my first MI massasauga yesterday hoping it would conjure luck, and now here I am enjoying the memory of my second. What do the two have in common?

I worked over night both times before hitting the field. And both times I survived the ride home to tell about it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Snake Swine

Hognose snakes, Heterodon platirhinos, are where and when you find them...

A Cincinnati Heterodon

Unfortuantely for me, I haven't found one in a few years now. Herping is much like fishing, hunting, birding, etc in that if you spend some time to learn about your subject, you usually can position yourself to be in the right place at the right time to roll the dice and hope you get lucky. Heterodon have been one animal that I just haven't had a ton of luck doing that with. Sure, I know they primarily eat toads, and therefore are attracted to sandy soils, flood plains and generally places with an abundance of toads. Like other snakes, they tend to be more active in the spring and seem to be primarily diurnal. You can find them under tin, walking habitat, crossing roads or just basking. I think I have a pretty good gestalt for hog habitat, but things just haven't been going my way lately.

Perfect place for some swine snakes

Why am I so bothered by this?? Heterodon are pretty darn cool.

They have an upturned nose, perfect for digging and burrowing. When toads inflate themselves in a defensive manner, the hog just pops them with specially enlarged rear teeth. And best of all, when they feel threatened, they put on a hell of show. They writhe around, roll over, and then they really sell the "dead" thing by opening their mouths and letting their tongue hang out. This is comical, believe me.

You roll them back, and their body miraculously reverts to the dead position again. I can not possibly imagine what evolutionary advantage this behavior has, but I love it every time. Until you actually try to take a picture. You better get comfortable - crack open a beer, put your feet up and really chill out because you are in for the long haul.

I was seeing one or two individuals a year previously. They would just turn up here and there unexpectedly. The few times I did actually try to target them I had some mild luck. I have revisted most of the locations of my earlier triumphs though and have never been able to recreate the success. I mention all this because I made a trip to the Toledo area a few weeks ago. I wanted a hognose. Not to take home or anything, I just wanted to see one, I wanted to laugh. The sandy soils of Toledo are perfect for hogs, and if there is any place in Ohio you can try and target Heterodon, Toledo is it. I have had luck on two prior trips in the past. We gave it the old college try, struck out famously and I now find myself dreaming of past trips.

Found crossing the road

So if you are ever lucky enough to see a hognose snake, enjoy the moment. They are where they are, and you don't know when your paths may cross again...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Herps, herpes

and the process of writing about them...

I have never been an enthusiastic writer, but I have always enjoyed reading. It is this sense of joy from reading others work that finally convinced me to try and take a stab at it on my own. This will serve as an outlet for a few different projects. First, I have long meant to add species accounts to all the herps on www.buckeyeherps.com and www.wolverineherps.com. I figure I can blog species accounts and this will force me to keep a steady stream of updates. I also plan to add more trips to the trip accounts section, especially my last couple to AZ/SoCal and West Texas. Second, I hope to provide entertaining and useful information that is similar to some of the other blogs and websites that I enjoy. Ohio Birds and Biodiversity by Jim McCormac, Ohio Nature Blog by Tom Arbour and Mike Pingleton's classic Field Herping not-a-blog (with journal updates since 1996) are all extremely instrumental in my undertaking of this endevour.

This will not just be a nature blog though. I plan to speak a little on the other things I enjoy in life, primarily literature, marriage and our new(ish) puppy. Regarding the "herpes" aspect, I most likely will actually stay away from issues pertaining to the day job, emergency medicine. There are numerous issues involved with medical blogging that I hope to avoid. I may throw up a bit here and there, but will mostly leave that to others.

Anyway, photographs are key to a great blog, so I will share you with a couple images from earlier in the year. I will be out looking for these species tomorrow and maybe remembering some old successes will conjure up some much needed luck. I have been paying my dues for the last 3 months without any thing to show for it. In the world of herping, that is often how it goes...

My first Michigan Massasauga rattlesnake, photographed in situ, likely the day it crawled out of its winter refuge. These little rattlesnakes are endangered throughout most of the range, and are a species of special concern in Michigan. They are still somewhat common in the right habitat, but have suffered drastically from habitat fragmentation, destruction of wetlands and urban sprawl. SE MI likely used to harbor a much larger population before the Motor City. They over winter in crawfish burrows in wetlands such as bogs and fens, and prefer to spend the summer months hunting the natural wet prairies nearby. This animal was found in a wooded wetland, just a few feet from a vernal pool. I was not expecting to see one on this day, and had just walked literally within a few inches of it. I bent over to roll a choice log, hoping for a tiger salamander or other ambystomid, and as I scanned the brown earth I noticed this coiled about 10 inches from my hand.

Sistrurus catenatus

It never did move a muscle, and we took some pictures and left it to enjoy the spring sun.

We did get the tiger salamander though, as well as a majestic blue racer.

Ambystoma tigrinum

Coluber constrictor foxi

But more on them later...