Authored by Ben Stegenga
There was an unmistakable autumn crispness in the air as we arrived at the rendezvous point Saturday morning for Places You’ve Never Herped (PYNH) 9. It was a beautiful October morning in North Carolina’s Big Ivy Region of Pisgah National Forest. The sun had not yet peaked the ridgeline, leaving pockets of the valley shrouded in fog. As Orianne members filtered in, we gathered in a small clearing next to a mountain stream for orientation. Almost immediately, David Magdon found our first species, a rather cold juvenile Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) that was resting under a flat stone. After introductions, we went over the game plan and split up into two groups. Houston Chandler was to lead one group along some lower elevation streams and then to some large rock faces, while Jacob Barrett and I would lead the other group up to higher elevation to a waterfall and several small creeks and seeps.
After a 30-minute drive on a gravel forest service road, we hit the trail. We only got a couple minutes in before we started uncovering salamanders. Our first species were the Carolina Mountain Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus carolinensis) and the Northern Gray-cheeked Salamander (Plethodon montanus), followed shortly by several White-spotted Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon cylindraceus) and a Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea wilderae). All of these species proved to be incredibly abundant wherever we went. It was not uncommon to uncover multiple individuals of those four species under the same rock or log.
Once we arrived at the waterfall, everyone dispersed up and down the creek and up the rock-strewn slopes. The creek was teeming with Eurycea larvae, Northern Dusky Salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus) and Black-bellied Salamanders (Desmognathus quadramaculatus). Black-bellied Salamanders are the largest species of Desmognathus, and they are top predators in mountain stream ecosystems, often preying on other salamanders including their own species. In this region, their voracious appetites are outmatched only by the Blue Ridge Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus danielsi). They are the salmon-colored nightmares that haunt the dreams of dusky salamanders everywhere, and sure enough, they were also present in this stream. It wasn’t long before Max Seldes glimpsed the orange flash of our first Blue Ridge Spring Salamander as it made a hasty retreat under an earthen creek bank. Several Gyrinophilus larvae were also netted at this same site, but no other adults were found.
On a nearby slope, Scott Bolick found what was arguably the most impressive salamander of the event—an absolute brute of a Yonahlossee Salamander (Plethodon yonahlossee). These gray woodland salamanders can exceed eight inches in length and sport a beautiful chestnut stripe down the back with varying degrees of white spotting along their sides. Just before we started heading back to the vehicles, we added two more species to our list. An Eastern Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) was found in the rocks of a primitive campsite fire ring, and Catherine Stevens uncovered a Northern Pygmy Salamander (Desmognathus organi) hiding in some thick leaf litter. Pygmy salamanders are only found at higher elevations, and their small size can often make them difficult to detect, so this was indeed a great find.
On our way back to meet up with the other group, we decide to stop at a small clearing along the road, in hopes that snakes would be drawn to the sunny hole in the canopy. Hana Leonard quickly discovered several freshly-shed skins next to some old logs. After flipping several logs with no luck, Chris and Mike Bolick hit the jackpot with two juvenile Eastern Gartersnakes. Soon an adult is spotted basking on a nearby tree stump and allowed for some nice in situ photographs. Before reconvening with Houston’s group, members caught a handful of Seal Salamanders (Desmognathus monticola) in a tiny seep, and Matt Moore chased down a handsome Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans), our first anuran species. It was a good way to wrap up the day and left everyone in good spirits on the drive back down the ridge. Houston’s group had seen many of the same common salamander species as our group, but they had found quite a few more Yonahlossee Salamanders and a couple Northern Watersnakes.
The next morning, we split back up into the same two groups, but we swapped areas giving everyone a chance to see some new habitat. Right off the bat, Ty Weng flipped a nice juvenile Northern Watersnake at the edge of a stream. My group methodically worked the water’s edge and any neighboring seeps that we ran across. Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamanders were particularly abundant here. Many of these attractive yellow-orange salamanders were males exhibiting prominent cirri on each corner of the snout—the telltale sign that their breeding season had already begun. Much of what we saw were repeats from the day before, but the incredible variability in color and pattern of Desmognathus salamanders did not disappoint.
We decided to move on to some rock faces, since the sun was now high in the sky. Our hopes were that its warming rays would draw some snakes out of their stone sanctuaries. Houston and I had found a small Northern Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii) in this area before any of the members had arrived, so we knew we had a good shot. But despite some ideal looking habitat, we just couldn’t scrounge up any more snakes. However, Ian Garrison netted a newly metamorphed American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), and Matt located another Yonahlossee Salamander. Our last stop was a beautiful section of stream with a series of cascades as it descended into a deep ravine. Here, Kaitlyn Dunagan spotted a beautiful Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris), and Ian caught a nice adult Blue Ridge Spring Salamander. After photographing Ian’s find and the especially-scenic stretch of creek, we all decided it was a good note to end on.
By the end of the weekend, our group had documented a total of 16 species, most of which were salamanders. Despite only finding a few reptiles, it was still a fun event highlighting some beautiful amphibians in some equally-beautiful habitat. The full species list is below.
Carolina Mountain Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus carolinensis)
Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus)
Seal Salamander (Desmognathus monticola)
Northern Pygmy Salamander (Desmognathus organi)
Black-bellied Salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus)
Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea wilderae)
Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus)
White-spotted Slimy Salamander (Plethodon cylindraceus)
Northern Gray-cheecked Salamander (Plethodon montanus)
Yonahlossee Salamander (Plethodon yonahlossee)
American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)
Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)
Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris)
Ringneck Snake (Diadophis punctatus)
Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)
Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
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