Monday, November 3, 2014

Mopack Meadow Vole

     I need to preface this story with another consideration. Last spring I bought a used truck. I got ripped off, and soon realized I had a worthless hunk of metal sitting outside the house. So I sold the thing back in September, at a huge loss, and resolved to just ride my bike everywhere until I left for Australia next Febraury. So now, I bike everywhere, rain, sleet, wind, or shine, and I really like it. Albeit, my bike is showing a little ware and tear.
     So I'm visiting my mom, who lives 12 miles out of town. The good part is there's a nice gravel bike trail, we call the mopack, that goes right past here house only 3/4 miles to the north. So since the evening darkness is coming on cooler and earlier everyday, I fancied the idea of riding back to town in the dark to try to find some mammals on that bike trail. I figure, no one will be out, and there's plenty of cover along the trail. It's a recipe for success!
The Meadow Vole I found tonight.

      So I saddle up on my 1980's Mongoose road bike (it was my dad's bike, back in his college days). My back pockets are stuffed with leather gloves, and a old pillow case, while my camera is strapped to my belt, and my tripod is in my backpack's left water bottle pouch. I flip the peddle lace over my left foot, and swing my right leg over while pressing into the cycle. I click on the red strobe attached to my back side, and press on my white beam head lamp before I hit the road.
     To my great pleasure, I have a nice tail wind tonight. And as I scream down the gravel road hill to the trail, splashing my tires too far to either side into loose gravel, I remember just how sharp I need to be to ride state-maintained gravel roads, as I hit a monstrous wash out at the bottom of the hill. This wash board nearly jumps me off the road. Then out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of rusty red and black fur running up out of the ditch. The tom cat trots right out in from of my 25 MPH blazing hot wheels, and I momentarily wonder if I should even try the brakes. But the cat made it to the ditch fine, and I made it to the trail head fine too.
A Vole we caught in mammalogy class

One of the Meadow Voles I caught in
mammalogy class.
      As I beep-bop down the bike trail, I scan the ditches and trees for eyes. For almost 3 miles, all I see is mile markers and street signs. Then a bolt of adrenaline hits my chest, as I see a pair of galloping stars in the road ahead turn into 3 pairs of bouncing eyes. BOOYAH!! We've got action up here. Before I could think about what was happening, I was pedaling at double-time speed, no handle bars, as my hands turn my light beam to bright, and I whip out my camera, and press record while barreling full speed ahead. The 3 nice fat coons, galloped down the ditch and crossed the fence as I approached, and I didn't get a much from this beside hope for more animals ahead.
     As I neared the city, I rode through a village. Only about 3/4 of a mile after the village, I spotted a small brown ball of fur in the rode. A Microtus!!! My mind goes instantly to the Genus name because I just had a Mammalogy test over this a few days ago. This little rodent is commonly known as the Meadow Vole. I ditch my bike right as he heads for the ditch. I dove with cupped hands to gently catch the small mammal, and darn it if my knee cap didn't find the pointiest, most painful rock to jab into!
Selfies! :) -from mammalogy class
     While I set up the filming gear, I reflected on the life history of Microtus pensylvanicus, the Meadow Vole. It is a very prolific breeder, as most food sources for carnivorous animals usually are. The vole reaches sexual maturity after only a few weeks and can raise several litters of young in a year. They don't commonly live longer than a year or two. The Meadow Vole feeds on succulent parts of plants like the leaves, stems, and flowers, but they also eat seeds, and will eat tree bark in rough time. The Meadow Vole is not very fast at escaping capture because it spends most of it's time scampering through it's labyrinth of tunnels through the grass. I was thrilled to have caught the first mammal of this winter's mammal filming season.
     Even though these little guys are cute as a button, I know it's important to remember, they have a roll in the ecosystem as a food source, and nutrient converter much like other animals. So I let the Vole go on his way, and I hopped back on my bike to go on my way. Just enjoying the tail wind and the sense of a mission accomplished.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

It was a Cloudy Dark Night

     At times I reflect on my past experiences, and think about just how I got to where I am today. As I followed the bread crumb trail to the beginning of last summer, I enjoyed one particular night out on the marsh with a friend of mine.
     This was at a time when I needed a few pairs of mating Woodhouse's Toads to use their tadpoles for my research project. The best way to accomplish this task is to go out when these toads are calling and catch them. A friend of mine was also interested in taking a few pictures of these anurans and recording their calls.
     As I finished cleaning a few tanks in the garage at the lab, I could see his red blazer roll into a parking spot in the steady rain. He quickly grabbed his gear bag and jogged up to the wide open garage door to greet me with a "Hello Dilly!" And we began to speculate about the prospects of the night. It was about the right time of year, or so we thought, and a big rain was all we needed, or so we thought.
     While waiting for the sun to go to sleep, the rain storm progressively got thicker and thicker. Pretty soon tidal waves of rain water were rushing down the drive way to the lab, as the water cannons shooting from the down spouts of the gutters flattened grass seven feet out in front of them. We were absolutely giddy! "This kind of rain could make the explosive breeders come out!" "We might see some Spea bombifrons tonight!" "Plains toads too!"
     The rain decided to let up enough for use to dash to the field vehicle and only get mildly soaked, but we had planned on getting drenched in the field anyways. On our drive, my friend Josh narrated a few of his favorite stories from last year when he was out at the marsh filming the frog calls. We were like two kids psyching each other up to go fishing, after watching the Bassmaster Classic on a Saturday morning. We didn't care about anything else, because we were dead sure we were about to see boat loads of frogs and toads.

     Well, to cut right down to the lean cheese, we didn't see a single amphibian that whole night. We wondered through the rain and the marsh like those poor folks lost in the rainy night in that Jurassic Park movie. Only we didn't find a huge T-Rex footprint in the mud, and no dinosaurs came to eat us. But we did find a snapping turtle! This is pretty close to a dinosaur for some people. But what a beauty! She was up 50 meters from the waters edge, wandering across our travel. Of course we did our happy dances and took pictures with her. We're wildlife biology nerds; it's what we do :)
     But in the big picture, it was just a tad bit too early in the season to really find some frog calling action tonight. So goes the life of a field biologist who hasn't had time to develop a reliable field journal yet. But the learning part is a great deal of fun for me too, even if I only find one massive turtle at a time.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Right on Track with the Racerunner

     It was the end of a balmy June here in Nebraska, and summer had kicked off to a great start. I had been hiking for a week in Virginia, and attended the Biology of the Pit Vipers Conference in Tulsa, OK. But I had a sweet spot for this time of year, because the end of June is when the 4-H National Shooting Sports Invitational happens! And I'll throw my modesty aside for a sentence and admit; I competed in Recurve archery back in 2010 in Texas, and then again in Compound archery in 2012. But even though you can only compete in a given discipline once in your career, I've been blessed to be able to come back here every year as either a volunteer or a core crew member. Needless to say, I really enjoy getting to meet a whole crop of top notch marksman and women who will likely compete professionally in the coming years. Not to mention all the competitors are usually kind, honest, and supper friendly individuals. Ahhhhh, it was going to be a great week!

This is one over grown hay field we turned into a
FITA archery range for the tournament.
     After a few days of setting up ranges, laboring under the sun with the grass and dust sticking to our sweat, and having much more water in my sweat soaked clothes than in my water bottle at the end of the day, I was feeling pretty good! (Probably not what you thought I was going to say huh?) I must explain: I enjoy manual labor. You see, at my current job, I'm stuck up in a 5th floor office everyday, for 5-8 hours.... And this bushman is not built for office life! So when I go home on the weekends, I relish chores like pulling weeds, scooping snow, trimming trees, and any over labor where I can see the works of my hands once the task is done; it's naturally gratifying to my soul!
All the mosquitoes.... Well, they weren't quite as gratifying to my soul.
     You might think a good hard day's work usually warrants the reward of a cool shower and a night of relaxing in the air conditioning, and you'd be right! That is a great way for most folks to cap off a day like today, but seeing as I'm encamped in a new town and there is wildlife here that I haven't seen in a long time, I decide to reward myself with an evening hike.
     As I cruise back to the hotel with both windows wide open to dry my sweat (my truck doesn't have AC), I think of the nature park I'll be visiting in a short time. We camped there a few years ago when I competed in compound archery at this very event, and there were magnificent piles of rubble and railroad tines for all sorts or reptiles, bugs, and amphibians to hide in! As I stroll up to our hotel room, I whip out my room key. I fumble with it for a while until I finally get the thing oriented correctly for the door swipe to read it. Once in the room, I drop my work pack, throw a few field guides into my field pack, fill my bottle, and I'm back at the door almost before it has time to latch itself back shut.
     After my short trip across town, I roll through the camp ground before getting to the nature park. Those pesky 15 mph speed limits just seem so inconvenient. Especially when you're revving to track some dirt at the trail head and flip some cover. But alas, I finally arrive at the trail head and my feet feel a new wave of rejuvenated energy, even though I was standing on them all day.
This is my co-worker holding a Lined-Snake I found as we were setting up the range
     As I round the first bend in the trail, the setting sun highlights the cotton specks floating through the air. The Eastern Cotton Wood tree is Nebraska's state tree, and each seed has a fluff of wispy cotton attached to it to help it disperse via the seemingly continuous Nebraska breeze. This area is chalk-a-block full of cotton wood trees, and that means there is plenty of large tree limbs and bark for habitat and cover. As I scan each side of the trail, looking for movement, I hear a favorite sound of mine. The classic rustle of scales along dead grass is etched into my mind ever since I was a boy, and I automatically lock onto the spot where the noise came from. As previous experience has taught me, after you hear a snake slither through the tall grass, you must immediately stop, locate the snake, assess the surroundings, and quickly catch the snake before it mysteriously disappears unnoticed. As I watch the Common Garter Snake glide over a small log, I noticed the poison Ivy mingled within the thick brush it escaped into. I'm not afraid to a few scratched or bruises, but I have no inclination to suffer from dreadfully itchy Poison Ivy blisters and rashes all over my body, at least not for catching this very common snake. Plus, the hike is young, and the territory yet to cover is great. 
     While I stalk up to the first pile of rubble, I question why I've never flipped these hunks of concrete in search of reptiles before. Maybe I was not yet strong enough? Or just though of better things to do? but after the first rock I flip, I question my priorities earlier on in my life. It was a smaller chunk of rubble, probably only 20 pounds, but behold! A beautiful adult Northern Prairie Sink rested peacefully beneath this rock! But alas, I had been too ambitious in my approach to this rock flipping, and still had my camera safely stowed in my pack. As I contemplated taking my bag off before attempting to catch the little beauty, my new acquaintance wised up to my presents and made his move! As he dashed for the other rocks my hand flew after him! I was down to my knees and up to my elbow in concrete boulder when he flipped a U-turn and escaped into the depths of the rock pile, but not after leaving my knuckle scraped and blooded from the rocks.
     I was floored! What luck! To find a lizard under the first rock is unheard of in the history of herping with Dylan. I was jazzed and ready to flip some more rocks. Now I had my camera and catching hands ready! But as all you hunters, fishermen, herpetologists, and any other fellow who seeks wildlife knows, you never know when you'll find the next critter. And in many cases you may not find anymore critters, which is what I was thinking after flipping the next 3/4 of this rock pile. And it occurs to me that the reason I didn't flip these rocks in my younger days, was probably because I had planned on not ruining my back before I turned 30. It also occurred to me that if I could just go Hulk whenever I wanted to, I would be the best Herpetologist that ever searched a rock pile!
A big healthy looking Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata)gave me some great photos on a rock!
     But my sweat and sore muscles find a reward as I flip a rock on the opposite side of the pile and find a beautiful Six-lined Racerunner awaiting me. With my left hand already posed and ready for the capture, I flip the rock and make one swift and delicate motion to catch the lizard by his abdomen. It's important not to grab the tail, as most lizards are able to lose their tail to predators which enables them to escape, and it is also important to use a very delicate touch to hold the lizards, so as not to hurt their small bodies.
Long claws for traction on loose substrates
That long tail can come off if a predator
grabs a hold of it. This is one of their main
defensive strategies.
Like all reptiles, the Aspidoscelis sexlineata
is an ectotherm and must regulate its body
temperature via the external environment.

     The Six-lined Racerunner (Asidoscelis sexlineata) is a member of the Teiidae family. This family of lizards is commonly known as the whiptails, and it contains Parthenogenic and non-parthenogenic lizards. This term, Parthenogenic, means they can reproduce asexually, and even though the Asidoscelis genera are known to be quite parthenogenic, the Six-lined Racerunner here in Nebraska is not generally known to be parthenogenic like the Western Whiptail populations of the desert South West. But our Six-lined Racerunner is a diurnal lizard and very insectivorous, but for some reason it avoids eating beetles. Males tend to show a more vibrant blue coloration on their underbelly, especially during mating season. This particular Racerunner sported a very beautiful blue belly, and looked to be a nice big healthy male.
     As I replaced the rock he was under back to it's original resting place, I lowered the lizard to the base of the rock. He began to squirm as he neared the ground and only a slight release of pressure from my thumb allowed the beautiful reptile the zip off to the stony safe place. Check out the sweet video of this catch here >>>
     A happy summer, a happy week of events, and a beautiful night for herping. What a great catch! and video too! They say the it's the small things in life that can be the some of the happiest things in life. And though lizards in Nebraska are generally pretty small compared to other animals, I'm a big support of the motto that says, it's the life in life that makes the most happiest things in life. And yes I just made that up, but honestly, the whole world, flora and fauna, macro and micro, all interacting in so many amazing ways, this is what rocks my world! and this beautiful creation is what I want to share with you!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Friday Night Frog Calls!

     Yes! Friday night! The streets are hopping, the concerts are rocking, and the city night life is just waking up! Should I party with friends? Hit up the non-sanctioned street races? or just cruise O Street with some friends? Nope, I've got a better idea. I'm going to go catch some frogs!!! That's right, I'll be attending the Acris and Anaxyrus party tonight!
      As I load the 230, which is the herpetology department's monster truck of a field vehicle, I think back to last Monday, when I was out doing research at the marsh, and all the frogs were calling. I'm talking about Cricket Frogs, Cope's Grey Tree Frogs, Chorus Frogs, the Leopard Frogs were just starting to call, and most importantly Anaxyrus woodhousii, the Woodhouse's Toad!
The star for tonight! The one and only Anaxyrus woodhousii
     I need Woodhouse's Toad tadpoles for my research, and I must find out where they are calling so I can either collect a male-female pair or come back and collect some eggs after they've been laid.
     We've had a lot of water come in the past few weeks to fill the swamps and ponds where these species call and breed in. And now with the marshes full and the temps producing some warmer nights, these frogs are ready to party and try to find themselves a mate.
     As I pull into the nature park, and turn off the ignition of the vehicle, I sit still for a moment, just to let the dark night air fill back into the area where my head lights used to blaze. It's a balmy 68 degree night, and the moon is shining through some fair weather cumulus clouds just above me. Before I even open the door, I can hear the faint chorus of my amphibian friends all around me. I load my pack, strap up my head lamp, and clip the truck keys to my waist with a carabiner.
     As I open the door, the beauty of the night floods into whole vehicle! What at first appeared as one pugnacious blare of noise, soon turned into a complex medley of individual songs! I could pick out each species within! Acris blanchardii and Pseudacris maculata were keeping steady time as Hyla crysoselis, filled some harmonious transitions in the song, and our featured soloist tonight was Anaxyrus woodhousii! The Woodhouse's toad!
      Check out the frog call video I made from the night's adventures!
     I wasted no time getting down to the swamp! This whole place was an over grown, over sized garden of aquatic vegetation! Every leaf was covered with the starting of dew, I was already soaked before I even got to the water. I dropped my shoes and pack and B-lined it toward a pair of waling Woodhouse's Toads. As I neared the two Anaxyri, their eye's shined back the white light of my head lamp, and I remembered just how easy it is to sneak in close to these frogs at night!
     The Woodhouse's toad is usually a tan or grey-brown color with dark blotches and warts to give it a camo pattern to blend in with the ground cover. They are very similar to the American Toad, Anaxyrus americanus, but the Woodhouse's Toad has a narrower, more elongated, parotoid gland, which touches the posterior part of the cranial ridge. They eat insects and other arthropods, and their eggs are laid in one long strand instead of a clump of eggs like other frogs. The Woodhouse's call sounds like a nasally WAAAAAAAAAAAH! So now you can listen for it next May/June.

This Woodhouse's Toad is one from the lab.

      After filming the toad's call and and checking to see if any were females (I need females for my research.... Actually I need eggs, and the females are where the eggs come from) I replaced the toads back to their prime real-estate right on the water's edge and off I went to the next calling frog species.
     As I work my way down the bank, I spot a pair of huge eyes, and then I saw the huge body they belonged to! The Bullfrog! What a beast! sitting, in all his predatory might, on the swamp shore, just waiting for something he could fit in his mouth to wander by. Bullfrogs are an invasive species here in Nebraska. Bullfrogs were introduced to much of the West and Midwestern US via frog farmers, and they are commonly harvested for their tasty back legs. Bullfrogs are 7+ inches of lean, mean, frog eating machines! 80% of their diet consists of other frog species (Collins 2010). They are absolute tanks! and they sure do cause quite a problem for our native species! And while I'm all for progressive management of invasive species, I never take a life without a purpose, and since I'm not planning to eat this bullfrog, I reluctantly let him go.
This Plains Leopard Frog is closely related to the Bullfrog in that they
are both
 Lithobates genus, but the Leopard frog doesn't posse near as much
predation threat around here as the Bullfrogs do.
     Not long after I released the Bullfrog, I tuned into another beauty of a frog song! This sensational exotic sounding tune singled the presents of a Cope's Grey Tree Frog! This being Nebraska's arboreal frog, I was excited to showcase his climbing abilities!

Hyla chrysoscelis  or the Cope's Grey Tree Frog has a beautiful trill call
and can occur in this grey coloration or a green coloration seen to the left.
     He had stretched his body out, nice and long, to allow maximal expansion of the vocal sac. What a champion caller! And loud too! After I filmed his call, I caught the little stud and let him climb on my hand and arm. The Cope's Grey Tree Frog has special mucus secreting sacs on the pads of their digits, and this is what gives them the ability to climb on almost any surface. The neat thing about tree frogs, is their legs are relatively skinny compared to the legs of other frogs that end up doing a lot more jumping to evade predators. No, the Cope's Grey Tree Frog isn't the most ambitious when it comes to active defense strategies. It usually just sits still, and relies on it's cryptic coloration, to avoid predation. And believe me, the natural camo pattern on this frog is a work of art! Mossy Oak and Real Tree camo clothing makers could learn a thing or two from this guy!
     As the night rolled on, the beat was grooving just as sweet as ever, and then I heard a heavy swish through the grass on the bank! I was not alone in the swamp tonight; something, or somebody, else was just 60 yards away, in the tall growth. I had never thought about other humans coming back here to this special access area. What could they be doing? drug dealers? love birds? burglars? The grasses shivered as the swamp intruder advanced towards me, and then he appeared! It was a masked bandit! I caught the glint of his eyes as the raccoon stood up, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I only had a raccoon to photograph rather than a potentially difficult human to deal with.
     As I drift back to where I had left my shoes, I'm felt well satisfied with my findings for the night. But as I pick up my shoes and socks, I recognize one more species of frog out of the orchestra of calling. It was the Chorus frog. Admittedly, the Chorus Frog's call was the underlying heartbeat to the sweet song tonight, and every night, even during the day time too. Chorus Frogs are the first to start calling very early in the spring time, and they're more than likely the classic frog call you'll hear throughout spring until early summer. Their accelerating "Creee, creee, cree, cree, cree" call can even be heard far from water in a low land tree thicket.
     As a boy, I used to fall asleep with my windows open at night, so I could listen to the frog calls as I went to sleep. It was a sweet reminder of what I'm so passionate about. Wildlife! And now as I visit swamps at night to conduct the research I dreamed about as a little boy, I can whole-heartedly say I'm living my dream! But there's a whole world of wildlife out there, and I'm just getting started.
     I hope you'll enjoy my wild adventures all around the world too! Check Wildimpact's Facebook, Twitter, or G+ pages for more awesome adventures!

Friendly Faces in New Territory: Virginia Part 2

     On day three of our Virginia adventure, Jenae and I went for a morning hike up in the rocks just outside of a small town near Meadow View. I must say, Jenae is a pretty amazing friend, because not only does she put up with me always catching wildlife, she's willing to go just about any place I want to go.
      What a beautiful morning! In humid forests like Virginia Appalachians, a fog like steam is very common in the mornings, and many of the large waxy leaves of the undergrowth are coated in water and glisten in the morning sun. A lush forest like this would be unusual if it didn't have the morning songs of many different bird species to light the atmosphere for the day.
This skink was our first of many animals of the day!
      So as we geared up to go bouldering and flip a few rocks, I spotted a familiar flicker across a rock. Maybe it's just me, but I think the way a skink moves is very easy to notice from afar; that quick, jerky, start-stop motion was all I needed, and I jumped off the tail gate and power walked right over to the log it was on. I was able to snap a few decent pictures before he bolted off.
       I sure was jazzed by this early sighting! Hopefully there would be many more to come! Jenae and I took off up the first trail we could find. It was actually quite a steep little climb! I was stoked because these were excellent rocks for climbing, and this particular portion of the hike produced some spectacular views!

     Towards the middle of our hiking day, we weren't really in any special habitat,; just the usually hiking trail with a few rocks here and there. I told Jenae I was going to go check a few rocks up by a seepage, a little ways off the trail. Upon my return, just before I met up with Jenae, I spotted a small movement of blaze orange that seemed to appear out of the end of a small log. I froze in my tracks, not daring to possibly spoke whatever it was! As I looked down, I was elated to see the Red-spotted Newt, the eft stage too! What a treat!
    The Red-spotted Newt, Notothalmus viridescens viridescens, is easily the prettiest colored amphibian in my opinion. This newt has three different stages in it's life. It starts its life as an aquatic larvae. At this point, the newt cannot travel from water and relies heavily on its branching network of external gills to breath. The gills soon disappear, and a blaze orangish red coloration covers the terrestrial eft stage. During this stage, the eft is fully able to travel over land, and often times travels quite far. This serves as a dispersal method, and ensures diversity in the gene pool. Finally, after about two years as an eft, the Red-spotted Newt reverts back to a fully aquatic breeding adult stage for the rest of its life. The Red-spotted Newt commonly lives 13-15 years in the wild. It feeds on insects, mulluscs, crustacians, and eggs. And even though, this Newt will release a toxin when attacked or injured, only about 2% of the larvae will make it to the eft stage. Which is why I'm so pumped to have found this little gem!

      The trail continued to skirt the inside of this pocket in a mountain side. The cool thing about the mountains here is with every inward curve, water funnels into a small stream that skips across the rocks and through most of these hiking trails. This makes for some very convenient salamander habitat!
      Further up the trail, as a small stream cut across, the rocks on the downhill side of the trail had formed a mighty little cliff with a sweet waterfall. And it just so happened that our trail took us right to the base of the waterfall. How convenient! After exploring this beautiful master piece, I decided to walk this drainage down to the road instead of taking the trail back; it was only a couple hundred yards down the hill anyways, and the drainage was full of pools, rocks, and some fast water spots too. It had all sorts of great habitat I couldn't pass it up.
      On my descending climb through the drainage, I saw several other Salamanders, mostly Black Mountain Salamanders, but I got to observe them in their natural routines. They seemed content to relax on a moss covered rock as the water occasionally splashed up on them. Though, when they were hunting, they would swim through the crystal clear pools, searching the cracks and hide hole of small arthropods. Many times they would mouse around rocks, only to slip into a hole to check the underside of the rock for food items; this behavior reminded me of the way a weasel or mink busily searches the rocks on a lake shore, slipping under and over each rock to find their food.

      I was slightly surprised I had stayed mostly dry coming down the drainage, as I jumped from one slippery rock to the next. I guess if you spend enough time in the outdoors you understand your limits pretty well.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Friendly Faces in New Territory: Virginia Part One

     The whole school year, I was determineed to keep my summer schedule free. Why? you might ask. Well, because I then I fill it with chance opportunities like this!! A trip to South Western Virginia, to the humid hills, and Appalachian country, and to a region which, I would say, offers the most salamanders a wildlife biologist like me could ever dream of!!
     Back during the school year, my best friend had asked me if I would accompany her to visit her horse trainer, who now lives out near Meadowview, Virginia. How could I say no to a cross country trip Appalachian country? Well, I couldn't! and so at 6:00am one summer Sunday, we loaded her truck and headed East! Both her and I were seasoned road trippers, so driving the whole 16 hours in one whack was a piece of cake for the two of us!
     We arrived at Jim and Jan's house around about 11:00 that night and stayed up until night-noon (that's midnight for you normal people) just talking and catching up. Jim was an avid outdoorsman, hunter, and professional horse rider himself, so we clicked pretty well together right off the bat, sharing hunting stories and close calls in the field. Jim and Jan were two of the nicest people I ever did meet! Very gracious and accommodating, as they put my friend, Jenae, and I in our own rooms in for the week.
     Jenae is an amazing horse rider herself, and it's easy to see why with a coach like Jim to teach her! I even got to ride around a little bit, as they both taught me the basics of horse riding. It's amazing to understand the connecting and learning capabilities of horses! They're sharp as a wit! But this strapping green bushman will stick to his own two feet for venturing through the bush at least. And what a strike of fortune! Tomorrow we'd be going for a trail ride!! And by we, I mean Jenae, Jim, and another student would be on the horses and I would be on foot. This sounds like I'm the slave labor here and don't get the easy way up the trail, but that's the exact opposite! I had the easy option here! I could go at my own pace, flip all the rocks my heart desired, and catch all the critters I could find!
     As we rolled into the trail parking lot the next morning at 9:00, and I was as jittery as a sprinter at his first Olympics! I get this way when I'm about to explore new territory :) As the riders were saddling up their horses, Jim gave me the go ahead to hit the trail. "Meet back here at 10:30", he said. No problem!  One hour going in and a half hour coming out! I lit out like a hound off his leash, eye's wide, ears keen, and nose sniffing.
     The forest was gorgeous! Just like the rain forest only at a seasonal latitude! Mosses and lichens grew everywhere, and the ground was covered with a moist blanket of leaf litter. And the rocks! There where rocks everywhere! These mountain looked like regular dirt hills, but under the veil of the forest, there were tons of rocks to provide habitat for some of my favorite critters!
As I advanced up the trail, I came to a small water flow that cut across the trail. The water here was crystal clear! Not like the muddy milk that fills Nebraska's lakes and streams. I began to flip a few rocks in this flow, hoping to find some amphibian action. And by golly, I'm getting spoiled! With the second rock I flip I find an Black Mountain Salamander! I'm far from a pro when it comes to salamander ID, since Nebraska only has a few species. I was thrilled to have caught the first of many animals for this trip! A few choice pictures and I replaced the little fella under his rock, and I continued up the trail

The Black Mountain Salamander, Desmognathus welteri, belongs to the Plethodontidae family. It's habitat includes temperate forests, rivers, freshwater marshes and springs. They forage mostly at night and eat flies, beetles and other insects, as well as their larvae. The Black Mountain Salamander looks a lot like other similar looking species of dusky salamanders. Its range includes eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee in wooded mountainous countryside where it hides under rocks and logs in swift flowing streams, pools, or anywhere else there's reliable water. Reproduction occurs in the spring or summer. The female lays clusters of about 25 eggs in or near streams. The larvae are aquatic and take almost two years to complete metamorphosis. The average life span is about 5 years for the Black Mountain Salamander. One thing of concern is road building and strip mining, which turns up a lot of silt in the water ways and has a bad effect on these as well as other salamander populations.

     This hike was just ecstasy for me! My Merrill Trail Gloves made zero noise as I glided up the trail, feeling every step as the trail came to my foot. Various song birds filled the jungle with a beautiful tune, one of the advantages of morning hikes. I was also stoked to see so many different bugs and insects. Talk about biodiversity! If I was a more devoted entomologist, I would be filling specimen jars right and left out here.
Towards the middle of my hike, I spotted a backpacker's camp sight (these are common up here, as the Appalachian trail travelers need places to stop each night.) But I usually do pretty well flipping the rocks around fire rings. I think it might be because ants and other small insects come to clean up any food particles left behind, and the herps come to eat the bugs. Classic camping food web here! And as par for the course, my last rock housed a nice little Black Mountain Salamander!
     After leaving the salamander back at his humble abode, I hiked another half mile up the trail before turning to gallop back down. I wonder how my horse riding friends faired on the trail?
As I waiting in the parking lot, I found a crap ton of Tiger Swallow Tail butterflies, enjoying..... yep, a pile of horse crap! Jim said they like the moisture in the horse poop. I reckon they might take some nutrients from their smelly buffet too.
     I have the utmost respect for my horse riding friends! Not only can they connect with these horses after many years of training and hard work, they must also be constantly aware of how well the horse is reading their commands in order to keep both horse and rider in tip top shape. Not to mention, Jenae said she got a face full of spider webs being on the tallest horse :P
     A bushman like myself can certainly enjoy a good hard hike, especially when I can sit here with my shoes off while my friends must unsaddle their horses both covered in sweat and hair. I sure do love this life! It's going to be a great week!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Common Snapping Turtles

     Here in Nebraska, one thing is for sure... The lake water is always murky. In fact, if you can see further than a foot deep, you must be swimming in a Colorado lake that just happened to fill up in Nebraska! Murky water, and fairly poor water quality makes Nebraska not the world's best fishing destination, but we still keep ourselves entertained here. At any lake, in the summer time, the locals are usually found wake boarding, skiing, sail boating, or playing plethora of odd beach games that usually involve beer bottles and PVC piping. But for the fellow bushmen and herpetologists like myself, we usually just enjoy the wildlife and catching some of the interesting few as we hike or paddle through these lakes.

The classic murky Nebraska water way

As a busy college student, I was quite happy with my plan to block out a whole Sunday afternoon for a kayaking trip around one of my favorite lakes. In mid May, I figured the water would be a tad bit too cool for our snakes to be out for a swim, but I soon found our turtle species were just warming up for the season! As I hiked my 9.5 foot Swifty kayak to the water's edge, memories of some of last year's best adventures flew through my mind. This being our maiden voyage for the year, I had to dust off the seat before sitting down for a summer full of many new awesome adventures!
This big brute was floating near a log jam I climbed on
but he saw me before I could get the camera set up to film!
As I paddled along the grasses, I spotted a suspicious looking branch nub sticking out of the water. And then it was gone! I raced forward, and knowing the depth of this common lagoon, I bailed from my kayak to chase the snapping turtle before it found deep water! And granted, the Nebraska mud makes our water murky, it also makes it easy to see where my snapping turtle was swimming off to, as he left an obvious trail of kicking up mud clouds in the water. Then, as I neared the turtle, one chance glance of his tail, and I grabbed him! What a beast! I heaved the healthy snapping turtle up and supported his body weight with my other hand on his plastron, which is the belly halve of the turtle shell. Here is the video for today's adventures!-->>>
Turtles are tons of fun for me! They fascinate the heck out of me! A snapping turtle can be totally docile and calm in the water, yet once raised out of water the aggressive nature kicks in and those jaws get to snapping. And what a reach on that neck! I noticed, on another outing, when a snapping turtle is just bee-bopping along in the water, they stretch their necks clear out 7-10 inches away from the body! But that same neck can curl around the sides and top of their shell (not the bottom, thankfully), and this creates a danger zone that your fingers do not want to be caught in! Another testimony to the snapping turtle's docile nature is when you accidentally step on them! And bare foot is the only way to go for me! 
Painted turtles like to climb up onto logs to sun themselves
but snapping turtles generally do not, as their heavy bodies
make any movement out of water a real chore!
For instance, I was out filming frog mating calls one night in a swamp, and I knew this body of water did contain snapping turtles. But when looking for frogs, I just walk through the shallow water with my head lamp beam focused along the water's edge. I'd rather be able to intercept a frog headed for deep water, as well not have to walk through thick brush while searching for my query. And as many of you know, you can't see much outside of the beam of your head lamp either. So in one step, instead of feeling the mud and silt squish through my toes, I felt the rough points of the marginal scutes (the side part of the turtle's shell) on the shell and the moist leathery skin of either the leg, tail, or head. Naturally, I retracted my foot, and watched a nice sized snapping turtle swim earnestly away from me. And of course, I proceeded to reach down and grab his tail. I had to give my new acquaintance a proper greeting and tell him not to eat too many of the frogs before their lay eggs. Then, I let him go.
Even though I'm out researching frogs, I never past up a
chance to catch some cool wildlife in the process!
It used to scare the pants off me when people would warn me about swimming in a farm pond because, "Them snapping turtles will take your toes clean off!" Well, after realizing I do not even know of any person loosing a toe to a snapping turtle from an under water bite, and after accidentally setting on turtles with my bare feet, my scared pants just turned into swimming trunks and I feel there's nothing to be scared of anymore :)
I put this to the test today. Towards to tail end of my kayaking expedition, I spotted a snapping turtle head sticking out of the water next to a stump. So I padded straight for the spot and the turtle head disappeared under water. As I drifted up to the stump, I stuck my hand into the water where the turtle was (that was stupid, I should have stuck my paddle down first...) my arm was only 8 inches into the water when BOOM!!! I felt the turtle's shell (haha what? Did you think I got my hand bit off?!) I kept my hand lightly on top of the shell to feel if he started to move. I really wanted to film this catch, but the only possible place I could put the camera was wedged up in that stump. So with the other hand, I whipped out my camera, set it to record, and wedged it in the stump. I then felt carefully along the marginal scutes to find the back end. I knew the turtle would bolt once I grabbed the tail, so I lunged down for a handful of turtle tail and held on! The turtle jerked under a good sized branch, with my arm on the opposing side. He wasn't stupid, because while my hand was stuck on one side of the branch, he was cranking and pumping with his legs against the other side, and very, very strong too! I look up at my camera, and the recording light isn't on! F--(bad word)~!!!! I could barely reached the camera with my other hand as this turtle torqued my wrist against the underwater branch, and my camera says "memory full." Oh, mother of pearl!!! This is worse than having to go pee really, really bad in a store with no bathroom, on an empty stomach! As I deleted the slack out of my memory roll, I was making all sorts of funny faces trying to hold onto this turtle who seemed determined to dislocate my wrist. Okay! that better be enough! Record! Stretch! Wedge! Compose myself! Switch hands!! Ahhhhhh, much better! And out of the water I hoist a nice, strapping adolescent snapping turtle from the water! He wasn't yet old enough to start accumulating a coat of moss on his shell, and had beautiful cream colored skin. What a feisty little guy! Very strong, and very snappy. But you know how teenagers are, they think they're invincible ;)
Snapping turtles are a fascinating animal. They eat just about anything they can fit in their mouth. They're totally comfortable in the water, but total fire balls when taking out of their element! If you know what you're doing, you can catch quite a few turtles and have one heck of an adventure doing it. So with two turtles caught and released, after great footage and pictures. I paddled back through the marsh to my truck, and headed home covered in mud and a good time!