Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spotties in SE Michigan

The plight of the Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) across its range has been well documented, particularly in the midwest where it reaches it's western range limit. Here, it still occurs in small pockets of habitat in a fragmented and developed landscape. This is particularly true of Michigan, especially in the southeast part of the lower peninsula where the population center occurs. There are historic records for virtually every county in this region of the state, but because of urban sprawl most of these isolated populations have since become extirpated. Some property owners that I know in southeast Michigan had mentioned some peculiar looking turtles in the past and on a warm spring day, Jason Folt and I were given the opportunity to go check out the area. We were led to a large ephemeral wetland which was connected to a larger ditch. We split up and carefully checked the edges of the wetland for basking turtles.

Although spotties usually inhabit high quality fens and other wetlands in Michigan, they can also be found in temporary wetlands such as ditches and vernal pools. Usually these temporary sites which they utilize in the spring are close to a larger patch of habitat with a more permanent water source, but this was not the case with this particular area. This area is highly fragmented with lots of houses and agricultural fields, the only good source of water was the deeper ditch that this wetland connected to. It's likely that the turtles at this location stay active until the main ditch becomes dry and then simply estivate for the hottest parts of the year. As we were walking the edge of the wetland, I noticed the glare of a dark carapace basking near the edge of the wetland.

I gave Jason a shout and he made his way over to observe the turtle. It was an adult male, and probably a fairly old fella based on this completely smooth carapace. We took a quick look at him and then set up shop for a brief photo session. As you can see from the photo below, the majority of this area is a forest wetland with scattered logs and cattails.

Spotted Turtle - Clemmys guttata

A good looking turtle no doubt, but a more exciting find due to the area we were in. This was the third turtle that the property owners have seen this spring, all have been males. Earlier in the week, they had found a much younger looking animal in comparison to the one we found, which gives the hope that there could be some reproduction going on at this site.

A female or juvenile turtle would be an even more exciting find, but the fact that a state Threatened species exists in this fragmented area of southeast Michigan at all is exciting as well. It's also comforting that this small relict population exists a on property where the landowners are not only conscious about this species being here, but also passionate about preserving it. As always, I'd like to thank the property owners for their hospitality and allowing us to come out to see these animals, it was a real treat.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Spring Gummy Lizards

For the second year in a row, spring has been peculiar here in Michigan. In 2012, warm temperatures in the 80s arrived in mid March and were followed by a long, cold April which not only threw the herps for a loop, but also devastated crop yield for farmers. If that wasn't enough, the summer brought record high temperatures and one of the worst droughts the midwest has seen in more than fifty years. This year, it has been the exact opposite. Midway through the month of April, temperatures continue to be considerably lower than average and snow fell late this past week. The long term forecast shows cool, cloudy weather for the foreseeable future as well. It may be late April or early May until most of our snakes begin to wake up. But the cool, rainy weather we've had over the past few weeks has finally brought out the amphibians. We haven't had any huge migration nights, but sporadic movements of smaller numbers. On the last day of March, we had some light rain throughout the late afternoon which tapered off just before evening. I met up with a few friends to check a few locations in hopes of seeing tigers out and about. Although we didn't see any moving on roads, we did find a handful in a few breeding pools including this gorgeous gravid female.

Eastern Tiger Salamander - Ambystoma tigrinum tigrinum

This was a large individual, approaching ten inches in length and fat with eggs. She was sharing a decent sized pool with one or two other tigers and a handful of blue-spots. Cold weather returned over the next week or so, but last Monday a massive system began to move through the midwest and dropped heavy rain during the day. The rain tailed off during the day and turned to a light drizzle in the central part of the state after dark. After watching Michigan come up a little short in the NCAA national title game, I decided to go clear my head for a half hour or so. Temperatures were steady around 40 degrees with a light drizzle and I was suprised to find this male spotted salamander crossing a road.

Spotted Salamander - Ambystoma maculatum

It was nice to a salamander active this far north despite the reports of slow activity downstate. I ended up calling it quits shortly after because class in the morning. Tuesday brought more heavy rain to the northern reaches of the state, and it again tailed off right around sunset. My friend Joe, a geology major at Central, had been asking if he could get out with me one night so we met up and cruised for a little bit. We saw big numbers of Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) on the roads and managed to cruise up two salamanders, including this large gravid female.

Spotted Salamander - Ambystoma maculatum

A nice looking salamander for this part of the state, but still not as nice as some I've seen downstate. I had been keeping an eye on a large storm that had moved across the plains and was forecasted to bring heavy rains to Michigan. Thunderstorms pounded the southern reaches of the state for the majority of the day, so I ended up driving to meet Jason Folt right around dusk. I decided to check out a vernal pool while I was waiting for him to arrive and managed to dipnet this adult male newt.

Eastern Newt - Notophthalmus viridescens

The jaw of this newt seemed a little odd in appearance, perhaps an old injury that just happened to heal in an odd position to give it a bulldog mug. Jason arrived a short time later and we spent a few minutes shining the edges of the pool for salamanders. We saw a handful of salamanders, including this stunner which I decided to grab for a few quick photos.

Spotted Salamander - Ambystoma maculatum

Many individuals from southern Michigan exhibit the orange head spots seen on this specimen, this was a really classic looking maculatum in my opinion. The spots were large and nicely arranged in two rows, sometimes you see this species with scattered small spots and they're not as nice looking. After shooting a few shots of this guy, we left to meet up with John Clare, a salamander enthusiast from Ohio to look for tiger salamanders. John is a fantastic photographer, check out his photostream. We drove west to some state land to check some pools there. Our first stop was at a large vernal pool that one of John's friends had told us about. We walked a short distance from the road and arrived at the pool, we ended up finding a few salamanders migrating towards the pond in the leaf litter during the light drizzle.

Spotted Salamander - Ambystoma maculatum

 Unisexual Ambystoma - Ambystoma sp.

The spotted salamander was a unique find for Jason and I, as we spend a lot of time in this particular state recreation area and despite fantastic woodland habitat, had not seen a maculatum here until this night. We snapped a few photos and then moved on to a large wetland that Jason had been told about. Unfortunately, we only found two dead tiger salamanders. One had appeared to have been stepped on, while the other had minimal physical damage but had definitely been dead for a day or two. We decided to move on and check a small pool which we've seen tigers in the past and quickly turned up a few tigers and a handful of egg masses.

Eastern Tiger Salamander - Ambystoma tigrinum tigrinum

Despite being incredibly uncooperative, I managed to get this young male to sit still just long enough to fire this shot. It was late and we decided to part ways with John and his guys. As we were leaving, the rain began to pick up. Jason and I checked the radar and were elated to see a large thunderstorm system moving into the area. We decided to suck up the late hours and drive some new roads in hopes of seeing stuff on the move. The storm hit with force. Heavy rain and wild lightning dominated the rest of the night, and despite the temperature only being in the high 30s, we managed to find gummy lizards on the roads.

Eastern Tiger Salamander - Ambystoma tigrinum tigrinum

It was a late night that produced good numbers of these guys out and could be the last big hurrah of the salamander season in Michigan. We do have more rain in the forecast, but I'm holding out for a warm sunny day to get out for snakes. We shall see, this April has felt more like early March than anything else and the long term forecast doesn't look good. Stay tuned, hopefully winter will finally let go of the wolverine state for good.