The bright eyes of the hundreds of recently transformed Eastern Spadefoot toadlets that greeted us seemed to say, “Welcome to the low country of North Carolina, if you enjoy interesting herps, you’ll be happy here.” Soon after arriving at the motel in Elizabethtown, NC, on Friday afternoon we began finding specimens. Blitz participant Matt investigated a beech-studded ravine behind the motel, returning–drenched in sweat–with two Eastern Box Turtles and some plump Southern Toads. Although the Places You Have Never Herped NC blitz had yet to officially begin, already the specimens were pouring in!
Joined by two ringers, herpetologists Jeff Beane of the North Carolina State Museum in Raleigh and Jeff Hall of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, I captained Team Hercules. My esteemed colleagues Kevin Stohlgren and Steve Spear led Team Shady and Team Bladen Runner, respectively. The 36 Orianne Society members who participated were evenly divided among these three teams, and the teams partitioned their efforts among three different zones. We all huddled early Friday evening as Steve disseminated data sheets and discussed the objectives for the event. We conducted two intensive night sampling events (on Friday and Saturday, ending at 2 a.m.) and also surveyed throughout much of the day on Saturday.
Our focus was a remarkable PARCA (Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area) located in the Coastal Plain of southeastern NC. Here, a vast area of Bladen and Sampson counties encompass a number of large public lands and preserves recognized for their biodiversity. Good-condition examples of a wide variety of natural communities, all of which are excellent reptile and amphibian habitats, can be found here—including Longleaf Pine sandhills, Carolina bays, blackwater creek swamps, pocosins and pond pine flatwoods. Our collective mission: To survey multiple sites within each zone and to document as many species of reptiles and amphibians from the Bladen Lakes PARCA as possible.
Team Bladen Runner indulged in marathon night walks (both evenings) and was amply rewarded for its efforts. Many gorgeous Scarlet Snakes, their red blotches broken by wonderful cream-yellow pigment that accentuated their beauty, were found. A rare Pine Woods Littersnake was “herped up” from within a log. For most participants, including us Orianne Society guys, seeing this species in the wild was a memorable first. Many reported that the musk of this small, litter-dwelling, anuran-swallowing serpent was most disagreeable.
As you may know, warm nights with storms close encourage vipers to prowl. Many beautiful Copperheads were sighted, as were swimming Cottonmouths. On the second night Steve texted me, “Dirk, this just in from my team-member Catherine, voiced calmly, but plenty loud for all to hear, ’Guys, I have a nice adult horridus (Timber Rattlesnake) up here along the trail. Hurry!” Later, they encounter, “an enormous moccasin.”
Some thick cowboy coffee and hearty breakfasts helped some of us back in the woods early Saturday morning. After lacing our boots and donning our packs, we enjoyed a lengthy hike through a state-managed site (led by the NC Jeffs) that sported handsome xeric sandhill habitat and compelling wetlands. Expanses of bare white sand (liberally tracked with Racerunner and Fence Lizard prints), wiregrass and turkey oaks here reminded me of Indigo Snake/Gopher Tortoise habitat in Georgia. At the wetland edge, we enjoyed a species of giant sundew in flower, and a tea-colored, sphagnum-lined pool full of tadpoles with bright red tails (Pinewoods Treefrogs) and black-tipped tails (Southern Cricket Frogs). Then, Orianne Society Member Paul waded an open-water pond (part of a large Carolina bay) margined with titis, spotting three nice adult Rough Green Snakes in a matter of minutes. As other Team Hercules members flexed their muscles rolling logs, sisters Mandy and Sharon dip-netted Carpenter Frog tadpoles and some stunningly gorgeous male Blue-spotted Sunfish.
Our next stop, thankfully, given the stifling afternoon heat, was a dark creek swamp. Here we hit the jackpot. In quick succession, two Cottonmouths (one, with an immense bolus, had apparently enjoyed a large fish dinner), then a Mud Snake, a Brown Water Snake (caught by a brave and swimming Paul ), two Lesser Sirens, some Many-lined and Slimy Salamanders. To find some of the signature, and singularly secretive, herp representatives of the blackwater creek swamp environment (e.g., Mud Snake, Many-lined Salamander), not to mention the unusual swampfish and pirate perch, was thrilling. And the cool swamp water felt marvelous.
Later that night we stop at a small public boat launch on a remote stretch of the aptly named Black River. The long, eerie and slowly ascending howl-scream of a lone Barred Owl carried across the water, prompting looks of concern among some of my companions. A good current of dark water, holding secrets precious as Rainbow Snakes, moved by as we spot-lighted sleeping bream using cypress knees for pillows. Team member, Casey scored big when she discovered what proved a hotspot for Ranid frogs in the nearby swamp; first, a bouncing Southern Leopard, then the roar of a Bullfrog, an unusually talkative and likely territorial Green Frog, and finally, some Pickerel Frogs—a good find of what is a rare species in this region. Instead of jumping in the river, the pickerels bounded off through the Smilax-carpeted floodplain, with five herp-lovers in hot pursuit! The lemon yellow thighs of these croakers advertise their slightly toxic skin secretions.
Meanwhile, Team Shady was racking up species by the dozens.The Fields clan and the Kincaid clan supplied many valuable observations for snake species not found by any other parties (e.g., Ringneck Snake, Redbelly Snake, Eastern Ribbon Snake, and a pretty Eastern Kingsnake). The Oak Toad, a declining species of Longleaf Pine habitats, was also documented by Team Shady. In fact, at the end of the day Team Shady (with 42 species) took home the gold medal for the team to observe the most amphibian and reptile species during our Places You Have Never Herped event, while my squad (Hercules, 36 species) and Bladen Runner (28 species) also recorded impressive species totals. Our PARCA herp bioblitz was a major success, documenting a total of 48 species, including 20 species of amphibians (4 salamanders, 16 frogs/toads) and 28 species of reptiles (3 turtles, 7 lizards and 18 snakes). For more photos of our recent Places You Have Never Herped event in the Bladen Lakes PARCA, visit The Orianne Society’s Facebook page!