Merping with The Orianne Society



Authored by Don Becker

A couple weeks ago, myself and others involved with HerpMapper headed down to Georgia to meet with The Orianne Society to discuss how we could work together on citizen science projects. Given that the Midwest is currently cold and has snow on the ground, we had to take advantage of the warm weather in Georgia to do some “merping” (a term coined during this trip by the wise man, Mike Pingleton, to refer to mapping herpetofauna).

We spent the whole day on Wednesday driving. As we neared our destination late in the night, we could hear frogs calling from the ditches along a dark county highway. It will be a few months until we start to hear calling frogs in the Midwest, so we stopped briefly to listen to them. Most of what was calling were Southern Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris nigrita), but a few Ornate Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris ornata) were calling, as well. The stop was brief, but it was enough to get us in the mood for some merping!

Now, a normal person might just want to hit the hay after 12 to 15 hours of driving—not us. There was a pond right next to the cabin we were staying in, and we could hear the frogs as we unloaded our luggage. Once everything was in the cabin, we put on our rubber boots (at least those of us that had them), and headed over to the pond. The frogs were a little weary of our presence, but it didn’t take long for them to return to calling while we were standing in the water.

Unlike the ditch we had stopped at, the majority of the calling frogs in the pond were Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). We were also able to locate some Eastern Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens), Southern Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris nigrita), Southern Cricket Frogs (Acris gryllus) and Ornate Chorus Frogs (P. ornata). I have seen the Spring Peepers and Eastern Newts before, but the other three species were all lifers for myself and a few others in our group.

After a short night’s rest, we headed out to meet with some of the field techs from Orianne. We split into two groups to check two different properties for Eastern Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon couperi), and Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus). My group wasn’t out of the vehicle for more than five minutes it seemed when Dirk, one of the Orianne biologists, was surprised by a large Eastern Diamondback and nearly jumped out of his boots. The snake had a large bulge in her body that we guessed was a rabbit she had eaten. Just afterwards the other group sent us a text saying that they had found an Indigo Snake, so we set off to find our own.

As we walked along the property, Dirk kept checking burrows with a flash light. He kept saying that if you keep checking burrows, you are bound to find a rattlesnake or an Indigo Snake. True to his word, he shined his light into a burrow and found us a second Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. We did not disturb the snake, other than taking its picture.

Dirk continued to check the burrows, and soon enough, he found us an Eastern Indigo Snake. It was sitting coiled up outside a burrow getting the first bit of sun we had for the morning. The snake was a couple inches over six feet long. We spent quite a bit of time photographing this snake, as it was a lifer for all of us who were there aside from the guys working for The Orianne Society. When we were done photographing the snake, we took it back to the burrow it was found near.

With the sun warming up, we decided to back track over the same area we had walked through on the way in. Dirk knew of some areas that we passed that normally had Indigo snakes on the surface but had nothing on our first pass. We checked plenty more burrows to look for snakes sunning on the edges, but most burrows didn’t have anything in them.

About halfway back, Dirk and Chris stopped to chit chat a moment. I looked over at them as they stopped, and about five feet away from them I spotted a large Indigo coming out of a burrow. I tried to say “There is an Indigo! I don’t know what way it’s going! Mike come see this in situ! Chris grab it!” Only, what came out of my mouth was, “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” Chris was able to grab the snake. It was another large one, measuring 81 inches long. After that we headed back over to meet up with the other group that had found four Indigo Snakes in total but no Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes.

Friday brought with it gray clouds and rain, but that’s no big deal for a group of herpers. You just have to change what you are looking for. Rather than looking for snakes, we spent the day looking for amphibians. We walked around the Orianne property we were staying on and found some Ocmulgee Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon ocmulgee), a couple Marbled Salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) and another lifer, the Pine Woods Treefrog (Hyla femoralis). I had hoped to see some Eastern Spadefoots (Scaphiopus holbrookii), but none turned up anywhere we looked.

We headed west to a county where Ornate Chorus Frogs had never been formally documented but were known to be. By this time it was getting dark, and we were hunting around a pond with flash lights. Nothing was turning up. Dylan, one of the Orianne field technicians, had separated from us on our way in, and on our way back out we saw his flash light off in the woods. We followed the light and met up with him in a shallow grassy pond that was loaded with frogs. Sure enough, he had found an Ornate Chorus Frog. The rest of us looked around, and we all started to find them all around the pond. Spring Peepers and Southern Chorus Frogs were also abundant.

On the way out of the area, we stopped to check some buildings where Treefrogs were known to be a common sight at night. The first frog that was spotted was up high on a wall and jumped onto a car port when spotted with a light. Fortunately, I am a big, tall man. I put Josh, another Orianne field technician, on my shoulders and was able to lift him high enough to grab the frog. It was a lot of work, and it really was pointless. After we got the frog down, Dylan returned from the other side of the building, where he said there was a few dozen Treefrogs. We identified the frogs as Squirrel Treefrogs (Hyla squirella). We were hoping to find some Barking Treefrogs (Hyla gratiosa), but none were found.

Our last stop of the night was to look for Little Grass Frogs (Pseudacris ocularis), the world’s smallest frog. They are hard to hear over the calls of all the other frogs, so you have to listen very carefully. We soon found that whenever the rain picked up, so did their calls. When the rain stopped, so did they. It took a while for one of us to zero in on the location of a Little Grass Frog, but you know what they say—when it rains, it pours. Once the first frog was found, we started finding them all over the place around the little grassland pond we were in. Soon we found some Ornate Chorus frogs as well, including some green phase ones that we weren’t able to find at the other sites.

On Saturday, the last day of our trip, we headed out to some very unique Indigo Snake habitat. Rather than the typical Longleaf Pine habitat like we had been searching two days prior, this area was full of limestone rock outcrops and home to the only waterfall in the Coastal Plains of Georgia. Fissures in the ground were a very common site, and many of them were much deeper than they initially appeared. The property was home to a number of plant species that do not exist anywhere else in the world. We didn’t turn up many more herps while hiking the area, but the hike alone was worth it. We did turn up one small Indigo Snake, an Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus), and a Striped Scorpion (Centruroides hentzi).