Herpetological Spring has SPRUNG!

Last weekend we had some beautiful early April weather here in Northern Virginia.  After our brutal winter – we deserved it!  We headed out to Hemlock Overlook Regional Park to look for some signs of herpetological spring.  And we found it!

Our first find was one of the most common vertebrate creatures in the eastern United States:  the red-backed salamander.

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Red-backed salamanders come in three different colors:  red backed, yellow backed and black or “lead” backed.

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An unstriped or “lead-back” red-backed salamander.

Red-backed salamanders are different from many other amphibians.  They are members of the lungless group of salamanders – so they get all their oxygen absorbed into their blood stream through their slimy skin.  They also lay their eggs on land and the the larvae go through metamorphosis in the egg.  So, red-backed salamanders never have to leave the land to lay eggs in the water the way most amphibians do.

Toads, on the other hand, must return to the water each year to mate and lay eggs.  At Hemlock, the woods were alive with the pleasant music of male toads singing to attract females.

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American Toad

The male will “hug” the female (the science word for this toad hug is amplexus), and the female will lay hundreds of eggs encased in gelatinous goo into the water.

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In a few weeks, the temporary pools in our area will be filled with millions of black tadpoles that will quickly grow tiny legs and metamorphose into tiny toadlets.  To attract insect and slug eating toads into your garden, consider adding a toad home

We did not find any snakes on our trip at Hemlock, but the next day, one of Caroline’s neighbors called her to come and get a visitor out of her bathroom.

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Baby Black Rat Snake removed from a bathroom!

Yep, I would definitely say that herpetological spring has sprung!

Amphibian Action!

After the snowiest winter in Washington’s recorded history, the amphibians have finally made their way to the vernal pools to signal the beginning of spring. They are bit later than usual in this area. Late February is typically when spring peepers, wood frogs, and spotted salamanders make their first appearance in the DC area. This year, due to abnormally harsh winter conditions, they were about two weeks or so behind.

Last Friday night a few of the team members from Reptiles Alive had the special opportunity to visit a wetland area that is usually off-limits to the public. Off limits because it is behind a shooting range! We were invited by master naturalist Greg Zell along with a handful of other professional herpetologists and naturalists.

We met up at dark in the cool rain. Perfect weather. Well, maybe not perfect for humans, but definitely perfect for amphibians! On the road into the park, we discovered our first amphibians of the night – American toads!

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After putting on our rain gear, we crossed the shooting range walking over millions of broken clay targets until we reached the wetlands.  Immediately someone yelled “Spotted!”  Then more shouts were heard, and we realized, we were in the middle of hundreds, possibly thousands of spotted salamanders!  It was AWESOME!  They were everywhere!  Large female salamanders were being surrounded by 5 to 10 males at a time.  Salamanders were almost everywhere you pointed your flashlight, crawling through the mud or swimming like fish in the cold, clear water.  After an hour or so, spermatophores from the males began to fill the water as the ancient amphibian breeding rituals took place. It was the most amazing salamander sight I have ever witnessed.

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We spent a few hours observing them, photographing them and discussing them before we all decided it was time to come in out of the rain and dry off.  A few of us headed to Dogfish Head to warm up and have a late night dinner, but that, is another story…

Gardening for Frogs, Snakes & More

Gardening for wildlife is becoming increasingly popular.  Most wildlife gardening information is geared towards attracting birds, bees, and butterflies.  At Reptiles Alive, we also like to garden to attract frogs, toads, snakes and other creatures too.

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If you want to attract some awesome critters into your yard, here are some really easy steps you can take.

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One of the easiest ways to attract wildlife is to do nothing! That’s right – just let a part of your yard go wild.

Birds, snakes, frogs and box turtles all love to live in areas that humans ignore.

Remember when mowing, trimming, or doing yard work to watch out for small creatures like snakes, turtles and bunnies.

When choosing plants, picking plants native to your area will encourage native animals to take up residence

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Leaving fallen logs can give salamanders, worms, and small snakes a place to live.

Rocks can add beauty to your garden and provide shelter for snakes, spiders, toads, and more. Adding a small water feature like a bird bath at ground level can attract not just birds, but many other animals as well. Just be sure to change the water every couple of days so you don’t add more mosquitoes to your yard.

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Even a vegetable garden can provide habitat for animals. Under the straw covering this asparagus bed, I find brown snakes and toads.

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Here’s a Reptiles Alive secret: My Dad introduced me to my first snake when he was lifting straw off the potatoes in our garden. I was 4 years old. I decided at that moment in our garden that I was going to be a herpetologist when I grew up.
So, who knows where gardening can take you?

Herpetological Spring

Officially, spring does not actually begin until the Vernal Equinox on March 20.  However, there are many signs of spring popping up all over the Washington DC region.  The cheery blooms of the forsythia, crocus, and daffodils  can be seen in neighborhoods across our area.  But what gets me excited is the beginning of herpetological spring – when the spotted salamanders, wood frogs, and spring peepers begin to emerge.

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Spring Peeper

Most of the year, spotted salamanders and wood frogs remain hidden from view buried under ground or hiding under fallen leaves in the forest floor.  But once a year in late February, March, and early April, we have a chance to actually see these awesome amphibians – and not just one or two, but lots of them all at once!

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Vernal Pool

Thousands of spotted salamanders, wood frogs, and spring peepers all head for vernal pools at the same time.  Vernal pools are ponds of water that dry out in the summer, so no fish can survive in them.  These pools are crucial to the survival of many species of insects and animals, including many amphibians.

The salamanders and frogs lay millions of jelly-like eggs in the vernal pools.  Within a few weeks or so, the eggs hatch into larvae, or tadpoles.  The tadpoles go through metamorphosis fairly quickly so they can leave the water before the pool dries up.  The froglets and tiny salamanders emerge from the water and almost immediately disappear into the surrounding woodlands – not to be seen again until next year.

So, last weekend I convinced my friend Jon Kerr to head out with me to some of my FAVORITE froggy places.  A very strange vernal pool can be found in Fairfax County at Scott’s Run Nature Preserve.  This “vernal pool” is actually an abandoned swimming pool that was built using a natural spring as a source of water.  Even though humans have long since abandoned it, the pool is now used by hundreds of wood frogs and spotted salamanders every year.

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Wood Frog

When we arrived, the place was hopping! With wood frogs that is! But there were no spotted salamanders to be found. They were probably still on their way – they just needed a rainy night to really get them going. We did, however, find a pinchy crayfish in the nearby spring seep.

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Mr. Pinchy – the Crayfish

Next, we headed for Eakin Park – one of my favorite places to be.  You can sit and listen the amazing loud songs of the teeny Spring Peepers.  This is my most favorite sound of spring – I LOVE this time of year!

Happy Herpetological Spring Everyone!