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!

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?