Hemlock overlook on a cold day

Early spring may sound like it is too early to look for herps. Salamanders and frogs are a plenty this time of year. Make sure to pack your rain gear, shoes that can get wet, and a warm coat. Get ready for some fun!

It is the best time to spot amphibians by the hundreds coming out of hibernation to lay eggs in vernal pools.integgmassh2oThe best day to look for amphibians is on a warm day right after a good rain. Listen for frog song the night before. If you hear a racket, the next day is a good day to go out. (Of course if you are willing to brave the rain and dark, that night is a great time to see some frogs.) Don’t forget your flashlight.

This is a picture of an egg mass with the tadpoles already hatched. The eggs are encased in a gross, gooey, slimy mess to protect them from predators and the elements.

One of our favorite places to look for animals is along the Occoquan River. In addition to reptiles and amphibians, you are likely to spy a hawk, turkey, beaver, and various gorgeous plants.

intredsptnewt02Our adventure started a short walk from the parking lot at a small pond. Hundreds of red spotted newts (Notophthalmus viridiscens) were breeding in the water and even walking right across the path.

The female you see here still has her cloaca decended. (That is the yellow spotted thing under the tail behind the back legs.) She may have just bred. The male entices the female in the water with undulating vibrations of his tail, wafting a beautifully smelling hormone into the female’s nostrils. Then he deposits a spermatophore or sperm packet in front of the female. The female will carefully pick up the spermatophore with her cloaca and use its contents to fertilize her eggs. Females may mate with up to thirty different males in a season!

She will attach the mildly toxic eggs one at a time to underwater vegetation. The tiny tadpoles will hatch in a few weeks, but they don’t stay tadpoles for long. Babies quickly metamorphosis into aquatic adults.

Then things get strange. Some of the aquatic newts will change again, into a land-dwelling creature known as a red eft. The fire engine red efts look nothing like their aquatic parents. The little creatures will boldly amble across the forest floor for many years with little concern of danger. They secrete a nasty tasting toxic mucus if anyone dares to tangle with them! Efts finally will change back into their aquatic form once they are done exploring the world above the water. (Hold on to shorts everyone, I am still looking for a red eft to take a picture.)

intjeffshimmylog01Be prepared for a bit of adventure. Sometimes trails and bridges get washed out with early spring rains and flooding. Looks like we took a bit of a wrong turn here. Shortcut!

Shimmy Jeff, shimmy!

Boy that water sure looks cold.

Also be prepared to check out some awesome remains of old houses. Usually only chimneys and foundations survive. I am always impressed when I find a partially organized pile of rubble. What would it be like to live in such a small stone structure?intstonetinydoor01

(Come to think of it, it is probably a lot like my dorm room in college. Except, bigger and with better heating.)

Hours of a nice hike, crisp air, and lots of mud were rewarded with a fit body, huge appetite, a two lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) I think, and a friendly cat.