Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Plenty o' Pocono Pickerels" or "We have treefrogs north of the Mason-Dixon Line?"

NOTE: So because I'm stupid and don't pay attention, it turns out that my short entry on toads up at work was still chronologically correct in relation to this (and future) stories. I guess that's not a bad thing. I has the dumb. But I digress...

September 2013 was warm overall as I recall, and I had a lot of herping action when looking back on it in retrospect. This time, I was back up in the Poconos, but 40 miles west on I-80 from where I was during Spring Gobbler season and my abundance of red efts. This time, I was in Monroe County, and I thought I knew what was in store for me. I've obviously herped in the Poconos before, I knew what I would find...right? Well, I was both right and wrong.

My band (this is not a cheap band plug) decided to do some band bonding and go up to my bassist's family's mountain house. It was in a private development and had lots of majestic Pocono scenery. I knew it was going to be a prime herping spot as soon as I stepped out of the car. A lot of the development was smack dab in the middle of the woods without much actual "developing", i.e., it had a lot of dirt/gravel roads, was very quiet, and...we were smack dab in the middle of the woods. At this point, I needed a few days to recharge, and what better way to do it than in the Pocono mountains? It was also good times with the bandmates, who have quickly become more of my friends than people I play music with (*tear*). PLUS I could go out and look for herpetological animals (that's too long to continually type out. Someone needs to come up with a word for "herps" that doesn't sound like an STD. Actually, I'm not even sure if that phrase was grammatically correct).

After arriving later at night than everyone else, and having to catch up on drinking and tomfoolery, we went and took a walk down to the creek and waterfall near the house. It was lit up with flood lights (after we flipped the switch on, actually) and pretty cool to see. I decided I'd make my way down there the next day and inspect the area. After some more drinking, we went to bed, ready for a full day of outdoorsing (I like making up my own words) and nature. I actually woke up at daybreak, went downstairs and read by the fireplace (I'm also sophisticated) until I decided to venture outside and take a look around the house. My bassist, Pedro Loco, told me that there was a big ol' toad that lives around the back stone porch, usually near the drain pipe. Mr. Toad was not at home. I continued making my way around the house, flipping rocks and logs, hoping I'd come up with something other than the more "common" (or at least common to me) species that I tend to find in Pennsylvania. Getting around to the driveway, there were tons of logs. No luck there, either. It was a little chilly out, being September and all, but I doubted that it was chilly enough to cause the herps to be really hiding. I finally came across a familiar sight:

Haven't I seen you here before?

Good old redback salamanders. I knew I could count on you to rekindle my hope for herps (that sounded terrible)! After I found this little triumvirate of salamandery cuteness, that was about all I saw around the house..except for a ton of squirrels.

I decided to take a walk down the path from the night before towards the waterfall and have a look around. I forgot to mention: I never got changed out of my pajamas when I initially went outside, so I was walking through the chilly morning woods (ha! morning woods!) in my pajama pants and slippers. I painfully made my way down the path, flipping more rocks and logs that I thought would yield some herps. 

Slippers not welcomed.
Alas, nothing. I kept walking and sat down at a bench overlooking the creek and waterfall and relaxed a bit. It was rather nice, serene, even.

This is not the waterfall.
 I didn't often just sit in the woods unless I was hunting, which usually meant I was preoccupied with actually hunting and didn't really get a chance to take in and enjoy the scenery. I sat there for a while and planned out my day. Everyone wanted to go fishing later at this big lake, which I of course thought to be prime herping real estate by the sound of it. But first, breakfast, and then I'd attempt to shoot some squirrels with Pedro Loco's air rifle. The hunter in me couldn't resist. I finally got up and made my way back to the house.

Some of the aforementioned Pocono majesty.
After breakfast and many failed attempts at shootin' me a squirrel (this air rifle sucked: it misfired, jammed, and would more so lob pellets than shoot them), we geared up and walked down the road a few minutes to the big lake. I usually herped around much smaller bodies of water (creeks, ponds, vernal pools, small lakes) up in the Poconos, so I didn't know if this huge lake would be a bust or not. I'm fairly sure it was man-made, or minimally altered by people. But Pedro Loco assured me there were tons of frogs and turtle and newts, so I was hopeful. When we got down there, I was impressed, and anxious to get to it. Pedro Loco said that there were bald eagles that lived on the lake. I was skeptical, but sure enough, we saw two young eagles flying around, and eventually an adult, white head and all, being all majestic. I was actually kinda pissed that the only camera I had was my horrible camera phone, and I failed miserably at trying to capture the eagles in picture form. I admit that was really cool to see, though. After that nature-tease, everyone else manned a few of the boats that the community had there and made their way on to the lake to fish. Pedro Loco in a canoe, and my drummer whom we'll call Baxter, his wife and their son Lil' Man in another. Our guitarist did not show up on our band trip, so an impromptu jam sesh at a bonfire near the lake was totally out of the question.

Someone's getting flipped.

As I watched them struggle to paddle, I got right in the water along the bank (as I had my monster waterproof hunting boots on). Instantly, I watched the lake begin to come to life as I stirred and startled water. It was teeming with late-season tadpoles! They darted away in every direction, but stopped long enough for me to get a look: green frog and pickerel frog tadpoles. Awesome. I'd like to mention now that I had no net at all. I was going to do this all by hand (In my head, I'd like to think I'm an excellent frog catcher with my hands. I've had enough practice catching them without a net for years.) It didn't take me long to catch my first herp: a juvenile green frog. I see these guys a lot, even in Philly, but these guys are still one of my favorites to catch. 

I'd like to think that the more there are of a common species like this one, or like my beloved toads, that the local ecosystem and herp population is doing well. For those that are out of the loop, amphibians especially are very sensitive to environmental changes due to their skin, so they're usually a good indicator on how it's doing. 

I put him in my carrying tank and proceeded down the bank. I came across more juvenile green frogs, and as I suspected, juvenile pickerel frogs as well. I secretly always hope it's a leopard frog every time I see a pickerel, but I'm still glad to see them around. I caught one and put him in my carrying case. I missed about 4 or so more of each, catching another young green frog. I even managed to catch a tadpole with my hands, 'cause that's how good I am. A true G among herpers. I went back and forth like this for a while as my bandmates and co. fished unsuccessfully. When they docked again, we pulled the boats onto the bank where we got them. As I walked away, Baxter called me over and pointed down at the ground: he had almost stepped on an BIG pickerel frog. This thing was almost 4 inches, which is big for them. It didn't move; it just sat there in the mud on the bank. Of course, as we all walked over to investigate and see if I could catch it, he jumped under the boat and then into the water. Bastard. My drummer's son, Lil' Man (that's what I'm calling him in the article) of course wanted to see what I was catching, which at this point, were 2 green frogs, a pickerel frog, and a green frog tadpole. I took a green frog out and snapped this picture, of course for blogging purposes.

I'm being exploited for my looks.
I continued my search up and down the bank. I saw hundreds of tadpoles all along the way, but no turtles, no newts, and no more frogs after a point. I probably scared the hell out of them. The lack of red-spotted (or eastern) newts was odd to me. I was still happy with my finds for the day, and it wasn't over yet. We wound up staying and fishing for a while longer and eventually went back to the house. After a lunch break and hanging around (and a nap), I asked everyone if they wanted to go on a hike down and around the waterfall. So, we did. 

THIS is the waterfall.
Pedro Loco and Baxter brought their fishing rods, and I naturally made my way around the edges of the creek and pool at the bottom of the waterfall in search of creatures. I crossed the wooden bridge from once side of the creek to the other and climbed the steep rock bank next to the waterfall. I managed to not lose my footing and slip on the wet rocks, painfully slip n' sliding my way down into the rocks in the water below, which was a feat. It flattened out and made a wide shelf a few times and had several small pools of water collected in the crevices of the rocks. There, I found more juvenile green frogs hanging out. I figured this was much safer for them near the waterfall, as predators probably didn't venture out near there on the slick rocks too often. 

I, however, am twice as brave, but half as smart as a raccoon or fox.
The two green frog babies kept me occupied while everyone yet again unsuccessfully fished. We decided to put the fishing equipment back in exchange for the air rifle and an BB handgun. It's okay; they were Pedro Loco's guns, and I'm a hunter, and Baxter is a cop, so we were totally safe. We decided to have some target practice by shooting a can about 20 or 30 yards away. Pedro Loco (that is so fun to say!) suggested that we go back behind the house through the woods into an old stone quarry. He had actually suggested it before when I was talking about herping. He said that the quarry would fill up with water when it rained, and in the spring especially, it would be flooded and filled with frogs and whatnot. This, children, is called a vernal pool, and is very important to amphibian survival.

We walked back through a trail, and then through about 5 inches of mud to get to the quarry. It basically was just a narrow field totally filled with stones and some small boulders. It was also pretty dry, so I didn't bother looking for anything, and daydreamed of a spring rain filling the quarry and it buzzing with amphibious life while I waited my turn to shoot the air rifle. It turned out to be pretty accurate. The handgun...not so much. We basically pulled a Keanu Reeves in Point Break every time we shot it; just recklessly unloading the BB clip hitting absolutely nothing in the process. I hit the can every time with the rifle (of course I did), and it got boring pretty quickly waiting my turn, so I started looking around. I'm glad I did, because I literally never would have noticed my next find.

I saw something jump in the grass and rocks, but it was really tiny. I actually don't know what I thought it was at first: a spring peeper, a toadlet, heck, it could have been a cricket. Was it a cricket? Nay! It was a treefrog. My first treefrog! Well, not my first. I had caught green tree frogs down in Florida and South Carolina whilst on vacation, but I never expected to ever see one in Pennsylvania! Yes, I KNOW we have them here, but I just figured they were super hard to find, or I didn't know any good areas to look. So this was my first Pennsylvania treefrog: a newly metamorphosized gray treefrog!
Ain't I totes adorbs?
I was extremely happy to find this little guy. I don't really have "lifers" that I look for when I'm out like a lot of herpers do. I just go out every time hoping I find something, and eventually something new I've never found before. This find definitely got me excited. We all marveled at this little fella, and I of course went into Steve Irwin mode and started explaining what it was and stuff to everyone. He didn't like to cooperate for the camera, or stay in my hand very long. He wound up free-fall base jumping out of my hands a few times, or crawling up my shirt to my chest. 

He's camera shy.
He tried to escape a few times through the grass, but I managed to recapture him. During one escape attempt, I got down on the ground to get him, only to find ANOTHER ONE! This little guy had the green coloration to him, which I thought was so awesome. I'd never caught a gray treefrog before, let alone a new metamorph (which I believe are extremely hard to find in general due to their size and time of year you're looking), let alone TWO metamorphs! Then I got to catch one of both types of color patterns.

My drummer's wife (whom may beat me if she reads this and I gave her a bad nickname) helped me corral these two little maniacs up long enough to snap some pictures of them. I even managed to get a pic of both of them on each hand together, but I either deleted it, or I absolutely made that part up. We showed Lil' Man, and he helped me release them into the tall grass after a few minutes of me entering herping heaven. All was right with the universe. 

Nothing could top these finds. I had found something totally new, and the closest thing I had to a lifer. We walked back and I flipped a few more rocks to find, as expected, another redback. I thought it was fitting to end the day by finding another one of these little guys, who I don't mind finding at all, despite their frequency in my finds.

You were expecting maybe, Humphrey Bogart?
We went back to the house, had dinner, drank and were merry. I actually wound up feeling sick after we went to bed, so I packed it up and left in utter darkness of the woods and a cold rain in the middle of the night. I went slow on the winding roads, despite there not being another soul out at this time of night. In my headlights, I noticed what looked like leaves blowing on the ground, except it really wasn't windy at all. I slowed to a crawl, and I noticed they were frogs! This was my unofficial first time "road cruising" for herps in the rain. I put my high beams on, made sure not to move until there were no more frogs in my lane, and moved slowly ahead. There were tons of them everywhere! I finally got out to grab one directly in front of my car who wouldn't move. At first, I thought it was a leopard frog. He turned out to be a pickerel once I got close enough and picked him up. He was huge! Probably as big as the one who evaded capture at the lake earlier that day. Very healthy, and now very excited and not very appreciative I tried to help him cross the road, he squirmed and kicked. 

This blows.
I held on and looked at him in my headlights and was pleased that there was a healthy population of pickerel frogs around. I'd never seen such an abundance of amphibians on rain country road like that; I'd only ever read about them during an early spring shower at night. This turned out to be quite a memorable herping experience. I drove home with a smile on my face, even though my stomach was churning. I probably shouldn't have mixed that super market sushi with microwavable Jack Daniel's barbecue pulled pork for lunch...

Saturday, 9/21 count:

redback salamander: 4
pickerel frog: 10+
green frog: 6
gray treefrog: 2

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Everybody's Herpin' for the Weekend" or "Toadal Recall"

I'm currently sitting alone, bored at work, so I decided to shake the herping timeline I've been adhering to up a bit and throw a curve ball. I'm deviating from the timeline to talk about herping here at work. I like to live on the edge, I know. This one will be short(er) than the rest, as there's not much to tell.


I left my crappy job as IT Support at a bank in Philly to work at a data center in Norristown, PA. It's a good 20 minutes outside of the city, not counting traffic. This county (Montgomery) is actually where I hunt as well, so I know there are critters afoot! The shift is a night shift position, which means it sucks royal balls. However, that technically is prime herping time in the warmer weather. Although I don't get much free time while at work, I have managed to find some herpies (definitely need to come up with a better name for what I find) on the clock.

I started this job in the very beginning of September 2013, and some nights were still balmy and humid. The position I took when I first started required me to do hourly walkthroughs of the data center and facility, and in some cases, that meant I would be able to wander outside for a few minutes of fresh (sticky) air. My co-worker who trained me would take smoke breaks out back near the receiving/loading dock behind the building, so we would stand around back there and bullshit until he finished his cigarette. I, of course, much to his bewilderment, would be looking in the grass, in dark corners of the building, or just about anywhere for toads. Yes, toads. I had a feeling this place was loaded with my favorite herp (slightly better than "herpies" for a name) and I had a knack for finding them in the most precarious places. I've even found them around a Dunkin Donuts in the middle of South Philly. It's a gift. I AM THE MASTER AND COMMANDER OF TOADS.

Any old ways, my co-worker of course asked what I was doing. I told him flat out, and he told me that he does usually see them around outside. He also took smoke breaks out in front of the main building entrance, and he said there were HUGE ones around there. I was skeptical about the "hugeness" of the toads he claimed were milling around out front, even after my monster toad find near the Wissahickon. He even sized them up with his hand to show me how big the toads were. I wanted to see for myself. After a few days of searching, I found nothing. Was it already too late in the season? It wasn't cold, but it wasn't exactly toad-conducive weather. Then one night I kinda wasn't looking due to giving up, when I looked down and saw a small Fowler's toad (Anaxyrus fowleri) (...what? I'm trying to be studious by including the scientific name. Don't judge me.) I have caught tons of these little guys, but I was no less excited. My co-worker looked at me, confused at first, but then as I showed the toad to him, he was a little more interested. He also questioned how (moreover, WHY) I knew the exact species. I explained to him that I've always had an interest in them, and to stop fucking judging me, too. I snapped a picture (for just such an occasion as to showcase pointless herping stories online) and let him go into the grass near a tree stump. My faith in finding toads around work had been restored.

this was clearly an Instagram moment

The next night, something special happened. It was almost 90 degrees at night, hot, humid, and terribly uncomfortable. It was exponentially warmer than the previous few nights. I knew my luck would change. Out back on a walk-through cigarette break, in the very corner of the building sat another (and different) Fowler's toad. I picked it up and snapped another National Geographic worthy picture and put her ('twas a she) in my little traveling case that I keep in my trunk (I told you I was weird) and finished the walk-through. 

This is like the toad version of "Taken", except there's no toad-Liam Neeson to save me.
Afterwards, I went out to the main entrance parking lot to go put the tank back in the trunk and set my captive free, when I saw one: the mother of all toads. A large female American toad; she was enormous, just sitting in the parking lot, not really paying attention to anything. I mean, she was too big NOT to be lazy. I walked up to her and with little effort, scooped her up to inspect. It was another female, and she put up little resistance as I looked her over. I carried her in my hand, only to go a few more steps and see ANOTHER huge toad mama. Same deal for the most part, except this one was flatter and wider. She sat there, semi-gelatinous and doing an excellent Jabba the Hutt impression in the middle of the sidewalk. She could not have cared any less that I was approaching to snatch her up. She had no more fucks to give. Now I was juggling two softball-sized toads and an smaller one in a tank. Just as I made it to my car, there she was: the toad queen. Did I say the first one was the mother of all toads? Scratch that; THIS ONE was THE MOTHER OF ALL. Every toad I was finding got bigger and bigger and bigger. By the time I got to my car, I felt like I was carrying an armful of raw meat home from the butcher. I had toads for days. I was holding SO much toad at that moment. It was a herping miracle.

I certainly didn't expect to have such luck in one night. You would have thought I won a $1000 scratch-off ticket. After I placed them down, it was hard to keep them all stationary long enough to take another award-winning wildlife picture. They were surprisingly agile and nimble for fatty-fat fats....kinda like sumo wrestlers. I lined them up and took a picture displaying just how big these motherload toads were.

We're sexy and we know it.
The Fowler's toad on the right was maybe 3 inches. That goes to show you just how big these other slobbies were. The one on the far left, a.k.a. "Big Bertha" easily covered the palm of my hand with her toad rolls. The other two (from left to right), a.k.a. "Beulah" and "Maud" were almost as equally rotund. "Beulah" was the Jabba lookalike. I laughed at just how overly pudgy she was. She just plops herself down and gives in to gravity. I almost can hear her breathing heavily as she fights to catch her breath. They were all huge!

All fat jokes aside, these finds made me happy and kept me occupied on a boring, dragging night at work. Which is why I decided to revisit this evening's story. I'll definitely be exploring again for toads (and the like) once the weather breaks, and I've already planned on coming back out to Montgomery county on our hunting property on early spring nights to see what I can find. I'm getting excited just thinking about it.

Tuesday 9/10 & Wednesday 9/11 count:

Fowler's toad: 2
Eastern American toad: 3

P.S.: So you're interested in "gendering" American toads. How do I know how to do so, you ask? Well, hypothetical reader/literary device, I'm glad you asked. HOW I learned is trial and error, and reading way too many reptile and amphibian field guides growing up. So I learned from back then as a wee lad. It's fairly easy, and there are a number of ways to do it. First, the big three: throats, vocals, and forearms. Males usually have a dark or black colored throat, or at least a black patch on it. Females' throats are all white. Next is vocals. Females do not call at all (most toads actually "chirp"). If you see it call (it's throat/vocal sack will swell up as he does so), or it chirps when you pick it up and handle it, it's a male. Lastly, males usually have thick Popeye forearms with "nuptual" pads on their thumbs. These help the male grip the female when they're making pollywogs. So those are the rules of thumb. There are also some other ways to determine if your toad is a boy toad or a girl toad: females are typically bigger, fatter, and bumpier; males are typically smaller, slimmer, and smoother (this is why you need to moisturize and use the treadmill, ladies.) There you have it. Below is a video that is either considered toad foreplay, or a toad "how to pick up chicks" dating guide. Science!