Early 2020 Herping-Part 1: Winter and Early Spring

Jefferson

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Hi all! I haven’t posted since last fall, when Bethany and I found a Ringed Salamander and some other caudates outside St. Louis. So much has changed in the meanwhile! It’s now an election year, novel COVID-19 ravages North America and Latin America, and the domestic strife here in the States is palpable. But despite the topsy-turvy conditions in the political and economic spheres, the natural world, as always, is a steady escape, a taste of truth and simplicity, whether you’re watching the wheat fields of Kansas dance in the breeze or looking out over the Ozarks turning green in spring. In the past seven months, Bethany and I have done a copious amount of herping here in the nation’s vast interior, and since it’s been so long and there’s so much material, I will divide this post into multiple parts for ease of reading.

Video companions for part 1 on our YouTube channels:






Spring in the Prairie: Crawfish Frogs and more

Spring Herping 2020: March 25-April Fools' Day

Last Christmas, bad weather impeded our ability to see my family in Michigan, and fresh off our success in October, we decided to try a quick jaunt toward the Arkansas border to try our hand with the Oklahoma Salamander, which has been the subject of some taxonomic confusion over the years but is now considered a single species. We arrived at a small conservation area on the morning of Christmas day, with temperatures unusually warm for December 25th—it was already 55 Fahrenheit/13 Celsius by 10:00 am. The first stream we tried, a large, glass-clear chert stream with shallow sections interspersed with deep, turquoise pools as picturesque as any water in the Caribbean, yielded nothing except some aquatic invertebrates, so we continued hiking into the rocky woods along the creek bottom, looking for a small tributary or a shallower section. About half a mile in, we happened across a small disappearing stream, about five feet across. A “disappearing stream” is one where the stream flows normally for some stretch, pools into quiet sections in others, and then just stops, where the water falls into an underground sinkhole or soaks into the shale so quickly that it goes below ground entirely. This is a geological feature common in the Ozarks, but nowhere else I have ever herped.

A few yards upstream from the trail, there were some large, flat rocks beside a section of stream one or two inches deep. Under the second one we flipped at the margin of the water was a slender, brown Oklahoma Salamander adult! It had yellow eyes and a sleek body—a clear western cousin of the two-lined salamanders and other stream Eurycea from back east. While we photographed this specimen, I found a neotonic specimen and there was a third adult hiding beneath our camera bag! We hiked back to the car with the pictures and memories well-seared after a quarter hour of just sitting streamside and soaking in the moment, the cool air, the rocky, barren bluffs around us, and the salamander. On our way out to get lunch, we saw a DOR Ribbon snake, as the temperature had by then reached 65 F/18 C. After that odd Christmas find, we chowed down in Branson at a buffet and headed back home to have some hot cocoa and celebrate Christmas more conventionally. What a great way to end the year 2019 and settle into our new home state for the winter.

January in the Ozarks was cold, too cold for much herping, but unlike in Michigan, where February and most Marches are also the dead zone, Southwest Missouri began receiving periodic cool rains in February, bringing the salamanders out. After one such early February day of showers just before the New Hampshire primary, Bethany and I headed to a local cave with public access in the winter, when the Grey Bats are not roosting. Hiking a mile through the misty weather and up a hillside, we turned our flashlights on and entered the dripping cave passageway, shining the crevices that lined the sides of the passage. Only ten yards in, we spied our first Cave Salamander, a nice orange specimen. Our first salamander of 2020—the winter drought was over. Heading deeper into the cave, we saw several more cave salamanders, some out in the open on the side walls, a gaggle of Western Slimy salamanders, a lone bat, and hordes of Pickerel Frogs. I never knew that these frogs can overwinter in caves—we saw at least fifteen hiding in the cave’s cracks and crevices, waiting for warmer weather to disperse into the stream floodplain below.

From there, we ventured to a different cave entrance, this one in a more urban environment, and saw a lone Dark-sided salamander, the Ozark cousin of the more easterly Long-tailed salamander. This was a lifer for Bethany, but our first specimen wasn’t that ornate, so we figured that with some more rain on the way and darkness quickly steeling across the eastern sky, we could go eat and come back for some night shining at the entrance to the cave.

After some Jimmy John’s and chatting about the news with each other a while in the car, night finally fell, and temperatures still hovered above 55. On our return to the cave entrance (which is gated, so we couldn’t go deeper in the cave), we saw at least a dozen Dark-sided salamanders hanging out around the entrances, where crystal waters gurgled forth from the aquifers beneath and the rocks are always wet. We snapped several pictures and some video and then headed home as the rain continued falling deep into the night. About two weeks later, after an intervening unsuccessful cruise for Eastern Tiger Salamanders, we decided to try again as a steady rain began falling around lunch and continued straight through dusk. Our main spot turned up nothing after three passes, but we decided to try a small patch of public land with native prairie grasses closer to home, and around 11pm, I saw what I thought was a stick in the left hand lane of a little-travelled rural blacktop. But when Bethany handed me a flashlight and I pointed it out the driver’s side window, the stick crawled! It was no stick, but a humungous Eastern Tiger Salamander, at least 9” head-to-tail and as bright of yellow patterning as I’ve ever seen on a tigrinum. Bethany leapt out of the car and nabbed her beastly lifer, admiring its huge, bulging frog eyes, and we pictured it and got video amongst hooting and hollering (which quickly turned to shivering and chattering, as the temperature was 43 with brisk winds, making it feel about 30 degrees) on some roadside grasses. After just a minute spent admiring the big Ambystoma, we got back in the warmth of the car and drove home in euphoria—again, bound for hot cocoa.

The rest of February came and went without much herping to speak of, but on March 1st, just before my business trip and Super Tuesday, Bethany and I spent our last day together near the Arkansas border in a small park with some hiking trails through steep, rugged woodlands—the sort of place I hoped might turn up an Ozark Zigzag salamander in the early spring. Under gray skies, we drove south toward Branson after Bethany got off work, and upon arriving at the park, we turned up a few early-season reptiles—Little Brown skinks. After a half hour or so, we finally started turning up some salamanders on a north-facing hillside. I flipped a good-sized Western slimy in the bottom of a ravine while Bethany called out “Zigzag” from about fifty yards up-slope. The specimen was a pretty little Plethodon, with a redder, brighter stripe than the zigzags in the Eastern states. After we finished up photographing and admiring the tiny salamander, we set it back and almost immediately turned up a big Spotted Salamander under a large log, which befuddled me immensely, since there wasn’t any standing water around for an Ambystoma to use as a breeding pond. On our way back to the car, we turned up one additional, slightly larger Ozark zigzag, and gazed out over the rolling hills, still bare and brown, from a nice lookout. The next two weeks were cold, and I was on the road for business most of the time anyway, but things really began to heat up for us in mid-March, just as coronavirus arrived in force on American shores and began ravaging New York, Louisiana, and Washington State.

Since we had been so successful with the Eastern Tiger salamanders and since Barred Tiger range in Kansas was only four hours away, we decided to have a go at that western subspecies of Tiger sally on a rainy evening in mid-March and take a drive into the deep grasslands, where the trees disappear from the landscape. We gassed up for $0.99 per gallon, something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, near Joplin and then continued west into the Sunflower state as the afternoon sun sank lower. We’d periodically check the radar as we headed west under the overcast skies, hoping the thunderstorms in the Texas Panhandle would make it to our cruising spot by the time we arrived. When we stopped at a small Mexican restaurant in Coffeyville, the booths around us were abuzz with talk of the coronavirus, of whether the governor would close schools soon, etc. When we entered the Flint Hills at dusk, the landscape changed to pure rolling grasslands of tan, alien to the sensibilities of an easterner. It’s a great place to visit or herp for a few days, but I could never live in a place with such a lack of trees.

Darkness fell as we alternated between a political talk show on NPR and a radio sermon, but still only a light drizzle. An hour later, we arrived at our first road-cruising spot, but still no rain. Doppler showed we’d get a heavy band of showers in a half hour, so we pulled into a local park and Bethany called her sister. As the thunder rumbled and raindrops started to hit the windshield, we took a small two-lane blacktop into the dark, featureless plain. Five minutes in, we saw our first frog: a Strecker’s Chorus! These green-blotched rotund frogs are endemic to a narrow strip of the US Plains roughly between Dallas/Fort Worth and extreme southern Kansas. For the next few miles, we spied more and more of these rare chorus frogs, along with a few Bullfrogs, but no tiger salamanders or other frogs, so we started heading back east to hit some other locales. Just before midnight, we came on a stretch of road with several Plains Leopard frogs, lifers for me, and then started motoring back into the Flint Hills. In those barren hills, we took a short cruise down a side road that turned up a pair of Smallmouth Salamanders and a few Western Chorus frogs, after which we called it a night and drove home through pouring rain in Eastern Kansas. Arriving home at 5am, we were bushed!

A couple days later, we got a nice tip from a conservation officer on a location to try for Crawfish frogs in our home state of Missouri, barely 45 minutes from our front porch, and a large thunderstorm tracked across the prairies of Western Missouri and dumped a huge amount of rain just before dusk. The first prairie we checked had some cricket frogs, toads, and peepers calling, but none of the Northern Crawfish frogs, with their distinctive, snore-like calls. Five miles away at another prairie, we saw toads on the road in, and when we stopped the car and let the sounds of the night take over, we heard peepers, toads, and then a snore! Over and over, louder than the other frogs—a Northern Crawfish frog! The pond with that first heard frog was on private land, so that was a no-go, and we cruised deeper into the prairie as twilight now settled. We got a few surprises as we listened for frogs and heard several more Crawfish—Smallmouth Salamanders crossing the road! This prairie has very few trees, making the appearance of a Smallmouth puzzling. These chunky Ambystoma are usually associated with floodplain forests and river-bottom woods in my research, not open tallgrass prairie. We also saw several Grassland Crayfish crossing the road just after sunset. These invertebrates lend the Crawfish frog its name, for it uses the deep burrows in the moist portions of the grassland excavated by these industrious little crustaceans.

At last, we settled on what sounded like the closest Crawfish frog pair to go after and set out with flashlights, camera, and net. The wind whipped across the grasses, making the frogs hard to hear every few minutes, and we ventured slowly and quietly, wary of scaring the snoring frogs back into their burrows. Soon, we discovered just how loud these frogs were. We’d walked almost a quarter-mile through the dark towards the chorus, but it still seemed no closer than when we started, and ground-nesting birds occasionally threatened to blow our cover. Finally, we cleared a small ridge in the grassland, and water was visible below, and the bellowing of our quarry overwhelmed any other sound, including the wind when it gusted. You couldn’t hear a bluegrass band performing over those frogs. As I inched up to the water slowly, making sure my boots did not find themselves in mud that would make them squish, I kept my flashlight pointed at the ground until finally, the frog before me was so loud that I thought it must be within five or ten feet, and when I raised my light, there was the a humungous, black-and-white checkered Crawfish frog, which kept calling. Bethany came over from pursuing a different one, and we attempted some pictures from distance, which weren’t very clear. So, we came at the frog from two angles, ever so gradually, and I netted it! We fawned all over the frog in the adjacent grassland and took myriad pictures and video of the beast—the pattern on this species is so intricate! We let the frog back, tried for another, but scared it just after it saw out light, and hiked back out of the wet prairie to the warmth of the car. This outing was my favorite short trip of the year.

A week or so later, some herper friends of ours from St. Louis came down in an attempt to see the Crawfish frogs for themselves, but a lack of rain meant only one was calling, and he was very skittish. We had fun that night, though, seeing a Ribbon snake, my first live Crayfish snake, a DOR Watersnake, and a panoply of frogs while getting some much-needed company (social distancing was maintained, and discussion of the coronavirus was unavoidable by then, as the state had virtually shut down).

Toward the tail end of March, needing to break the monotony, Bethany and I again headed to the Kansas plains to try our luck with Barred Tiger Salamanders in the land of windmills, but again struck out with the salamanders. We did, however, find a plethora of Plains Spadefoot Toads, which have orange markings on their back and made the trip worthwhile. We also discovered a small glade near our house with tarantulas, scorpions, and in the early spring, a whole array of smaller snakes like worm snakes, earth snakes, and flat-headed snakes. We visited a few times in early spring to do some exercise and get some herping in and would visit again later in the spring and see some larger snakes. So ended March, and as the trees and shrubs began budding in early April, another season of herping began.

Happy herping you all, and I hope you enjoy the pictures below as well as parts two and three!
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Jefferson

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More pictures:
Eastern Tiger Salamander, Dark-sided Salamanders, and Cave Salamanders from February.
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Jefferson

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Location
Southwest Missouri
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United States
More pictures:
Oklahoma Salamander, neotonic and transformed morphs, Dark-sided Salamander in melanistic color phase, Ozark Zigzag Salamander.
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Jefferson

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Joined
Apr 21, 2012
Messages
180
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Location
Southwest Missouri
Country
United States
More pictures:
Orange-striped Ribbonsnake, Graham's Crayfish Snake, Dwarf American Toad, Red-sided Gartersnake, Flat-headed Snake, Plains Spadefoot Toads, Western Wormsnake
 

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