Authored by Houston Chandler and Ben Stegenga
As the sun set on a warm Friday night in early June, Orianne members and staff ventured onto the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve (OISP) to begin Places You’ve Never Herped (PYNH) 8, a members-only citizen science event attended by 37 members of all age ranges. Seasonal afternoon thunderstorms promised the appearance of many of South Georgia’s native frog species, and we hoped to find a few snakes during the cooler mornings and evenings. The proximity of Horse Creek and the Ocmulgee River allowed us to spend a large portion of the event in and around the water, providing a nice alternative to baking in the afternoon sun.
PYNH 8 provided an opportunity to inventory reptiles and amphibians on the OISP and nearby Horse Creek WMA during a time of year when few surveys have been conducted. Herpetofaunal surveys are an important first step to understanding species’ distributions and habitat use in a given area. For example, Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) are surprisingly difficult to find in the Altamaha River drainage, and we were able to identify two new localities for them during this event. Over time, repeated surveys can also be used as an early indication of population changes that may warrant further study.
Our first stop on Friday night was an old oxbow lake near the confluence of Horse Creek and the Ocmulgee River, which is aptly named Gator Lake because of the large American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) that often patrols its waters. No large alligators were seen, but one small juvenile was found on the edge of Gator Lake. As the sun moved below the horizon, we were greeted by the sound of treefrogs beginning their nightly ritual. From high in the trees and the edges of Gator Lake, male Bird-voiced Treefrogs (Hyla avivoca) and Green Treefrogs (H. cinerea) attempted to attract mates with their distinctive calls. The treefrogs combined with the occasional bullfrog and loud chorus of Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans) to make quite the racket on an otherwise quiet night.
The second stop of the night was a large borrow pit near the entrance to the preserve. Upon arriving, we immediately heard the third treefrog species of the night—Barking Treefrogs (H. gratiosa), which were calling from the warm shallow waters. This capped off a good first night for PYNH 8 that also included two species of watersnakes (Nerodia erythrogaster and N. fasciata) and a lone Southern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea cirrigera) that was perched at head height on the side of a tree, presumably foraging for small invertebrates.
On Saturday morning, everyone gathered near the bunk house for formal orientation before splitting into two groups. One group spent the day checking aquatic turtle traps and surveying along Horse Creek, while the other group checked drift fences and cover boards on the large sandhill. Checking traps is always an exciting experience because you never really know what you are going to catch, especially in large aquatic hoop-net traps. We hoped to catch the elusive Loggerhead Musk Turtle (Sternotherus minor), which frequents large rivers and streams across a majority of Georgia. The first trap of the day was a large hoop-net trap with a long drift line designed to funnel turtles into the trap, placed along the edge of the river.
As we waded towards the trap, it bobbed up and down in the water, a sure sign that something was inside! We hurried towards the trap and quickly pulled it out of the water, hoping to see a large snapping turtle. It was a little disappointing to see only a couple of large Yellow-bellied Sliders (Trachemys scripta) and two bass tangled in the netting. Even though it wasn’t the huge turtle that we were hoping for, it was still nice to catch something in the first trap of the day. We spent the rest of the day checking lots of turtle traps and, in the end, caught a handful of Loggerhead Musk Turtles, the occasional slider and a lone Common Musk Turtle (S. odoratus).
After a brief introduction about fire ecology and sandhill ecosystems by The Orianne Society’s Brannon Knight, the drift fence group struck out through the sandhills towards the two arrays. The group spread out, flipping natural cover objects and searching the numerous Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) burrows that they came across. Fresh tracks on the burrow aprons indicated that tortoises had been out foraging earlier that morning, and with the aid of a mirror, we were able to glimpse a few adult Gopher Tortoises deep within their retreats. We came to the first drift fence array, but the funnel traps and pitfalls had only caught a single Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata). It wasn’t one of the snakes we had been hoping for, but it was a large male with some beautiful blue coloration and made for a good opportunity to see one of these speedy lizards up close.
On our way to the second drift fence, Brannon Knight, Stewardship Coordinator for the Longleaf Savannas Initiative, found a large Eastern Coachwhip (Coluber flagellum). Rather than flee in typical coachwhip fashion, this snake decided to take up a defensive posture, which allowed for a good photo opportunity. It was a light-phased snake sporting lots of white and light brown speckling. Being such a large and atypical specimen, this snake was the highlight of the weekend for many of the participants. While the coachwhip was being photographed, James Blodgett stumbled across a young Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) at the mouth of a nearby tortoise burrow. It retreated into the burrow a couple feet in, but The Orianne Society’s Field Technician Ben Stegenga was able to gently extract the snake for a quick photo session.
Before leaving the sandhills, the group found a small Eastern Spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii) and an Eastern Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis) in the second drift fence array. With the mid-day heat setting in, the group migrated off of the sandhills to a variety of aquatic habitats where we found a Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), Southern Black Racers (Coluber constrictor) and a couple Eastern Ratsnakes (Pantherophis alleghaniensis). Danise Fields caught the only Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia) of the event, and Mandy Johnson capped off the afternoon with a juvenile Gopher Tortoise that was crossing a sandy road.
That evening everyone convened at Little Ocmulgee State Park for pizza and presentations. The Orianne Society’s Houston Chandler spoke about his work with Reticulated Flatwoods Salamanders (Ambystoma bishopi) and Matt Elliot talked about the status of Gopher Tortoises in Georgia. Afterwards, several groups struck out on their own for road cruising and wetland herping at the state park. It turned out to be a productive night, with the most notable finds including an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (DOR), a Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea), a Cottonmouth, Greater Sirens (Siren lacertian), American Alligators and Florida Softshells (Apalone ferox).
On Sunday, we again divided into groups, with a third group venturing to nearby Horse Creek WMA. After a half day of searching on the WMA, this group had found both members of the genus Agkistrodon (Cottonmouth and Copperhead) and a Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) shell that had three eggs inside. These turtles can sometimes become egg bound while gravid, which can unfortunately lead to death. The other groups turned up a juvenile Eastern River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna), a small Eastern Coachwhip and some newly metamorphosed Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). By the end of the event, we had had recorded a total of 51 species, including all six species of treefrogs, three species of venomous snakes and five species of salamanders. The full species list is listed below.
Frogs and Toads
Southern Toad (Anaxyrus terrestris)
Eastern Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis)
Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)
Little Grass Frog (Pseudacris ocularis)
Northern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans)
Southern Cricket Frog (Acris gryllus)
Bird-voiced Treefrog (Hyla avivoca)
Cope’s Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis)
Squirrel Treefrog (Hyla squirella)
Pine Woods Treefrog (Hyla femoralis)
Barking Treefrog (Hyla gratiosa)
Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea)
Eastern Spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii)
Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus)
American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)
Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)
Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum)
Lesser Siren (Siren intermedia)
Greater Siren (Siren lacertian)
Southern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea cirrigera)
Ocmulgee Slimy Salamander (Plethodon ocmulgee)
Dwarf Salamander (Eurycea quadridigitata)
American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)
Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
Eastern Box Turtle (Terrepene carolina)
Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)
Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum)
Loggerhead Musk Turtle (Sternotherus minor)
Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta)
River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna)
Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia)
Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)
Florida Softshell (Apalone ferox)
Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis)
Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)
Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps)
Ground Skink (Scincella lateralis)
Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata)
Brown Watersnake (Nerodia taxispilota)
Red-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster)
Banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata)
Rough Earth Snake (Haldea striatula)
Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea)
Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)
Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor)
Eastern Coachwhip (Coluber flagellum)
Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis)
Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus)
Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)
You can view more photos from Places You’ve Never Herped 8 on our Facebook page.