Buckeye Herps Blog

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

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Spring Cruising

In mid March we had a few large storms blow through with temperatures holding in the 40s and 50s.  I had been watching the approaching storm on the radar all day, and planned my route.  I started driving about 1.5 hours prior to dusk, as it wasn't raining yet and the rains were slowly moving west to east torward me.  I figured I would meet the rains west of here, just as dark was falling.  I knew the salamanders would be out, and I wanted to maximize my time on the road.

I loaded up the car with snacks, camera gear, rain gear and my dogs as company.  It was going to be a long night, so they each had some comfortable beds, water and plenty of toys.  We were off.

I drove about 1.5 hours and just as dusk hit, the rain started to come.  I had planned well.  Immediately frogs were noticed to be moving across the road.  Within about 15 minutes, I had my first salamander of the night, an eastern tiger salamander.  Unfortunately, he wasn't the most cooperative for pictures, but I saw many more.

Wood Frogs Rana sylvatica were abundant.

Unfortunately, DORs (dead on road, as opposed to AORs, active on road) were also abundant.  I usually photograph these as well, no matter how gruesome.  They can still serve a purpose and get recorded in online databases.

Tiger DOR

Blue Spotted Salamanders Ambystoma laterale (or their polyploid brethren) were also extremely abundant, and would be the most common salamander observed.  They were mostly found on the forested back roads, or remote paved roads, and usually only during the rain.  I would end up seeing 25+ of these throughout the night.

The tiger salamanders, Ambystoma tigrinum, were typically found crossing the busier paved roads running through farm land and other slightly developed areas.  I found none of these crossing the dirt roads or roads running through the woods.

Oddly enough, the nice vernal pool I checked out with Nick Scobel et al. that was in the forest, was full of tigers.  We saw none of them on the roads leading in or away, despite multiple passes, but the pool had to many to count tiger salamanders swimming around.

Tiger Salamander Ambystoma tigrinum

No blue spots were observed in the pool, but we spotted one lonely individual crossing the road while we were shooting the tiger.

A couple other nice vernal pools were checked without finding any salamanders.  I split away from the others again and hit the roads.  The rain had mostly stopped, as it had passed us by now, but I new the salamanders would still be moving a little.

In the end, I saw 25+ blue spots, and 5 or 6 AOR tigers.  There were countless tigers in the vernal pool.  Many more of each species were observed DOR.  I crossed through 3-4 counties, and was in the car for 11 hours.  I pulled into my driveway at 530 am feeling pleased with my efforts.  One continued frustration was my lack of Spotted Salamanders, Ambystoma maculatum.  I have yet to see one of these common salamanders in Michigan, and despite all the miles covered and all the hours cruising, none were viewed crossing the road.  They were typically the most numerous salamander viewed when I when cruising in Ohio.  Another mystery for another day...

Spring has sprung!


Monday, April 23, 2012

California Dreaming 2012

After wrapping up the Everglades Paddle trip, I flew from Fort Myers, Florida over to San Diego, California for a work conference.  I was there a few days and had a great time enjoying the conference, the weather and visiting some friends from college and my residency.  Of course, some hiking was accomplished when I was free!

A couple friends were brave enough to hit the hills with me and look for some snakes.  They were not disappointed although it took a few minutes to get going.

Budding herpers!
Our first ruber (Red diamond rattlesnake Crotalus ruber), basking in dappled sunlight.

We would end up seeing many more, and I think I saw 8 or 10 in a few short hours.  I actually got a little unnerved.  I flipped more than half of the animals under rocks, and many of the ruber were quite large.  Only one or two ever rattled at me, but there is something about flipping a large rattlesnake under fairly small rocks every few minutes.  You start to feel like the odds are against your continued safety.

I spent most of my time up in the rocks looking for rosy boas and ruber.  I was hoping for a southern pacific rattlesnake, but had heard that I was "fine" flipping up in the rocks and wouldn't come across them.  Approaching a nice rock pile, I got buzzed by two southern pacific rattlesnakes Crotalus helleri, from a decent distance away.  One of them bailed into the rocks as I approached, but the other held the ground and began striking wildly.  Now being alone, and this being my first experience with these guys, I was wary and a little taken aback from the atypical (of what I am used to) aggressiveness.  I also got a little more nervous about poking around in the rock piles!

Crappy picture, but the animal was a total spaz.

Fortunately, the ruber show continued.

I found the ruber to be very relaxed, unaggressive and content to be left alone.  I focused on just trying to bother them as little as possible and get some in situ pics.

And the last snake of the day, another ruber.  The rocks were pretty dry beneath and I wasn't able to flip my first boa this day.

I made another attempt at boas later, and spent hours slaving away in the heat.  Another half dozen ruber showed up.

Just as I was giving up, I spotted this basking under a rocky ledge. Ahh sweet success!

Rosy Boa Lichanura trivirgata

This was a great short trip, and I knocked off a few animals I had not seen before.  Can't wait to get out west again!


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Everglades Paddling

I was recently lucky enough to be invited on a Everglades Paddle trip by my buddy Rob.  He and his friend Sean try and take a paddle trip each year, and Rob thought I would be interested in tagging along on this one.  I didn't have to be asked twice!  I had the time off already and quickly finalized my plans to join them.  Sean did a wonderful job planning and scheduling, and soon we were landing in SW Florida armed to the teeth with gear.

I chose to bring most of my camera gear, (and even more that has been added) which I was glad for, and also regretted.  I keep my camera pretty much loaded with the Nikon 70-200VR for birds and hopefully herps, packed in a dry bag that was at my feet or strapped to the top of the kayak (cringe!).  I also took my wife's Panasonic TS1 waterproof camera for most of the pictures from the boats.

We chose to paddle out of Everglades City instead of deep in Everglades National Park, near Flamingo.  This offered us the chance to kayak to and sleep on the barrier islands bordering the Gulf of Mexico.  This was ideal in that it "limited" the bugs, allowed us to have camp fires on the beaches, and provided great views and sunsets.  Looking back, I think the Flamingo option would have provided many more opportunities for viewing certain wildlife (the herps), but would have meant many more bugs and no fires.    There was still a chance at herps though, and I was excited to try and see some crocs primarily.

We used websites such as Everglades Diary and Everglades National Park website to help plan our trip, and I recommend these to anyone who may consider a similar adventure.

As we would be kayaking through brackish and salt waters, as well as camping on the small mangrove keys, there would be no fresh water along our route.  We planned on 1.5 gallons of water per person, per day, to bring in with us.  We stocked up with other food, beverages, fishing licenses, a cooler full of ice and even some fresh seafood just before putting out.

We picked up scallops, conch and shrimp here just before setting out.

Just some of our gear...
We rented our boats from a sorta sketchy canoe outfitter, who shall remain nameless.  I don't know if the final verdict was that we got ripped off.  I will say I was a little disappointed with the quality of the kayak and the guy wasn't exactly too helpful.  It was to be expected, but it is a tough pill to swallow when you pay more for 4 days in a canoe and a kayak than you do for the 6 day rental car.

When on the water, all else is forgotten.

Below is a nice satellite image of the area.  We set out of Everglades City, in the center of the top of the map, and basically headed to the barrier islands.
Our playground (click on picture for larger view)

We had some decent ground to cover to get to our first stop, Tiger Key.  We enjoyed the paddle though, didn't get too lost and had fun exploring.

Myself, Rob and Sean.

Brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Now we are getting close to our destination. This is just coming around the corner on Picnic Key, looking out to the Stop Keys and the Gulf.

And now I am paddling in to Tiger Key, our home for a night, after a long day.

Camp is made.
Sean chills out.

Another look at camp and the kayak.

You might notice the glorious looking hammock in the last two pictures.  I had heard from a few other about the wonders of hammock camping and made the purchase prior to the trip.  After much deliberation I picked up a Warbonnet Blackbird double later 1.7 with adjustable webbing strap suspension.  I outfitted it with a caternary cut hex tarp called the edge.  Having never assembled a hammock before, I walked myself slowly through it the day before leaving in about 15-20 minutes and jotted down some notes.  This night, the first, I was able to hang the tarp start to finish in about 3 minutes, no notes required!  So how did it sleep?  Amazingly!  I laid a bit diagonal, had plenty of room to roll around, and the foot box had plenty of room for my 6'1" frame.  The double layer kept the mosquitos from biting through to my back, and the mosquito netting with a zipper kept them from feasting on me.  You may notice I hung it over the tide line, and when I woke up around 2 am to relieve myself, I was able to roll over, unzip and water the ocean as the waves lapped beneath me.  The whole unit packs down incredibly small, and really weighs next to nothing.

We had a crappy sunset this night, but I enjoyed trying to photograph the flats at low tide.

For dinner that night, Sean cooked up some vegetable and scallops curry after a precursor of conch ceviche.  We somehow lost our rice, but the meal was still delicious.

A hundred yards or so down the beach, another tent was pitched and a canoe was beached.  It didn't take long for the occupant to wander over to say hello.  Ulph (sp?) was an awesome German fellow.  He is an avid paddler and has travelled all over the world.  This was his last night out, and he joined up by the fire for drinks and conversation most of the night.  He donated the rest of a bag of "Great Value Nacho Chips" and a bottle of wine.  He honestly was a highlight of the trip.

You can see the water level creeping below my hammock in this shot, as well as pushing at our fire.  Our fire slowly migrated up the beach all night.  At one point, waves were actually passing around it...

For breakfast, we enjoyed pan seared shrimp prepared in cheesy grits. Looks a little odd, but tasted delicious.

This day we paddled around Tiger Key, did some fishing along the way and made camp nearby on Picnic Key.  We spent some more time fishing, bird watching and exploring the mangroves.  Wildlife included dolphin, bonnetthead sharks, bald eagle, osprey, ibis and pelicans.

Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus

American White Ibis Eudocimus albus

Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Osprey Pandion haliaetus
We did some more fishing, and Rob pulled in a nice sea trout from right off our beach.  It made for a nice addition to dinner.

We got killed by mosquitos again that night, which ended up being a miserable, yet common theme.  We woke up early for a long paddle down to Rabbit Key.  It was raining.

It didn't deter the birds.

Rock on!

We paddled past a couple manatee and then out into the open ocean.  The storm really kicked up.  Sean and I had a hell of a time keeping straight while fighting the wind and waves.  We ended up tying up to Rob's kayak and having him hold a straight course cutting through the surf.

But about three miles of open water later, the land was near and the skies brightened.  That is our destitation, Rabbit Key, on the right.

It was very windy at our new campsite, but we enjoyed finishing off our remaining beverages, doing some fishing and watching the birds.

We hoped for a nice sunset on our last night.

That night we finished some left over food and drink.
Crescent Rolls on a stick

Green Onions garnished with Great Value Nacho Chips

An awesome scorp I found crawling up my leg
Crab Tacos
The last morning we had the best weather of the trip.  It was a long paddle back through the mangroves.  I looked everywhere hoping for a croc without any luck.

It was an awesome trip, spent with some great company.  The mosquitos were killer though, which may limit a similar return trip.

Final route
Red - Day 1 Everglades City to Tiger Key
Yellow - Day 2 Tiger Key to Picnic Key
Green - Day 3 Picnic Key to Rabbit Key
Blue - Day 4 Rabbit Key back to Everglades City
(click on picture for larger view)