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Noah and the Salamanders

March 12, 2012

For birders this is an impatient time of year.  The main push of spring migration is still, at least, a month away, and more like six weeks, yet every year it feels like it should happen any day now.  We greet Blue-gray Gnatcatchers like prodigal sons, Eastern Phoebes like conquering heroes.  The first Palm Warblers of the season?  Nothing less than the second coming.

Perhaps we can be forgiven for being so anxious.  It has been an odd winter, this far south at least.  The bounty of winter, waterfowl and gulls and finches, have been slow and absent this year in the south.  There have been times it’s felt like an extended fall, though without the ornithological interests to sustain us.  And spring is, I’ve been told, the most exciting month for birders, what with the color and the songs and the fact that’s it’s all over in about a week and a half.  So by the time March rolls around, it feels like all there is for a birder to do is wait.

But for herpers, those into snakes and lizards and frogs and whatnot, this is just about the best time of the year.  As the spring warmth permeates the earth, things sleeping beneath start to wake up.  Frogs have been calling for over a month now – Chorus Frogs and Spring Peepers mostly – and the snakes and turtles have been out and about.  I had my first Box Turtle of the year this week, and several folks have been reporting impressive numbers of Marbled Salamanders out at Mason Farm, so I decided to go have a look and take the baby birder with me.

I don’t know if others with young children have noticed this, but it’s impressively difficult to get a toddler on birds.  Noah is interested and all, and knows pictures, but just isn’t any good at seeing distant flying individuals or little ones in the bushes.  Looking at this birding thing from a child’s perspective, it’s clear that birding itself is pretty difficult..  Most of us who have been doing it for something have an innate sense about where and how to look to birds specifically.  It’s simply a matter of training ourselves to look for visual clues a certain way and that sort of training takes time.  Time that Noah, for all his natural toddlery abilities to see and respond to things, just hasn’t been able to put in. Without that training, birding can be incredibly frustrating.

When I think back on my own young self, I didn’t start with an interest in birds.  I was interested mainly in snakes and turtles.  I caught tree frogs in the garden and marked my local box turtle population with nail polish so I could recognize them when I found them again.  I flipped old aluminum siding for snakes and caught baby river turtles from a canoe.  Herps were a huge part of my initial interest in nature because they’re not difficult to find if you’re dogged, and they’re pretty easy to catch if you’re brave.  At the point when I discovered birds, I more or less dropped herps as a major interest.  Upon moving to Carolina I didn’t give them much through, and it wasn’t until relatively recently that I realized that the species that I grew up with in Missouri were replaced by a whole new suite of animals to discover out here.  In fact, the herping is pretty amazing in the south, and these days I at least try to flip over a few logs when I’m out to see if anything cool is around.

And Ambystoma salamanders are undeniably cool.  These are the big ones, mostly terrestrial and thick-bodied, and amazingly, all around you.  That’s the cool thing about salamanders, they’re really obscure unless you know how to find them, which honestly, is as simple as walking into the woods a flipping over some old logs.  Noah and I were about 5 minutes into it when we found our first one, a Marbled Salamander, the default species around here.

The patch of woodland where the salamanders frequent is pocked with little vernal pools, no doubt this is intentional on the salamander’s part.  I spent the better part of the next hour trying to find a another one with no luck.  I picked up really big old fallen limbs around the pools and was about to call it quits having just seen the one with I absent-mindedly kicked over a piece of bark just more than a salamander width to find a big one, nearly five inches long, sprawled out underneath.  Noah was a big fan, though he was hesitant to hold it himself.  That’s probably for the best for now, toddlers are notoriously lacking in fine motor skills.

I can’t get over how wild these guys are.  Jet black and mottled gray, and plump!  Not as big as Tiger Salamanders, the undisputed heavyweights of the genus, but bigger than the little Slimy Salamanders I was used to finding when I was a kid.  They’re such strange creatures.

We ended up finding three in total, not a huge number but pretty good considering I had a two year old in tow.  And who knows, maybe this will catch spark like it did for me.  Cool things are everywhere after all.

  1. March 12, 2012 8:11 am

    Here in northern Wisconsin it’s still too early for herps, despite the springlike weather we’re having – I keep expecting to find an early wood frog or red-bellied snake, but no luck yet.

    As an environmental educator, I really love this post – how great to see a child’s interest in wildlife being “sparked” like this! You’re right that it can be tough to really get young children focused on birds. Even with the upper elementary aged kids I’ve worked with at most of my jobs, it’s hard. The only place it really worked was in Georgia, where we would take them to a pond guaranteed to have storks and spoonbills, the kind of big, striking birds that even the most apathetic kid can’t help being impressed by!

  2. March 12, 2012 11:03 am

    Great name for a band! Right up there with St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

  3. March 12, 2012 11:43 am

    Here in New York north of the Big Apple the tree frogs this morning were constantly tuning up in the few vernal pools; my birding buddy Mac aged 8 was, like Noah, keen on birds at 2 but it took awhile before he was a good spotter. He is now learning to ID from calls. But next time we will flip logs as you suggest—it sounds grand and I am sure there are lurking salamandars beneath. Herps are always cool.

  4. mthew permalink
    March 12, 2012 7:05 pm

    Nice! Things are waking up all over, including curiosity.

  5. March 13, 2012 2:25 pm

    Noah is a fine looking boy. I’m sure he will inherit your enthusiasm for al things wild. When I was a kid, each spring I would hunt for frog eggs and then check back daily for tadpoles.

  6. Chrissy McClarren permalink
    March 27, 2012 11:12 am

    You gotta read this. So related to your lovely piece.

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