My herpetofaunal survey in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve has come to an end. I am just finishing up the report I will turn in to the staff ecologist.
So, what’s been going on? Well, it was unfortunate that my surveying partner had to quit shortly after the project started due to an (unrelated) accident. The second volunteer didn’t really work out either. I had help on a few of the sites but for the most part I conducted this project on my own.
Life likes to throw things at us once in a while. Between sole responsibility for the surveying, weather, and of course getting Lyme disease as I had mentioned before, the surveying did not take place in a pre-set pattern. Our initial agreement on bi-weekly surveys of each site (there were 12) ended up being whenever I could get out there, at long as it took place after two weeks. The entire survey took about 5 months and I conducted 5 cycles.
Two of the sites were considered particularly sensitive, so in order to reduce any damage caused by foot traffic, I would conduct a full walk-through survey one cycle and the next I would do a shore & call survey only. What this consisted of was walking around the shore looking for specimens, instead of the entire site, while listening for any identifiable calls.
In terms of reptiles I found a single spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) (this is considered a species of special concern in New York, so that was cool) and several common garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) which unfortunately didn’t want to be picked up or measured.
We found several red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) and a single spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum). I found it difficult to locate salamanders. While there were a low number of natural covers, most of the ground area in many sites was covered in leaf litter and I was unable to dig through it all. Still, we got lucky and found a few.
In terms of frogs and toads, northern green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota) were by far the most common species found anywhere. Half way through the season northern leopard frogs (Rana pipiens) seemed to appear out of nowhere. I found most of these on the trail to a large cluster of sites, but did also manage to find them in two of the sites themselves. Eastern American toads (Bufo americanus americanus) were sporadic but not uncommon. I found many very small American toads in one site in particular, but found them in another site as well. On one of the trails coming back from a site I found a huge American toad trying to hide in the grasses, her girth probably preventing her from a speedy getaway. I was also able to find several Wood frogs (Rana sylvatica). Several froglettes (with tails) were found at a few sites and revealed themselves to be gray tree frogs (Hyla versicolor). The ecologist’s assistant sent me a photo to identify a species she found and it ended up being of adult gray tree frogs. I wasn’t lucky enough to see those in person but it was very interesting to see the difference between the juvenile and adult forms. I managed, twice, to run across the very small spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), though in the beginning of the project their mating calls could be heard loudly and frequently at most locations. Finally, I was also lucky enough, with my first partner before her accident, to find northern spadefoot toads (Scaphiopus holbrookii), which are also a species of special concern in New York. Surprisingly, they were rather docile and we were able to pick them up and take photos, though we had to do this in the dark of night, with only our flashlights and their calls to guide us.
I had a lot of fun doing this survey, and I feel like I learned a lot too. In the beginning I wasn’t able to identify species well, but now I feel like I’d be able to easily ID most of them. Their calls were a little more complex as they often have two or three calls, but I feel I did well with them too. With green frogs I can now easily identify the sex of the specimen, while I also learned about the color change of wood frog females during the breeding season. Gray tree frogs, on the other hand, can vary in coloration and pattern depending on their environments.
Several times, in the beginning of the survey, I had misidentified species due to two species being so similar. However, I took a ton of pictures, both for my own enjoyment as well as so that I could go back and review the ID. That was a great idea because I was able to correctly identify the species after taking a second look. This also allowed me to learn which features to look for. For example, American toads and Fowler’s toads have several similarities. I wasn’t able to find any Fowler’s toads, but in the beginning I didn’t know that. It turns out American and Fowler’s toads have a different number of warts, and that Americans also have spotted bellies.
Similarly, we have eastern ribbon and common garter snakes in the Preserve, and to the untrained eye they look very similar as well. It’s easier to tell them apart when you have one of each to compare, where you can clearly see the thickness or head differences, but since that was never the case in my field work, I learned a few key characteristics that set them apart. First, common garter snakes have dark red spots within their dark green, brown, or red stripes. Second, the dark color is the basis for the garter’s body, which is then cut through by 3 yellowish strips on the upper half of the snake. Their sides are a continuation of this darker color. In eastern ribbon snakes, however, their sides and bellies are a lighter color. Also, eastern ribbons have a white spot right in front of the eye while the common garter does not, and common garters have dark markings between the scales of their lower jaw while eastern ribbons do not.
It wasn’t all fun and games though. I can’t even begin to tell you how often I was swarmed by mosquitoes. They seemed to care little for the fact I often had bug repellent on my head. I also got bit by that single tick, which just happened to be a Lyme carrier. I spoke to a few of the Preserve’s seasonal workers and it turns out they were having some odd competition to see who would end up with the most and least number of tick bites. The most ended up being 14 (last I knew, anyway) with the least being 4. No one else contracted Lyme, however. Also, I have to say that I was so absorbed at looking in the water that if it weren’t for my hat, my eyes would be quite the worse for wear. Pesky twigs didn’t seem to care that I was looking for frogs. Also, several of the sites had fallen and submerged logs, several of which I managed to locate immediately after smashing into them. I lost my balance and fell into the water once, but I consider myself lucky for it only being the single time and my cell phone was spared. I got lost no less than three times while trying to find my way out of one site in particular. My legs sunk and were knee-deep in mud many times. It took quite a while to pull them out. And finally, one time I was looking around and I took a single step only to plunge 4 feet into a hidden hole. There were no long grasses or branches around to grab hold of and my feet were able to find no purchase in the mud. It took me 15 minutes to figure out a way to get myself out of that hole. That was actually a little scary at first, but I can’t help but chuckle over it now.
Overall I found this experience very valuable and I am thankful to the Albany Pine Bush Preserve for not only giving me this opportunity, but also just for doing their jobs and protecting this rare habitat. I hope the ecologist will find my data useful in any of his future projects. I also just enjoyed being outside and having the opportunity to see wildlife.
Next week I plan on posting my favorite survey species photographs. You’ll get to see what I saw, minus the mosquitoes.