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Sep26

Spotted Salamanders Are Rarely Spotted

Written by // Tony Categories // Tales from the Field

"So why are we walking down a North Augusta road in the driving rain," my son asked me. I explained to him that this was the night to look for amphibians. Although it was January, it was still a warm 65-70 degrees. I was delighted that I had convinced my two boys to accompany me on this inauspicious adventure. This was what life was all about. We were outside in the dark, we were wet and the frogs were calling. What more could one ask for.

The kids had just about had enough of this field trip when we saw the first one. It was a gorgeous female spotted salamander, ripe with eggs. The South Carolina State amphibian! She was obviously crossing the road to reach the wetland on the other side. Almost at once we saw two more and then several others. In fact, spotted salamanders were everywhere! Their bright yellow spotted patterns lit up the road as we illuminated them with our flashlights. Oh sure! Now the kids were interested!

spotted_salamander

We carefully picked up the specimens placing them gently into the bins brought for this purpose. We would take them back to the Savannah River Ecology Lab to mark and measure and then release them the next day. If we were lucky we would see these same individuals next year. In all we collected about 50 or so spotted salamanders along with the usual complement of green frogs, southern toads and red salamanders. This was what we herpetologists call an awesome night out!

Spotted salamanders are seldom seen by people. They are occasionally uncovered during gardening work or other digging activities, but are most likely to be seen crossing roads on warm rainy nights in the winter. Like most of our amphibians, spotted salamanders live on land but lay their eggs in the surrounding wetlands. The eggs are laid in jellied clumps of a hundred or more and are usually attached to a stick or plant. They hatch in a few weeks into tiny larvae that resemble tadpoles, but with legs and external gills. These larvae grow quickly and metamorphose into small adults a few months later. These patternless, small adults are ready start their lives as terrestrial animals in the woods nearby.

In time they may reach 7-8 inches in length and develop the vivid yellow spots that give them their name. Spotted salamanders are eaten by snakes, birds, raccoons and other predators, but their biggest threat comes from the loss of habitat. They require particular wetlands to breed in. They prefer to lay their eggs in habitats without fish or other aquatic predators. Remember, not all wetlands are created equal! Without these temporary wetlands, spotted salamanders cannot breed effectively and their numbers will decrease.

The key to protecting much of our native wildlife is protecting the places where they live. The natural areas around North Augusta are loaded with life. The more we understand our local habitats, the better we can take care of them.

Sep18

Isaac

Written by // Tony Categories // Tales from the Field

A couple years ago, I met this amazing kid. As I finished a lecture on wildlife for the local public library, a fourth grader named Isaac walked up and delivered a barrage of obscure, but to my knowledge, accurate facts about elephants, king cobras, anacondas, and other animals. I noticed that his information all related to animals of exotic lands such as Mozambique, Sri Lanka, and Brazil, and he failed to mention even one animal species native to the U.S. He apparently had learned much of this information by watching nature programs on T.V.

I have come to the realization that many "Discovery Channel" and "Animal Planet" addicts I've met aren't always aware of the cool animals that live in their own communities. TV programs and web sites are effective tools for environmental education (and I commend those who create them) but if you are learning about nature, by watching someone else's experiences on a video monitor, than you probably aren't spending enough time in the woods.

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in the southeastern U.S. occupy a region that is absolutely steeped with biodiversity. This area is one of the most biologically rich and diverse regions on earth, yet our school children often spend more time studying the rainforests of the Amazon than they do learning their local habitats. I'm not suggesting that research and education about the other parts of the world are not essential, but let's make sure that we also appreciate our native surroundings. The realization that all life and all habitats are ultimately connected is often difficult to fathom. In order for people to make sound ecological decisions, it is critical that they understand that what they do in our own communities ultimately affects other parts of the world as well.

One of my favorite quotes is from L.B. Sharp whom many regard as the father of outdoor education. This pioneer and strong advocate of environmental education wrote "Don't try to bring the whole world into the school. Rather, take the children out to where the world is. On the way to and from school, our youth pass by the very things they go into the classroom to study about"

The world is a different place than it was when I was a kid. Maybe we just didn't have as many scheduled activities to do in those days. I remember my brother Mike and me spending an entire day dissecting a coconut in our Miami FL. yard, pausing only to chase the same brown anoles across the top of our Hibiscus hedge. These pursuits may seem a bit mundane compared to a video game where an entire empire might be saved in a single session, but we were pretty content those days.

Today, with hundreds of channels to watch and a pile of DVDs or video games at any child's disposal, it takes a special, motivated child to start an insect collection or keep a life list of local bird species. Children have an array of electronic images and sounds at their fingertips. In contrast, I remember waiting for weeks to watch a certain National Geographic special on animals or getting pumped up the day Wild Kingdom was on.

Rather than satisfy my curiosity about the natural world, these infrequent shows inspired me to explore my local natural world, to see what I could discover on my own. Now with 24 hours of animal programming to fill, and lots of competition from the other hundreds of channels (and the Internet) some nature shows have been forced to "raise the bar" so to speak. Newer shows require the host to "wrestle" animals and catch them, often for no apparent reason. A reptile show is not perceived as exciting unless the host is nearly maimed or bitten by a dangerous animal.

I am so glad I got the opportunity to talk to a remarkable kid like Isaac and listen to his stories and facts about the natural world. I let him know how impressed I was with his extensive knowledge of animals from foreign lands. I pointed out that we had one of only two venomous mammals in the whole world in our own county. I mentioned that the biggest turtle in the world occasionally nests on our state's beaches. I discussed some of the techniques we have used to capture and study alligators and the use of radio telemetry to monitor snake populations in the local woods. He seemed pretty excited after our discussion and vowed to continue his own studies. He seems like the kind of kid who will develop a knowledge base about local species to complement his extensive knowledge of exotic fauna. This understanding might just foster a bit of ownership and responsibility for the habitats these animals represent. I bet next year when I give a similar lecture, Isaac will come up and tell me some facts about animals in his country, his state, and his very own backyard.

Sep12

How To Make a Memorable First Impression

Written by // Tony Categories // Tales from the Field

Chalk it up as a serious case of the "heebie jeebies"...I am still not sure what got into me that day. The setting was the Palmetto Sportsmen's Classic, a huge fishing-hunting festival in Columbia, South Carolina. Our education program had assembled a group of non-game wetland animals for the audience of sports enthusiasts to view. As usual, I was manning my booth, telling stories, and expounding about the three-inch-long predaceous insect I was holding in my hand. I was referring to it metaphorically as a miniature great white shark of the wetland ecosystem. I went into great detail describing its piercing, sucking mouthparts and its ability to inject digestive juices into its hapless prey turning the insides into liquid for ingestion. A large group of families began to assemble around our booth during this overly-dramatic diatribe.

As I pointed out the animal's fine swimming limbs, it reached out and unexpectedly grabbed my finger with one of its appendages and pricked my finger in the process. As you guys know by now, much of my life has been spent handling wild animals. However, on that particular day, my gut reaction was to fling the animal away from me, unfortunately in the direction of the group on the other side of the table. The bug landed on an unsuspecting lady's shoulder causing her to convulse violently and then flick the insect onto the person next to her. A chain reaction occurred and thus developed into a small riot around my booth. The animal was eventually batted to the floor where it remained upside down thrusting frantically upward in an effort to right itself. Fortunately, a teenage girl calmly reached down and expertly picked up the bug and handed it to me. She informed me that she was an amateur entomologist and absolutely loved bugs.

I guess it is a good thing that giant waterbugs don't get any bigger than they do. They are voracious predators often feeding on fish, crayfish, salamanders and frogs twice their size. You may have heard them referred to as "toe biters" because of their painful bite or "electric light bugs" because of their tendency to fly to tennis court lights or baseball fields at night. They have the abilities of walking, flying or swimming, but are mostly aquatic, living in our wetlands in the lowcountry.

We have a variety of aquatic insects on Spring Island ranging from the microscopic to the biggest bugs and beetles. The giant water bug (Lethocerus americanus) belongs to an order called Hemipterans (true bugs) which includes a variety of "stink bugs", "assassin bugs", "leaf-footed bugs", "water scorpions" and others. The bite of Lethocerus to humans, although very painful, is not overly dangerous and usually does not require medical attention. As usual, I have personal experience involving giant waterbug bites! Sure, our giant water bug is pretty impressive, but tropical waterbugs may reach 5 inches or more in length. In Southeast Asia, they are commonly deep fried and eaten as a delicacy.

I guess I still continue to tell stories and share the wonders of local wildlife to people around me. I am just a bit more careful these days. Hey, look on the bright side. At least I wasn't holding a water moccasin!

Sep04

File Under "E" for Eeeek!

Written by // Tony Categories // Tales from the Office

Earlier this week as I talked on the phone to a representative from the local school district, I heard a distinct scream. There was something familiar about the way Lisa yelled up the stairs that gave me a clue what the excitement was about. I muttered something incoherent to the caller about an emergency, promised to call back, and raced downstairs. Lisa was standing in the lobby of the nature center, flushed with color, breathing heavily and mumbling something about a large snake in her office.

I guess before I tell any more of this story, I need to provide some background information. Several weeks ago, we acquired a new resident for the nature center. A friend from Hilton Head called to inform me that he had captured a large coachwhip snake at his resort and asked if we would like to have it for our animal collection. Even though coachwhips are not known as great captives, I told him we would give it a try. I drove to the resort and picked up the large wriggling pillow case and took it back to the nature center. It was a coachwhip all right, a huge individual almost seven feet long. When I removed it from the bag, I was surprised at how tame it was.

Coachwhip snakeCoachwhips are usually downright pugnacious. They are very likely the fastest snakes in North America often running down even the fastest lizards and birds. One great myth about coachwhips is that they will chase an unsuspecting person and lash them to death with their long whip-like tail. Some people even claim that a coachwhip can determine if an individual is still breathing by sticking the tip of their tail into the victim’s nostrils. These erroneous stories likely stem from this species behavior of thrashing violently with their tail when captured. I cannot imagine where the nostril thing came from.

The minute I placed our new serpent in the cage, he changed personality, raising his body into an upright s-curve, gaping menacingly and striking the front of the cage. I figured he was just a little agitated from the trip…I would check on him later after he relaxed a bit. The next day he was even worse, lunging at anyone who came near his cage. Maybe he just needed a hiding spot, I thought. We placed a large piece of palmetto bark in with him, but it did not solve the problem. Over the next several days the snake ambushed anyone who came in the back door of the nature center by crashing into the glass and hissing loudly just as they entered. I am pretty comfortable with snakes but I have to admit, this startled me a couple of times. What a great pet!

At this point, the snake had failed the probationary period, and plans were made to find a new home for the coachwhip. Unfortunately before we were able to do this, there was an untoward event. Our animal caretaker (Johnny) was responsible for cleaning out the cage (no small feat considering the snake was still in there). As he carefully opened the sliding glass door, the coachwhip launched itself through the narrow opening and on to the floor. I have actually seen this snake and other athletic species exhibit this behavior. It reminds me of one of those gag cans of mixed nuts with a spring-loaded snake inside that erupts out of the opening when the top is removed. Apparently as soon as the snake hit the ground, it slid across the floor of the animal room and disappeared into a gap in the cabinets before anyone could corral it.

After a thorough search in all rooms of the nature center, we decided that the snake must have escaped through a hole under the cabinets or out the back door. It wasn’t until a month or so later that Lisa started noticing little changes in her office. Telltale signs like a pen holder turned over on her desk or disheveled papers on the shelf were evident. She even came in one morning to a floor littered with items off her desk and shelves. We all did another search of the office because we knew the coachwhip had likely taken up residence in the room. I am amazed at how well Lisa handled these working conditions (a seven foot snake loose in her office) and took it all in stride. Lisa can handle just about any situation and keep her cool. For instance, I remember visiting Spring Island many years ago to give a trust talk. I arrived early and snuck into the back door of the nature center. After ascertaining that Lisa (sitting at her desk) was the only one in the building, I released a live five-foot (albeit tame) alligator into the doorway and let it walk into her office unannounced. I waited for an excited scream but all I got was a nonchalant “Tony…get this gator out of here”. I sheepishly walked into the office and reclaimed my pet.

But, getting back to Lisa and the Coachwhip:

The extremely excited Lisa directed me into her office to her desk. I peered into an open drawer to see the snake laced between file folders and perched on top of two rolls of packing tape. Lisa had started her morning ritual by opening her desk drawer and encountering the snake inside. I think many less-dedicated employees might have considered other employment opportunities but Lisa just yelled for me to give her a hand. The coachwhip was easy to capture since he was cold and his eyes were opaque. We scooped him up and put him in a bag for transport. Lisa went back to work as if nothing had happened with an exciting new adventure to tell her friends. The big snake was released the next day on a hunting plantation many miles from here. I would be amazed if we ever see him again but I am pretty sure that Lisa will never open that office drawer the same way ever again.

Aug29

Bats!

Written by // Tony Categories // Tales from the Field

I never claimed to be a bat expert, but when I was called one afternoon to check out a large colony from a nearby residence, I jumped at the opportunity. I mean, how often does one get to go play with a bunch of bats? My oldest son (nine at that time) begrudgingly agreed to accompany me on yet another escapade. Marshall was well aware that I was a "snake guy" not a "bat guy" and expressed some misgivings about our involvement in the project. The homeowner didn't want to hurt the bats, but they were making a bit of a mess on the eaves of her house and in the attic. After assessing the situation (40-50 bats lining a small section of the attic wall), we formulated our plan and raced back to the house for supplies. It was easy: pluck the bats off the wall of the attic and place them in a large "tupperware" container for relocation. My trusty sidekick, Marshall, would be standing behind me armed with a butterfly net to catch any animals that took flight. I put on a hefty glove and began carefully removing the somewhat torpid bats off the wall, placing them in the container. As I removed about the fourth bat, the inevitable happened. A flock of bats fluttered up into the crawlspace like a covey of quail. After a moment of indecision, I yelled for Marshall to start the netting process. Upon receiving no response, I turned to find Marshall gone and the net lying limply on the floor of the attic.

Bats are extremely beneficial to human beings. According to the book "Bats of the United States" by Michael J. Harvey et. al., a single bat can consume 4500 small flying insects in a single night. Imagine what a colony of a thousand bats could accomplish. If bats were not present, we would have to spray far more insecticide into our skies to control mosquitoes and other pesky bugs.

Bats are the only true flying mammals. Similar to those of a human hand, the extremely elongated finger bones are covered with membranous skin forming a wing. Bats are spectacular aerialists, swooping and maneuvering to catch insects on the wing. They use echolocation (sonar) to navigate and locate their prey. They emit pulses of high frequency sound and listen to the echoes that bounce off various objects sensing what is in their paths. Although bats are primarily nocturnal, they can often be seen at dusk, preparing for night flight. They spend days in attics of houses, barns, or hollow trees. Common predators of bats include snakes, owls and raccoons.

Because of misconceptions, bats are still regarded as unwanted pests by some people. Bats are beneficial because they play important roles in pest control, seed dispersal, and pollination. Many people have even warmed-up to the idea of having bats in their attics, barns and yards . Numerous plans for artificial bat dwellings (bat houses) are available on the internet and in outdoor magazines.

We did manage to catch many of the bats in that attic. After a bit of research, I determined they were big brown bats Eptesicus fuscus, a harmless and beneficial species common in the the lowcountry. In fact, this group turned out to be a maternity colony with lots of bat "pups." I relocated the bats many miles away, in an old, dilapidated farmhouse where I had seen many bats in the past. I asked my neighbor to place hardware cloth over the gaps in the eaves of her house so no additional bats could get back inside.

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