Saturday, March 22, 2014

Herping: Frogs, a Toad, and More

This is a continuance of my March 19th herping trip with some fellow wildlife students from Ohio University. The first part, covering the salamanders we found, can be found here!

This post will cover the frogs, toad, and some other things we came across that night. So let's jump right in!

Wood Frog, Lithobates sylvaticus
This is a Wood Frog, Lithobates sylvaticus. I was really happy we came across one of these; I've been wanting to see one for a few years now! Notice the "mask" which is a great ID characteristic. This is one of the species of frogs that hibernate over winter. What's interesting is that they can freeze during hibernation, thaw out in spring, and be perfectly fine.

Spring Peeper, Pseudacris crucifer
This frog is a Spring Peeper, Pseudacris crucifer. It was exciting to see; I've heard countless hundreds of them before, but never actually laid eyes on one. We saw a few throughout the night, but the ones we saw paled in comparison to the ones we heard that night. We must have heard thousands along the stretch of road we were walking. There were so many that the sound was almost painful.

Spring Peeper, Pseudacris cruciferAnother shot of the Spring Peeper. The diagnostic characteristic is the "X" on the back. This one's "X" is a little hard to make out, but the others we saw that night had very clear X's.

American Toad, Anaxyrus americanus
Finally, the last of the amphibians. This is an American Toad, Anaxyrus americanus. There are three subspecies; we have the Eastern subspecies. A bit of information I found interesting involves the origin of this species. When biologists did DNA studies on American Toads, they discovered they were closely related to South American toads in the Anaxyrus genus. As a result, it's thought that all Anaxyrus species in North American came from some toads that floated over from South American millions of years ago (the Isthmus of Panama wasn't formed yet, so the two continents were not connect at the time of the invasion).

Ohio Snail
Along with the amphibians on the move, there were also a couple of other animals out and about. One was this decently-sized snail. What type of snail? I'm honestly not sure. I think it's a snail in the genus Mesodon, and I'll venture to say it might be Mesodon thyroidus or Mesodon zaletus. Don't hold me to that though.

Scaphinotus elevatus
Finally, an insect! This is some type of ground beetle. A member on Reddit's What's This Bug said it appears to be an Eastern Snail Eater, Scaphinotus elevatus. If that's exactly right, I'm not sure; the beetles are a massive group of insects with insane numbers of species. Getting an exact ID from a photo is hard.

Other animals sighted on the trip include a Virginia Opossum, some species of field mouse, and a group of White-Tailed Deer staring at me from the darkness (the only reason I knew they were there was the reflection of their eyes from my headlamp).

Hope you enjoyed!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Herping: Salamanders

On Wednesday night, I traveled out to a patch of State Route 356 by the Waterloo Aquatic Education Center in Athens County with some fellow Ohio University wildlife-major undergrads and assorted graduate students to do some herping. What's herping? Well, it's like the word "birding;" herping, based on the word herpetology, is the act of going out and looking for reptiles and amphibians.

With the rain earlier in the day, and the warmer temperatures, the salamanders were bound to be out migrating to their breeding grounds. Typically, salamanders migrate in late winter or early spring when the ground is wet from rain and the temperatures are above 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Wednesday night was one such night. In this post, I will cover the salamander species we came across. The next post will be about the frogs/toads and extras we came across. EDIT: Part 2 can be found here!

Spotted Salamander Ohio
The first species we came across, and by far the most abundant of the night, was the Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum. A large mole salamander, Spotteds can be easily IDed by their two rows of yellow spots running down their body.

Spotted Salamander Ohio
Spotted Salamanders mainly live underground in the forest for most of the year, but during wet nights in spring they migrate to annual breeding ponds. After breeding, these salamanders return underground to live out the rest of the year. A long-living species, these have been known to reach 32 years old!

Jefferson Salamander, Ambystoma jeffersonianum
The second most abundant species of the night was the Jefferson Salamander, Ambystoma jeffersonianum. Another species of mole salamander, this species is slate-gray in color, and a tiny bit smaller than the Spotted Salamanders (but not by much). You can tell they are a lot more slender than a Spotted Salamander though. This individual was submerged in a marshy area along the road that was also home to hundreds of calling Spring Peepers.

Jefferson Salamander
Jefferson Salamanders, like Spotted Salamanders, spend most of the year underground, aside from when they migrate to their breeding ponds in the spring. The name is in honor of Jefferson College in Pennsylvania (I'm guessing someone from the college had a hand in discovering/naming it). In the photo above you can also see the head of one of the Spotted Salamanders checking out the Jefferson.

Red-Spotted subspecies, Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens
This guy is the Eastern Newt, specifically the Red-Spotted subspecies, Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens. We came across a handful, but they were no where near as abundant as the previous two salamanders. However, finding a newt is a good indicator as to the health of the area they're in. Newts have very permeable skin and are, as a result, very sensitive to toxins that make their way into environments. They're also very sensitive to pH changes in water, which Southeastern Ohio has a very large problem with due to acid-mine drainage, where acidic water from mines lowers the pH of creeks, rivers, and ponds to a level where many animals cannot live in them. So it is good news, at least for this immediate area, to find them.

Spotted Salamander road casualty
Now onto another, more gruesome, topic. This is a dead Spotted Salamander, one of the dozens we found along the road that were struck and killed by cars. Humans have really hurt salamander populations by building roads through migration routes. Salamanders typically use the same migration routes to the same vernal pools every year. We have built roads that have fragmented their habitat, forcing them to cross dangerous roads in order to breed. Many do not make it, like this one. Please, if it is a warm, wet night in early spring, watch out for salamanders and try to avoid hitting them if you see one on the road. Conservation of our native species begins with you.

Spotted Salamander Face
I hope you enjoyed the post! It was my first ever herping trip, and I will admit I am hooked. It's incredibly exciting to be walking through the dark down a forested road with only a headlamp and then come across one of these awesome guys plodding slowly along. As I mentioned earlier, there will be another post coming soon (sometime by Sunday for sure) covering the frog and toad species we came across, along with a few extra goodies. Edit: Part 2 over the frogs, toad, and more can be found here!

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Some Ducks and More at AW Marion SP

Spring Break is halfway over, and I decided to go out on Wednesday to make the most of it. I traveled to nearby AW Marion State Park (Hargus Lake to you locals) to hike the five mile perimeter trail and see what I could come across.

The center piece of AW Marion SP is the man-made Hargus Lake. The lake itself was almost all frozen, but a small sliver of open water did exist, and it was here that a large raft of ducks were swimming around. This lake has turned up some good waterfowl species before, including a rare Ross's Goose last year, so it's always worth a closer look. The larger, lone duck at the top of the photo is a Common Merganser, one of the three merganser species found in Ohio. There were a total of four Common Mergansers that I found that day. Common Mergansers are the largest species of duck in Ohio, but are normally only found in winter (They nest farther north). However, according to Jim McCormac's "Birds of Ohio," there was a nesting pair found along Little Beaver Creek in Columbiana County several years ago. But what about the other ducks in the raft?

Let's first take a look at these guys, the Ring-Necked Ducks. Ring-Necked ducks are a very common duck in the winter here. At first glance they look like some type of scaup, but a closer look shows subtle distinctions. They're called "ring-necked" ducks, and so you would think that ring would be a good diagnostic characteristic; however, this ring is basically impossible to actually see unless you're holding the duck. Instead, look for the white ring around the base of the bill. That can ID a Ring-Necked Duck almost instantly and separate them from Lesser and Greater Scaup.

By far the most common duck of the day was the Redhead. The two ducks with red-heads in the front of this photo are, you guessed it, Redheads. Redheads are common wintering ducks in Ohio, and from my experience can typically be found in large rafts of scaup and Ring-Necked Ducks. Redheads are at first glance very similar to the Canvasback, another type of red-headed duck. However, Redheads have a characteristic gray back, while the Canvasback has a near pure-white back. The bills also differ; Canvasbacks have a darker bill that slopes up the forehead while Redheads had a lighter, blueish-gray bill.

The final duck of that day was this strange looking guy, the Northern Shoveler. At first glance, Northern Shovelers sort of appear like a Mallard, but one quickly notices the massive bill that separates it easily from a Mallard. There are other plumage differences between the two, but if you can see that huge bill, then you can ID a shoveler. This large bill is used to filter food from both the water and mud, sort of like a Roseate Spoonbill or flamingo. In Ohio, they are common migrants, which is probably what the two Northern Shovelers on Hargus were in the middle of doing.

There were many other bird species that I came across during the trip, including Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, a Belted Kingfisher, a Northern Mockingbird, an American Coot and more. The species in the photo above is one probably all of you know, birder or nonbirder. It's the ubiquitous American Robin. Many people think American Robins migrate out of Ohio for winter, but that isn't true. Some may, but most overwinter in Ohio in large flocks. There was a large flock at AW Marion State Park working over a scruffy second-growth region for worms.

Winter still has a grip in the hollows of hill-covered Ohio. All the creeks were encrusted with ice at the park, and snow blanketed most of the ground. The only open water in the tributaries of Hargus Lake was located in swift-flowing sections and by small waterfalls which can be found around the park. This is one of the small waterfalls. Ice and snow surrounds it, and some ice is even over the waterfall like a veil. Other finds in the park included a muskrat, some newer beaver activity, and a fallen tree covered in dozens of puffballs. Birds were also singing, meaning spring is here (just not in full swing yet).

Stay tuned for more posts as Spring starts to really kick up. I'll be trying to get out more when I go back to Athens and find some interesting insects, spiders, flowers, and whatever else I can come across!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Backpacking at Zaleski State Forest

Hey guys! I finally have some time to write up a little post. I've been really busy lately with schoolwork, but with Spring Break I've been able to catch a slight break.

Anyway, on February 21-23, I went on a "Winter Backpacking Skills" backpacking trip through Ohio University's Outdoor Pursuits. They put on many trips throughout the semester which are open to anyone (but they're normally a bit cheaper for OU students). This backpacking trip was supposed to teach us "winter backpacking skills," but the weather had other ideas in mind. Saturday we were hiking in short sleeved shirts and shorts; hardly winter at all! Regardless, it was a great trip and here's some photos and a little info on it.

A total of seven of us (two trip leaders and five trip-goers) did the bottom half of the 23 mile backpacking trail at Zaleski State Forest in Vinton County. We did a total of about ten miles. We hiked two miles Friday afternoon to the first campsite, four miles on Saturday to the next campsite, then Sunday we did two miles on a connecting trail that led us back to the first campsite, where we then backtracked the two miles to the parking lot.

The trail was mostly on top of tall Allegheny ridge tops. There were a couple of beautiful vistas, like this one. This was the view on a small rock outcrop next to a small 50 foot cliff or so, and the location of a little snack break on Saturday.

But the trail was not all on ridge tops. Eventually we went down a hill into the bottomlands. Due to the recent snow melt, every water source was swollen, including this tiny creek. As it emptied into a small lake it formed a sort of flooded delta, and as a result the trail sort of disappeared. Eventually we found it once more and navigated our way through the water.

This is an old railway, the Moonville Railroad. Many of you have probably heard of the infamous Moonville Tunnel. Well this is the same line. The actual tunnel is only a couple miles away from this point. But this particular location along the abandoned railroad is the site of an old mining town called Ingham Station. According to the site Waymarking, "At it's peak around 1900, Ingham Station had a store, railroad depot, a mine, schoolhouse, over a dozen residences, and was inhabited by several families." The town was abandoned around 1920 or so, but the backpacking trail now goes right through the remnants.

The Zaleski Backpacking Trail offers many cool points of interest if you're a history geek, like me. On top of ghost towns, the trail follows the Hopewell-Chillicothe-Marietta Road for some of the way. The Hopewell-Chillicothe-Marrietta Road was an ancient Native American footpath that led from earthworks near present day Marietta to the famous Hopewell earthworks near present day Chillicothe. When European settlers came to the area, they followed the footpath too, turning it into a road for stagecoaches and the pioneers. Anyway, part of the backpacking trail runs along this ancient road. The trail also passes a doughnut-shaped earthwork and other historical points of interest.

This was my campsite for the second night. The days might have been warm, but the nights were cold. It was perfect weather for a warm mummy-style sleeping bag. It was definitely a great experience, and I will be going backpacking again for sure.