A Toadally Awesome Night

Posting by CobraCaroline

Bats, toads and salamanders — oh my!  And don’t forget worms!

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Naturalist Ethan Demontrates Worm Handling Technique

A small group of Reptiles Alive staff and friends, along with budding herpetologist Ethan, set off on an adventure of amphibian proportions last weekend.

Tuatara Tony, who is also a naturalist with Fairfax County,  arranged for us to have access to a western Fairfax, VA park after dark, so we headed out into the woods around 6 pm.  It was a bit cool with temperatures in the mid 50′s.  The largest full moon in years was also set to rise, so we a were unsure of how successful our herp search would be.

As we headed into the darkening woods, young Ethan was delighted and excited with each and every earthworm we discovered.  Ants and small spiders also caught his attention and he was sure to point out to each of us any small invertebrate we failed to mention as we carefully lifted logs and rocks.

We found a few small red-backed salamanders under the logs, but no spotted salamanders which we were hoping for.

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Red-backed Salamander – unstriped or “lead-back” color phase

We found a small vernal pool near the edge of the woods and Ethan saw his first mating pair of toads.

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American Toads

As we headed back into the woods, we followed a small stream that was filled with spotted salamander eggs.  It seemed we were too late to see any of the adults, but just then, Joe called out “Hey guys, I think I’ve found one!”  We rushed over and sure enough it was a big beautiful spottie!

The sun had now set and the woods were getting darker.  We saw a few bats fly over head, along with the low flying jets landing at Dulles airport. Between the roars of jet-engines, another more melodious sound could be heard.  We started towards the trilling calls.  They seemed to be coming from a large vernal pool in the middle of a gas line cut in the woods.

As we drew near the pool, the music of toads became louder and louder.  I could not believe my eyes or ears!  I saw and heard more toads than I have ever seen any where!  The water was alive with toads.  Swimming toads.  Hopping toads.  Toads climbing on each other.

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Mating Ball o’ Toads

It was truly toadally amazing night.

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!

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!