Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Something Old, Something Newt" or "A Bad Day in the Woods is Better Than a Good Day in the Office"

My first herping entry of 2015! Pretty late considering, but better late than never. Since this will include not one, but TWO herping excursions, it'll be chock full o' pictures and probably really wordy anyway. Don't get too excited and hold on to your butts.

First up: John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, April 2015:

So my father has become my unofficial herping partner, much to his chagrin. Mainly because he's always around when I happen to be out in the woods to do so. This time, I specifically asked him to come out with me to the refuge, which is right outside the city, and walk around with me for a little. He agreed, which surprised me a bit, considering I told him specifically what I'd be doing. He shrugged it off as a father who's disappointed with is son is wont to do, and we made our way to the refuge.

Herper's Paradise 

We basically walked the first orange and the red path around once. This outing was short, and not very sweet, as I only heard the presence of two frogs the entire time. But I managed to get some nice pictures and a good walk in. For April, it was hot, and for my purposes, dry. Too dry, actually. And it wasn't conducive to even finding any snakes either. I basically went out in the early evening on a hot day after there really hasn't been any rain. Total bust for a herping outing, really.

"Herp on down a country road..." - James Taylor

I flipped some logs and rocks to find a shit-ton of earthworms, but not much else. The few vernal pools on the stretch of my path were stagnant, low, and algae-ridden, but this is where I spooked in two (what I assume were) green frogs as I saw them jump from the corner of my eye and heard the little splashes in the water. I don't know how I couldn't see them; the water was extremely low, and there was so much algae, it looked like the stuff they used for the "Ooze" in the second Turtles movie.

When they come back out, maybe they'll turn into teenage mutant ninjas!
My father just watched me strike out repeatedly while smoking on a cigar and wondering where he went wrong as a parent. After about an hour or so he wanted to go, as we were just walking around in the mosquito-ridden heat of the evening. 

Pictured: no herps
On the way back around the one nature trail loop, I did manage to get some nice shots of the scenery. Unfortunately, I could NOT get a great shot of the family of wood ducks that were swimming away from us. You can (not really) see them center of the picture below:

"We're ghost, muhfuckaaa!"
Walking back on the path alongside the highway, we were treated to a familiar, but welcome sight: deer!
Clearly, I've missed my calling as a wildlife photographer.
They were just out in the open, grazing around the little grass clearing (or "meadow" maybe? I suppose, although this was pretty small. What are the parameters for determining if something is a meadow or not? Fine: "grazing around the little meadow". You're a hard hypothetical reader to please).

This shot is a hunter's dream. Now only if it had antlers...
There were about 5 or 6 of them, probably does and fawns, although at that point in the year, it's impossible to tell at a distance. They were fairly unperturbed by our presence, and even though they were about 50-60 yards away, they mainly ignored us and continued to eat and do other deery things.

^ Deery things.
I snapped another shot, as if I've never seen a deer before or something, and we made our way back to the car. I decided that before we'd leave, I'd  try to circle back around another trail that cut straight through the cattails to see if I could get any closer to them. 

More of my photography skills with a 5 megapixel camera in action. I call this shot "Where's Waldo?"

I made my way down the path, totally surrounded by tall grass and cattails...engulfed, even! The sea of grasses had blackbirds and orioles swimming across the path from side to side as I walked, but it afforded me no better shot at the deer. I couldn't get anywhere close to where I thought they were. Just cattails for days.


Since this walk didn't really yield any results, I won't post any. Originally, this was only supposed to be so I could potentially write about something, as I hadn't gone out to herp until mid April. It was kind of a shot in the dark given the circumstances. But it was good to get out and walk around with my father. We saw some wildlife, which is always nice. The only other thing I had to show for my efforts was a tick I found crawling on my arm all the way back at my house as I sat at my dinner table on my laptop. Rest assured that I got the torch out and burned that little fucker to a crisp.

NEXT!: Spring Gobbler Hunting, May 13-15, 2015

If you've ever read my blog, you'd know that I hunt, and that I mainly get a good herping expedition in every spring when I go turkey hunting in late April/early May. This time, things were a little different: THIS TIME I went out in MID May! Throwin' a lil' curveball in there to make things interesting. I like to herp dangerously...

SPOILER!: There will NOT be an overabundance of red efts like in the previous two Spring Gobbler hunt posts. I know, hypothetical reader, that you're upset you won't be seeing picture after picture of those oh-so cute and adorable bright orange faces. But I've got some good finds nonetheless. Buckle up.

May 13th:

I took off of work Wednesday through Friday so that I could hunt turkey my birthday week/weekend. All of my friends asked, "Hey, what are you doing for your big Dirty Thirty?" My response: "I'll be sitting in the woods." No boozing, no debauchery. I'd be in camouflage most likely sweating my ass off in the middle of the mountains trying to shoot a living dinosaur. I now have no friends. Will you be my friend, hypothetical reader?!

So that Wednesday, I woke up early, drove all the way down to Cabela's in Delaware to buy shotgun shells as my friendly neighborhood gun shop was all out of the size I needed, and packed my stuff. I also decided to buy a HUGE finely-meshed fishing net that I had full intention of using over the next few days to catch me some red-spotted (or eastern) newts

A familiar and favorite sight.
After packing, picking up my grandfather, driving up an hour and a half listening to old war stories and days of yore, we arrived at the hotel. Checked in, got changed, got into the woods to call.

Another old favorite.

It was fairly chilly for mid-May. We both had light cover for the wind and crisp mountain air. We called a bunch up and down the road and up the mountain until dusk, but no sign of any turkey nigh. The woods were still and solemn, save a few songbirds at a distance.

I had a feeling that we wouldn't have much luck hunting the next day.

At least the path is nice to look at...
If you recall from a previous entry, I found a juvenile ring-necked snake under a big plastic drum outside my grandfather's former cabin. Heading back to the car, as my pop got his things together, I ventured over to see if lightning would strike twice in the same spot. And boy, did it ever! Literally.

Scaly, coiled lightning.
I flipped the very same drum in the very same spot and found not one, but TWO juvenile northern ring-necked snakelings! "Snakelings" are a thing, right? What you can't see in the above picture is the other one, puckered up tighter than a snare drum in his coil, in the palm of my hand, whilst his brother made photographing extremely difficult.

"Photograph me?! NEVARRR!"
His balled-up friend was much easier to capture on film.

"Leave me here to die."
If you're wondering why I'm taking pictures in my car, it was because my terrible phone was dead, had to be put on the charger, and it was too dark without the flash. When I approached the car with a handful'o snakes, my grandfather asked what I had, looked at me, then laughed to himself. Surely he knew I was never going to change from the wee lad he once took along turkey hunts of yesteryear, where I followed him, shoving handfuls of red efts in my jacket pockets while fowl murder was afoot. I returned the ringers to their hiding spot and we made our way back. We had to be up bright and early at the buttcrack of 4 to be in the woods by a little before dawn.

No turkeys were to be heard that day. We set up early, heard nothing, walked around and called my ass off to no avail. No sight nor sound of turkeys all over the mountain. We passed by my grandfather's old stand. He's made his mind up that he'll still be hunting out of it this fall. 88 years old and still on the hunt.

Ol' Reliable ready for action
Unrelated to herping, we haven't deer hunted from this spot in over a decade. This season will be interesting to say the least.

Back to the hunt and herping, but first...

Let me take a selfie.
While the hunt was unsuccessful by killing a turkey standards, it had its high points. I always talk about how utterly magnificent the woods are in the springtime. They're serene, even when you kick up a ruffed grouse (the Pennsylvania state bird). They sound like an Apache Longbow helicopter taking off when you spook them and they take off, which is what happened as we walked back down the path. The Poconos (and the wilderness in general, to me) can be entrancing and captivating in all its natural splendo.....OH MY FUCKING GOD, IS THAT A BEAR?!?!

"Well, it ain't yo' mama."
While walking down the path to go back towards the road and big lake I've visited in the past, we encountered a young black bear. He walked parallel to the road, behind a big trailer. He made his way behind a mound, toward the road, then back alongside it VERY close, but then vanished into some thick cover. I lost sight of the bear. Although normally black bears are shy around people and will run rather than bearattack your face off, I didn't want to potentially get too close if he was uneasy with our presence. I was a little anxious as to his whereabouts. What the hell was I going to do if the bear decided he had had enough of our shit and tackled my grandfather? If the bear attacked me first, at least I'd be able to judo-throw him through a tree. We slowed our pace, and shortly after, the bear emerged from the trees to cross the road. He was about 60 yards away when I took the above picture. He mosied across the road, but as he got across and into the woods again, his ambling turned to a mad dash into the trees. I managed to grab one last picture of him before he vanished into the wilderness.

"Fuck this, I'm out."
After BEAR-ly escaping the jaws of death, we walked out to the road and down another path to head towards the big lake at the edge of a field and tree farm. We called to no avail again. I decided since it was getting past mid-morning that I would flip some rocks and logs due to lack of action on the hunting front. The forest was relatively dry, unlike the past two years prior, where it was rainy and damp. No abundant efts this time. But lo! there were! I flipped a log to find this lone pair; the only efts of the trip. It's not like they aren't up here...

"Two of a Kind!" Like that shitty late-90s sitcom with the Olsen twins...except better.
This is when the herps came rollin' in. Turkeyless, we staggered on in the May sun back toward the lake, calling as we went. When we hit the lake, I got kid-on-Christmas-morning-at-the-top-of-the-steps giddy and placed the decoys and my fanny pack down. Yes, upon that day, my 30th birthday, I decided that not only was the form permissible given the function of a fanny pack, but it was okay for me to wear.

I kept my shotgun close by; my luck, there'd be turkeys swimming in the lake. Immediately I began to see amphibians. First was this pickerel frog, who kept eluding my capture.

"Come and find me, bitch! Camouflage!"
I followed him through the cover on the bank of the lake. He didn't expect me to, I'd imagine, as normally, I'd chalk it up and not traverse the brush. I managed to grab him, albeit temporarily, to try to take a picture. He escaped my grasp as I fumbled for my phone. He made his way back into the cover, but I was able to shove my phone directly in his face without him moving. To fellow herper Mike H from Massachusetts (who posted in his blog that he challenged anyone to take a worse picture than he did of one of these guys in a post): Mike, without knowing and before reading yours, I think I have you beat...

I eventually left him alone and moved on to greener herps. My grandfather watched from a distance and then went back up the road to sit down, disgusted that I was in his lineage. I started seeing my dear old friends, the red-spotted newts.

"Hello. Is it me you're lookin' for?"
I've capture countless eastern newts over my lifetime, both with an old potato sack net my grandfather made me and with my bare hands. Today I was going to try to dust off my forgotten skills and do it manually. I struck out a bunch last time I tried this. This year?:

The Mr. Miagi of newt catching.
Success. This one particular handful yielded 3 newts: probably a mating pair and a straggler...or it was a threesome?

Newt orgy? Or Three's Company?
I placed them down and let them sort it out and make their way back to the water.

"...What the fuck just happened?"
And there's that cute yellow underbelly. This female was chubby. Eggs perhaps?

"When's the baby due?"
"What baby?"
Another fine specimen swimming around, taunting me to try to pick her up.

"Come and get me, you big jerk."
I noticed a plethora of tadpoles in this lake as well. Most likely pickerel or wood frogs. I managed to scoop one with my bare hands. I've somehow had luck with catching tadpoles without a net, a life skill that I believe to be pretty universal.

Everything I ever needed to learn, I learned while catching tadpoles.
I managed another newt with my hands after I dipped the mystery polliwog back in.

It's a boy!
Male and female eastern/red-spotted newts are easy to distinguish from each other because the males have fanned tails and thicker back legs, equipped with pads for gripping while mating. I posted a video of eastern newts mating in one of my previous blogs, because apparently, newt porn is okay on Blogger.

I walked down the bank a few feet and noticed ANOTHER casualty in this lake. Again, I'll attribute it to cold snaps during mating season, but it's still kinda odd that it's primarily in this lake, and year after year. This time, a behemoth American toad.

R.I.P. StayPuft Marshmallow Man
He was pretty big; probably dead a few days. I haven't seen a toad up there in quite a few years, so this nevertheless was a positive sign that there are still toads up in this particular area.

The water was cold and clear and you could see all the way to the bottom. I often thought about what it'd be like to snorkel there, though I'm not sure what pathogens I may accidentally ingest. There were some unidentified fish that I was sure would be on the lookout for newts to eat, but they swam right past a bunch of floating ones. Eastern newts have a bad taste to predators, so maybe these fish were well aware already.

*Cue "Jaws" theme music*
The tadpoles were EVERYWHERE and out in full force.

OMG hal cuuuuuuute!
More of the lil' guys:

If this were a photo on the touch screen game at your corner bar, you'd be fucked.
I bid the lake fare thee well and found my grandfather sitting on a log back on the side of the path waiting for me. We made our way back down the path where the ninja turkey got the jump on me last year, but this year, no turkey. Same vernal pools along the side of the road though. The first one had a pleasant surprise for me: a wood frog! I haven't seen a wood frog in the wild up here since I was a young fellow, so it was actually really exciting to see one. This was the closest he'd allow me to get before jumping in.

"Peace, foo'!"
Down the path a little was another big vernal that had a colossal bullfrog right near the edge.

He was a good friend o' mine.
I say that due to what I perceive to be lack of dorsal lines. Anyone is welcome to call me out on any "misidentifications", which apparently isn't a real word. Don't try to make a fuck out of me and be wrong, though. Then, you'll be the fuck.

The next vernal had another frog, this one we'll call a green frog, although it's probably a bullfrog. It's too far to tell, and because fuck you.

Can YOU spot him?
As we trudged on in the late morning sun, I veered off the path and took advantage of my awesome waterproof hunting boots and actually stepped through the next vernal pool. This one was literally teeming with little black tadpoles, but also was a spring home to a juvenile wood frog who I managed to grab among the leaf litter at the bottom.

As you can see, I wasn't exaggerating when I said this pool was "teeming" with frog babies.

"Most of us won't make it to adulthood!"
Eventually, we gave up on the hunt close to noon and made our way back down to the car. Seeing our old family cabin still depresses me deeply.

After heading back and changing, we decided to hit the hot tub. I was treated to more tales of war and old hunting stories that I've heard countless times already, but still listen to intently because I love hearing them over and over. How I spent my 30th birthday:

Take it in, ladies.
We took a nap after relaxing in the pool area until my father arrived. Eventually we made it back into the woods to call and attempt another roost, although I wasn't very optimistic this time.

Three generations of hunters.
The roost attempt had more shenanigans, sightseeing and herping than it did successful hunting strategies. The turkeys were not on the mountain this year, and it was a little later in the season (which means they might not be as hormonal, or, well...horny), so they may be less responsive to calling.

Up the road, we walked to the path near the creek that runs down the side of the mountain, where I was able to snag another juvenile wood frog in a pool.

"YOU get a wood frog! And YOU get a wood frog! EVERYBODY gets a wood frog!" - Oprah
This is how I walked around most of the evening:

And ladies ask how I'm still single...
We decided to kill two birds (not turkeys, unfortunately) with one stone and do some recon and scouting for this fall's deer season. We looked for sign, we visited the old stands that we haven't hunted out of in over a decade, all the while calling for gobblers. My grandfather, not wanting to climb up the steep hill, stood in the flat before the ridge, surrounded by aged and venerable spruce trees lining the creek. My father and I made our ascent up the rocks to the top of the ridge and headed toward the power-line.

Up the power-line towards the top of the mountain, my father's old stand was still upright and ever watchful, although a bit weathered. He insisted on climbing up to test its stability and integrity, to which I reluctantly allowed him to do so, even though I offered to climb up the tree myself to do it. My reasoning was that if the stand breaks and one of us were to fall 15-20 feet to the ground, my recovery time would be shorter and my survival chances would be greater. I really just didn't want to have to drag him through the woods back to the car to take him to a hospital if the stand was rotted out.

It wasn't, thankfully.

Many a deer taken from this post
Pleased with himself and his handiwork a decade ago, he climbed down and we walked back down the mountain, scouting out the area for deer season. Being up in this part of the mountain sparked up nostalgia of hunting seasons past, and even herping outings when I was much younger. I had shot my first deer out of that stand, and my father helped me find it afterward. It was a coming-of-age moment; part tradition, part becoming a man. It was good to think that this year, we'd be back to our old stomping grounds. This mountain and these woods were the first places I've hunted and herped. It will always hold a special place in my heart.

"Get out of the creek." - my father
That was my emo moment-of-the-day. As we hiked back down, I saw some deer bones. Vertebrae, some leg and hip bones. It's those damn coyotes!

"Gon' end up a big ol' pile of them boooones!"
Going back down the steep ridge to my grandfather, I flipped some good looking rocks for salamanders, but struck out. My father got way ahead of me, but overlooked a sign! A turkey feather! Those bastards were around here somewhere...

The closest I'd get to a turkey this season.
The three of us made our way back out to the road. We had the idea that we'd split up to call, so I was driven down to the end of the road to where we'd walked earlier in the day. It was getting dark and I thought this would be a perfect time to herp and not be judged. 

I put the feather in my cap, literally. Was heap good time.

I have no respect for anyone.
I swapped out the Native American headdress look for my headlamp again. I got my flashlight out as well, walked down the suddenly eerie path, calling as the light faded. I apparently spooked some bedding deer, who in turn got up and ran, making quite a racket and briefly causing me to believe in Bigfoot. After having the shit scared out of me, I continued to comb the forest floor across the grassy path for herps. I thought I'd see some salamander activity, but again, the floor wasn't very damp.

The woods are a different place at night. Songbirds calling even as the darkness crept in, slowly dissolving into the twilight. Strangely though, no herps. As it got instantaneously dark out of nowhere, I walked back out in silence. No turkeys. No herps.

The next day was so boring that I won't go into detail. We hunted the morning until about 9 and slunk back to the car. My grandfather was calling it quits, but my father and I made our way back down the road and on the other path towards the lake again. This time, I brought my brand new, retractable steel net as a walking stick. We called with no luck, all the way down to the lake. 

My father stood there as I tested my net. It wasn't even FAIR. A pickerel frog jumped in and hid at the bottom, still in plain sight. I extended the net, dipped it in the water and placed it over top of him, instantly beating millions of years of survival evolution to dive and hide. Take THAT nature.

A bunch of newts paddled out of reach of my hand, but not Ol' Betsy (that's my net's new name). I scooped up a few with ease and placed them in my empty water bottle to photograph.

This obviously doesn't work as well as a clear plastic tank or cylindrical container. 
"Let my people go!"

With that, the hunt was over. No turkeys, but plenty of herps. I'm starting to notice a pattern over the last 3 years...

Wednesday, May 13th count:

northern ring-neck snake: 2

Thursday, May 14th count:

red eft: 2
eastern/red-spotted newt: 10-20
pickerel frog: 1
America toad: 1 (deceased)
bullfrog: 1
green frog: 1
wood frog 3
assorted tadpoles: a bazillion (again!)

Friday, May 15th count:

eastern/red-spotted newt: 3
pickerel frog: 1


  1. Spectacular and laugh-filled write up!! And I call our lousy Pickerel shots about even... at least they are IDable!!

    Keep up the good work!

    1. thank you good sir! I forgot to ask how you liked herping in PA. I hope we didn't disappoint.