We had a ssssspectacular Saturday as part of a Virginia Herpetological Survey (VHS) team for Mason Neck State Park and National Wildlife Refuge. Tony & Caroline along with about 20 other VHS members participated in the day long search for reptiles and amphibians. Each animal found was documented along with the location and micro-habitat it was found in.
We started the day around 8:30 am. We were divided into 5 teams that were given 5 different sections of the area to survey. Our team was assigned to the areas of the Wildlife Refuge that are closed to the public.
We drove to the end of the main Refuge access road to an area that used to be a farm. Five foot tall grass, poison ivy, and millions of deer ticks awaited us. We were not deterred! Almost immediately an eastern box turtle was found.
And then in a very short period of time, we found a brown snake, multiple worm snakes, more box turtles, two spotted salamanders, and giant native millipedes (I know – they don’t really count on a herp survey, but they were so cool!)
We also found two black racers – snakes that are known for being fast. One of the racers was in a somewhat odd micro-habitat. It was about 5 feet off the ground hanging on a small tree growing on the edge of a cliff.
We continued herping (searching for reptiles and amphibians) throughout the morning. It was hard work hiking through the brush, lifting logs and turning over rocks, but we were dedicated to our mission.
We drove a few miles down to an area of vernal pools, marshes, and wetlands. We found more herps, including cricket frogs and green frogs. One of the green frogs was also in a somewhat strange spot (for a green frog), he was about 3 feet up on the side of a tree stump.
While in the wetlands, we also found some frog predators. Many painted turtles were spotted basking on logs. A large snapping turtle was found in a pond under a log – but he foiled our attempts to take his picture.
Many people believe the myth that venomous cottonmouth (water moccasins) live in the Washington DC area. They do not. Our area is too far north for them to survive. We do, however, have harmless northern water snakes which are often confused with both cottonmouths and copperheads. Like many snakes, northern water snakes will flatten their bodies and heads to appear more “viper like” when they are threatened which can lead to their mis-identification as a venomous species.
In the same wetland location, we also found beautiful ribbon snakes. Ribbon snakes are similar in appearance to their close relatives the garter snakes, but the ribbons are much more slender.
Whew – after all this success we started to get a bit hungry. So we decided to head back to the meeting site, eat lunch, and find out how the other teams were doing.
After our short lunch break, we headed back out into the field for more searching. We discovered more worm snakes, more box turtles, lots more green frogs, more spotted salamanders and we had an encounter with a rarely seen in Fairfax County lizard species, the ground skink.
Deep in the woods, far from any roads or trails, we also discovered a sign of the past.
We did, however, find a venomous species of arachnid hiding under a log:
Around 5 pm, we headed back to meet up with the other teams and share our data collection for the day. The VHS president Kory Steele was there adding up all the numbers from each team. Soon, we would learn which team found the most animals.
Guess which team won? Well, as Kory reminded me, this was not a contest. Our mission was to collect data to assist with the conservation of reptiles and amphibians. (Ok, but our team won – we found 57 individual herps representing 17 species – woo hoo woo hoo!)
All of the animals we found that day were left in the spot we found them. Well, except for two animals – alien invaders were found in a turtle sampling trap.
The aliens were the Frankenfish – the Northern Snake-head! Apparently, there is now a large breeding population of these introduced exotic fish in the Potomac River and its tributaries in the Mason Neck/Pohick Bay area. This new invader could cause unknown consequences on our native fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and possibly even birds and mammals. Surveys such as the one the VHS teams completed at Mason Neck are crucial for the protection and conservation of our wildlife.
We had a sssssssuper ssssssssuccessful Ssssssssssaturday. It was snaketacular.
To see more pictures of our herp search at Mason Neck, visit our Facebook page.