The Hognose Heaven Zone

There is a mysterious area very near to that place which is known as Washington DC. It is an area as vast as about  1 or 2 square miles and as timeless as infinity (or at least a few million years.) It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between city an country.  Journey with us now into this wondrous land. It is an area which we call the: “Hognose Heaven Zone.”

Our story begins with a foursome of herpers, Caroline, Charise, John W and Jon K, hiking to an undisclosed location near Washington DC.   Years before this journey began, former Reptiles Alive Wildlife Educator and Keeper Jeff Stryker discovered  a population of hognose snakes and eastern milk snakes (two awesome snake species that are not very common in the suburbs) living in this strange spot and named the place “Hognose Heaven.”

As the group’s journey began, they spotted their first herps of the day. There were many turtles and frogs living in the wetlands along the trail.

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Nesting eastern painted turtle

Soon, the  group of herpers veered off the main trail onto a little-used trail that led to the heart of Hognose Heaven. They began turning over logs and rocks.  A four-toed salamander was discovered!  The salamander’s creamy white and black spotted belly helped with its identification.

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Four-toed Salamander

After arriving at Hognose Heaven, something very unexpected appeared to materialize out of the rocks, sticks, and leaves – something that even four experienced naturalists could hardly see until they were right on top of it!

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Newborn Fawn

The fawn was only a few hours old. Its camouflage was remarkable! The baby deer was nearly invisible – the perfect survival strategy for a small animal that can not yet walk or run. Its mother was nearby and would return as soon as the coast was clear. Even though the group was in a strange place, it is normal to find fawns alone in the woods without their mother. As soon as the people vanish, the mother deer will come back to care for her fawn.
After observing the baby deer, the group continued searching for snakes. Caroline quickly found the hognose snake’s favorite food item: toads.

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Toad

As Caroline approached John W to inform him of her find, she noticed he was holding something in his hands. Something about 3 feet long, with orange spots on a black body and a pointy, upturned nose. “Hognose! Hognose!” she yelled with joy!

John W and Caroline yelled for Jon K and Charise to come and see the spectacular serpent. When they arrived, however, the snake was acting strange.

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Does this Hog-nosed Snake Need Help?

As the group excitedly discussed the behavior of the hognose snake, the snake in question seemed to miraculously get better!

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It’s a Miracle! (or maybe just a Hognose)

After making his miracle recovery from his apparent death, the snake made his move and slithered back to the safety of his rocky home.

Now, the group needed to make a decision. Continue the search? Or have lunch? Caroline suggested having lunch after a short hike over to a nearby bizarro-world she called: CACTUS ISLAND!
Believe it or not, (believe it), the prickly pear cactus is native to the Washington DC area. Much of its habitat has been lost to urban development, but it can still sometimes be found in certain micro-habitats around our nation’s capital. That day, the cactus was in bloom!

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Prickly Pear Growing Near Washington, DC

Does the story end here? Did they find an eastern milk snake? Did they have a good lunch? Only they know the answer to those questions. Questions from the Hognose Heaven Zone.

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…

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!

Creature Feature – Spotted Salamander

Spotted Salamander

Ambystoma maculatum

Reptiles Alive Name:”Spot”spotted-salamander

Hissstory: Spot was donated to us by a nature center.

RA Diet: Spot eats earthworms, crickets, and meal worms.

Natural Diet: Adults eat worms, slugs, millipedes, termites, and other insects.  Larvae (tadpoles) eat aquatic insects including mosquito larva.

Range: Spotted salamanders are found in the eastern United States west to Texas and north to Canada.  They are native to the Washington DC area.

Habitat: Spotted salamanders live in hardwood forests where vernal pools form each year.

Size: They can grow to 4-7.75 inches, record length is 9.75 inches.

Lifespan: Spotted salamanders can live to 20 years.

Reproduction: Spotted salamanders emerge from hibernation in late winter and early spring.  They sometimes have to walk across snow to reach the vernal pools they breed in.   After mating in the water, the female salamanders lay egg masses of  consisting of around 100 eggs.  The eggs hatch depending on the temperature in the water.  Transformation (metamorphosis) takes places in 2 to 4 months.

Conservation: Acid rain can damage developing eggs, causing some populations to decline in certain areas.  Many salamanders are killed each year as they migrate over roadways in search of the vernal pools they were born in.  Spotted salamander populations in heavily urbanized areas have been mostly wiped out due to the destruction of the vernal pools they rely on for reproduction.

Cool Facts: Salamanders are an indicator species.  Amphibians need a clean and healthy habitat in order to survive.  Amphibians breathe through their skin, so toxins and pollution can easily kill them.  When salamanders disappear, it means something is wrong with the habitat they live in!   Salamanders can help scientists determine if an ecosystem is healthy or unhealthy.