When I was in college, spring was amphibian season: one of my favorite professors did surveys for breeding frogs, toads, and salamanders every year, and I was fortunate enough to accompany her fairly often. Well, it’s amphibian season once again, but this year I’m too busy with work and too isolated from any serious herp people to really spend much time out in the ponds at night. (It doesn’t help that my waders are at my parents’ house on the far side of the continent, either.) This post on Jim McCormac’s excellent blog, Ohio Birds and Biodiversity, increased my nostalgia even more because I’m pretty sure I’ve been out salamandering at the very same pond he went to! I did recently walk down to our pond after dark to see what was calling, and heard a chorus of toads and one lonely leopard frog, but it just wasn’t the same as going out with waders and a headlamp (or, when doing calling surveys, a tape recorder) and doing the thing properly.
The height of my amphibian-love came in the summer of 2008, when I was lucky enough to spend three months at a research station in northern Wisconsin studying gray treefrogs.
For weeks, I was wading in vernal ponds every night until after midnight observing breeding behavior. Our study ponds were filled not only with treefrogs, but also chorus frogs, bullfrogs, green frogs, leopard frogs, the odd painted turtle… perhaps the highlight was when I happened upon a four-toed salamander swimming past my knees. (According to Jim McCormac, “Four-toed Salamanders are probably the hardest of the vernal pool salamanders to find, and to successfully ferret them out requires some knowledge of their habitats and a lot of careful searching.” How lucky, then, that I found one completely by chance!) Whenever the frogs quieted down for a moment we would hear the calls of loons and owls drifting through the night. On our way home in the small hours of the morning, porcupines and foxes would dart across the road in front of the headlights of the pickup truck.
The other treefrog student and I were so dedicated that one night we decided to go out despite the threat of a thunderstorm. Clad in our rain gear, we made a brave effort at collecting data as the thunder grew closer and closer. Finally a truly humongous clap of thunder sounded practically on top of our heads and sent us both crashing frantically through the undergrowth and back to the truck, terrified.
Sadly the camera I had then wasn’t as nice as my current one, and my photos leave something to be desire. For one thing, there was no macro setting (that is, I couldn’t take proper close-ups) so none of my frog photos are really in focus. Still… they’ll give you an idea of what it was like.
I don’t think I’ve seen a salamander since I graduated from college, sadly; I’ll have to turn over a few dead logs next time I think of it. One of the other naturalists here did find a two-lined salamander this week – or at least she found a salamander that she described as having yellowish stripes down its sides hanging out in a rocky stream, and I’m assuming it must have been a two-lined.