Saturday, April 28, 2012

Advanced Ecology Lab Week 12: Annual Field Trip

The morning broke cold, wet, and gray.....

Normally.......not a big deal.....

HOWEVER, because today was the date I had selected back in December 2011 for the first annual Advanced Ecology Lab Herptile Field Trip......"cold", "wet", and/or "gray" were things I had fretted about for this trip since January. 

It's been beautiful for much of the spring here.  We also had beautiful weather yesterday....and are supposed to have beautiful weather for the days to come.  So why the weather picked TODAY to be cold and rainy is beyond me!

But, the vans were reserved, the date was picked months ago, and there was no turning back at this point. 

So we had to make the best of it.

And we did!

Anyone who read this blog last summer knows that I'm cold-blooded at heart, and I love herptiles....particularly snakes.  So, I had planned this trip to coincide with what is (usually) a good time of the year to see snakes at some sites I spent alot of time on during my dissertation.  So I came up with a trip centered around the opposite side of the state from where we are located.  Over there, the landscape (topography and major habitats) have had a different geologic past than the rest of the state.  Lots of topographic releif.....much more xeric conditions....lots of sand.  The entire area is either in a current (or ancient, in some cases) river floodplain.  In our state's geologic past, an ancient glacial lake drained through the area as a large river that meandered back and forth across the plain, depositing this sand throughout the region as it went.  As a result there are exposed rock cliffs (eroded down by the river many, many years ago), and lots of sandy prairie in the old river bed. 

This unique pre-history means there are a much different host of plant species found there compared to where the university I work at is located.  Furthermore, the reptile species found there are different than where we live several hours away.

We were also fortunate enough to have a good friend of mine come along with us on the trip.  He worked many years for our state regulatory agency, in the endangered resources division as the cold-blooded specialist.  So under his purview were amphibians, reptiles, non-game fish, and invertebrates that were protected in the state.  He gave the students some nice background information on the history of the sites, the difficulties associated with managment of the habitat (and species therein), as well as discuss the difficult situations that arise when mitigating problems that occur when humans and wildlife don't have the same agendas!  A good thing for any up and coming wildlife biologists to note....and as my friend said today repeatedly....wildlife management, regulation and protection often involves a significant amount of human management.  It involves learning to deal with personalities, learning to resolve conflict, and working to educate folks who don't care about, or don't like wildlife (and often blame state regulatory agencies for their troubles).

The first site we visited was a large river floodplain forest.  Great for amphibians under warmer conditions.  But also a good place to learn some history about the habitat managment that has occurred on-site, and for the students to hear about the nitty-gritty of what types of considerations are neccessary when managing habitat and/or species.

Of course, despite the cold, it wouldn't be right if we didn't spend some time in the woods rolling logs for amphibians.

 Some of us were more ambitious than others, when it came to selecting good logs to roll.....

...but the result was some cool critters captured.....including the wood frog (Rana=Lithobates sylvatica).  Easily recognized by it's tan/bronze/brown color and dark mask....  The wood frog is one of the earlier species to call in the state, and also has possibly the shortest breeding season.

It came to my attention that some folks in the group were uncomfortable with holding these harmless little critters.  Being the overly-sensitive soul that I am, I then demanded they open their palms and hold the frog. 

This took alittle coaxing.......
 ....but in the end, everything turned out fine....

In fact, the other critter we came across (the blue-spotted salamander, Ambystoma laterale) was handled with slightly less trepidation....

Our guest for the day also brought some examples of other amphibians for the students to get alook at.  These included, a nice larval tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum)....

....some central Newts (Notopthalmus viridescens) in their adult aquatic phase....

....and a nice adult spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)....

Then it was off to the sand prairie!

This was a site I was really hoping would produce snakes, but was doubtful given the cold.  There are several snakes that are protected by the state on-site...and one turtle (the ornate box turtle, Terrapene ornata) that is listed as endangered.

Unfortunately, this site has been hit hard in decades past by "herp enthusiasts" and collectors....who in the 70s and 80s cleaned house on the populations of these rare reptiles, setting their populations back severely.  Surprisingly, collecting on-site can still be a problem (why folks want to keep these critters as pets rather than just enjoy them in the outdoors, is beyond me...but whatever).  So we tried to really make this point hit-home with the students.  The site is special, and so are the species that live there!

With the very bizarre weather we've had this spring (hot early on, and now relatively cool) I didn't know how the spring flowers on the prairie would react.  Luckily, many of my favorites were still in bloom when we arrived.

Including, the Birdfoot Violet (Viola predata).....

...and the Priarie Smoke (Geum triflorum) named because when these red buds open the seed heads are fluffy and wispy, almost like a puff of smoke.

We also saw some interesting warm-blooded wildlife sign.

First was a deer carcass....

There was clearly evidence that something had been at the carcass feeding and had dragged it to this location.  We also found the likely culprit's residence nearby. 

I asked the student to stick his head inside the entrance to this coyote (Canis latrans) den for scale.  I was pleased to see he was smart enough to mostly decline. :)
...a secondary entrance just down the ways on the same earth/sand berm....
Can't say for certain that the 'yotes had actually killed this deer.  There was good evidence that it was a carcass that had been dumped nearby by a hunter...and the 'yotes had just drug it closer to the den for easy pickings.

Below is a mound created by the sub-terranean activities of the pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius).

There were also grassland bird species on nests already.  Once they flush, it's relatively easy to find the nest.  A Mourning Dove nest below....

More exciting was a Meadowlark nest (see below).  It's hard to know if this is the western or eastern Meadowlark, as both are on-site.  The eastern has always been one of my favs....they used to call along the fields near my grandmother's house as a kid.  I do get a chuckle out of the Western Meadowlark's scientific name: Sturnella neglecta.  Perhaps it was viewed as the neglected Meadowlark compared to the Eastern (Sturnella magna)? 

But....luckily..the reptiles did not completely evade us!  One of the students came up with this real gem....the state's rarest turtle: the Ornate Box Turtle.

This little one was a juvenile.  He looked and felt cold (I don't think it broke 50 deg. F today!). 

It was also special in that it was a "head-started" individual.  The head-starting program is a management strategy implemented in an effort to augment the populations of this incredibly rare turtle throughout the state.  It involves collecing eggs from the wild, incubating them in captivity (to save them from the voracious mesopredators, such as Raccoons and Skunk that have a hey-day eating turtle eggs during the nesting season).  The turtles are hatched in captivity and then released the following spring, when they are substantially larger and their shells have hardened (making them less vulnerable to predation).

This program has been running for over a decade in the state, and it's encouraging to randomly find head-started juveniles from years past.....which suggests the program may be paying off!

We finished off with a visit to a site that is normally great for Northern Watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon), but of course none were active today.  Yet, it's another interesting habitat....and open water marsh backwater of a large river in the state (compared to the river floodplain forest we visited during the morning).  It also has a very interesting management history (which, when first began, mostly focused on waterfowl).

....but ultimately made for a nice group photo-op....

We had a fun day.

Next year, maybe we'll have better luck with the snakes!

1 comment:

  1. Looks like a fun trip, and similar to the ones we take with our classes! All spring we've been above average temps and sunshine, and this weekend I went camping (for a class, been planned since last semester) and it was in the 20's and snowing! Oh well... :) That tiger salamander is cool, not sure we have them here.