International Rock Flipping Day 2011

Today’s the day! It’s not too late to participate – if you haven’t yet, grab a camera and go find some rocks to flip. I have a confession to make, though. I started out flipping rocks and only rocks, determined to play by the rules. But after walking quite a ways flipping rock after rock and only finding dirt, leaves, and the occasional beetle…

…I started eyeing the inviting-looking decaying logs that cover the forest floor here. If I were a small creature in this forest, I think I’d make my home under a log. For one thing, there are many more logs than rocks, and for another, you have all that soft wood to burrow into. The areas under the logs also seem moister, important when we’ve had such a dry summer.

The last straw was movement catching the corner of my eye as I walked: something small and dark scooting off of a log and disappearing into the leaf litter. When I poked around the spot where it had vanished, I found what looked like an entrance to a tiny burrow, and seized by a hunch I reached out and flipped the log that the little whatever-it-was had been on.

Under the log, its long nose quivering, was a tiny shrew. If only I’d had my camera at the ready I could have gotten a pretty good photo, because it sat there for several seconds, stunned by the sudden removal of its roof, before vanishing into the same hole as its companion. Well, there’s something you don’t see every day! I carefully replaced its home and continued down the path. After looking at some pictures online I’d guess it was something in the genus Sorex, but I’m not going to hazard a more specific identification than that.

A little way farther along I found this perfect, irresistible chunk of log. Having learned my lesson, this time I held my camera in one hand as I lifted the log with the other.

At first when I saw the glistening blue-black something I thought I’d found an enormous millipede or worm, but then my brain caught up to my eyes and I realized I’d found the holy grail of rock- and log-flipping (at least as far as I’m concerned.) That’s right… a SALAMANDER!!!

Specifically, a blue-spotted salamander, Ambystoma laterale. I’m not sure what it is about finding salamanders that is so amazingly exciting, but I know I’m not the only person that feels this way. Salamander, salamander, salamander! This was the first one I’d seen in over a year, actually, and I was pretty dang happy.

So, I’m sorry that I technically broke the rules by flipping over non-rocks, but it was worth it. Actually… come to think of it, I’m not sorry at all. See you next year for International Rock Flipping Day 2012!

Young Two-Lined Salamander

Last week when I took my group of campers to look for critters in the stream, one girl turned out to be a salamander-finding machine – in addition to an adult long-tailed salamander, she found several of what appeared to be young two-lined salamanders, judging by their markings.

Admittedly this isn’t the world’s greatest photo, but if you look closely you can see that it still has gills on the sides of its neck.  Is there a term for this stage of a salamander’s life cycle?  I feel like it’s not an adult if it still has gills, but it’s not what I could call a larva either.  A juvenile, maybe?  In any case, this was at the exact same spot where I found what I guessed might be two-lined salamander eggs back in April, so I thought it was cool to come back now and find these.

Long-Tailed Salamander

Yesterday after dinner a coworker and I flipped over a log outside the dormitories and found this.

It’s a long-tailed salamander, which is apparently fairly common here but was new to me (I think they’re significantly less common farther north in Ohio, where I’m originally from).  What a gorgeous creature!  After we caught it, coworker and I sprinted back to the office, where I frantically pawed around in her cubby for a container to keep it in while we identified it.  Finally, through the combined application of a Peterson guide and a booklet on the amphibians of Ohio, we figured out what it was.  It stayed in its container, with plenty of water and mud and moss to keep it moist, for about two hours, and then we released it back by the same log where we found it.

Apparently these are closely related to two-lined salamanders, and can be told apart from other similar-looking species by the fact that their spots coalesce into little vertical marks along the sides of the tail, which is over half as long as the body.

I love salamanders.  Love them.  They are seriously my favorite animals.  Now I’m going to want to flip over that log every time I walk past it, just in case.

Amphibian Nostalgia

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.