Reptiles and Amphibians

By Derek Stoner, Seasonal Program Team Leader

A Red-eyed Tree Frog dazzles with colors when illuminated by a flashlight, as it hunts at night for insect prey in the Costa Rican rainforest. Photo by trip participant Joe Flowers.

A Red-eyed Tree Frog dazzles with colors when illuminated by a flashlight, as it hunts at night for insect prey in the Costa Rican rainforest. Photo by trip participant Joe Flowers.

Continuing our “flashback tour” from our Costa Rica 2015 adventure:

As our group settled in at the comfortable Evergreen Lodge on the banks of the picturesque Tortuguero River, we could hardly imagine the bounty of wildlife could be any greater than what we found right around our accommodations.    Dazzling hummingbirds fed from fire-red Heleconia flowers all around us while White-faced Capuchin monkeys scrambled about in the treetops in search of ripe fruit.   Rainbow-hued land crabs scuttled underfoot to hide in their burrows as they avoided the feet of distracted nature enthusiasts.

A White-faced Capuchin monkey prepares to leap from the tree towards the onlookers. Photo by Derek Stoner.

A White-faced Capuchin monkey prepares to leap from the tree towards the onlookers. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Our evening adventure took us into the dark and narrow canals cut into the nearby rainforest, allowing special access to a world of trees, vines, flowers, and teeming wildlife.  The captain of the boat deftly brought our vessel with close range of the animals while our guide provided a running commentary on the interesting life history of these unique species.

A male Northern Jacana displays for the female while dancing across a bed of Water Hyacinths. Photo by Derek Stoner.

A male Northern Jacana displays for the female while dancing across a bed of Water Hyacinths. Photo by Derek Stoner.

We encountered a very confiding pair of Northern Jacanas, rail-like birds with impossibly long toes that help them walk delicately atop the floating aquatic vegetation.  At point-blank range we witnessed the male showing off his bright-yellow wing spurs while pumping his chestnut-colored wings and chest.  The display continued as we motored on to view the next wildlife spectacle around the bend.

The reclusive Black River Turtle, found only in a small region of Costa Rica, basks on a river-side log. Photo by Derek Stoner.

The reclusive Black River Turtle, found only in a small region of Costa Rica, basks on a river-side log. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Our exploration led us to close encounters with the endemic Black River Turtle, a bright red-and-black Red-capped Manakin, Howler Monkeys hooting overhead, and Great Currasows (a turkey-like bird) scrambling through palm fronds.   As the boat gently nudged a log, a Caiman (small crocodilian) splashed into the water from its camouflaged hiding place.  Our group spied a Boat-billed Heron resting amidst an umbrella of vegetation, staring back at use with its large eyes used for nocturnal hunting.  The rattling calls of Green Kingfishers and Amazon Kingfishers seemed to greet us around almost every turn.

Exploring the river by boat is a fantastic way to encounter wildlife and access unique habitats. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Exploring the river by boat is a fantastic way to encounter wildlife and access unique habitats. Photo by Derek Stoner.


As our blog journey back to last Fall’s Costa Rica trip continues in future posts, we invite you to look ahead on your calendar and consider joining Delaware Nature Society this November for a bigger and better Costa Rica exploration: a twelve-day Tropical Wildlife Adventure.  From the Caribbean to the Pacific, from the lowlands to the cloud forest, we will visit unique habitats and stay at spectacular lodges during this grand tour of the best  natural areas in this tropical paradise.  Guided by Costa Rican native Jose Saenz.

Costa Rica: A Tropical Wildlife Adventure, will run from November 10 to November 21.   Delaware Nature Society staff Judy Montgomery and Derek Stoner will be the hosts and provide you with a first-class eco-tourism experience as we travel together to the tropics.  Member pricing is $3,920 (airfare not included) and includes all lodging, meals, ground transportation, and special experiences like snorkeling.  Call 302-239-2334, extension 127 or email judym@delnature.org for trip details.

Registration deadline is July 31.

 

By Jim White, Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity:

Ringing cell phones can be an interrupting bother, and sometimes I yearn for the days when phones resided in buildings or on street corners, not in your pocket. However, last Tuesday, while at the Dupont Environmental Education Center (DEEC) in Wilmington for a meeting, I was very thankful for the new phone technology. While also at DEEC that morning, past DNS board member Greg Inskip observed a snake that he was not familiar with, and immediately took several photographs of the snake on his cell phone. Greg then showed the photos to Joe Sebastiani who immediately called me (cell phone to cell phone), reporting that he thought he was looking at a photo of a Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata), a snake rarely observed on Delmarva.  Within minutes I was able to see the snake photographs myself, and concur with Joe’s identification.  It was indeed a Queen Snake – the first to be found at or near the Russ Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge where DEEC is located, making it a very exciting find.

This is the Queen Snake found by Greg Inskip at the Dupont Environmental Education Center on October 22, 2013.  Photo by Greg Inskip

This is the Queen Snake found by Greg Inskip at the Dupont Environmental Education Center on October 22, 2013. Photo by Greg Inskip

The Queen Snake typically is found in relatively high quality freshwater marshes or streams. It also seems to live only in areas that have healthy populations of crayfish, on which it feeds.  The marshes at the Peterson Refuge have undergone extensive restoration over the last 15 years by the Delaware Department of Fish and Wildlife. This restoration has greatly increased the overall health of the refuge’s marsh ecosystem, which probably explains why we are finally seeing the Queen Snake inhabiting the refuge.

This relatively small to medium-sized snake rarely grows longer than 42 inches. It is the most aquatic snake in our area and spends much of its time searching underwater for crayfish that have recently shed their exoskeleton and become “soft-shelled”.  Its “eel-like” slender brown body, with yellowish lateral stripes running from the nose to tail, is perfect for slipping into crayfish burrows and under debris. This snake rarely bites when handled, but like many snakes, it will emit a strong musky-smelling fluid. 

So while cell phones may be a pain at times, I encourage you to use them to photograph any amphibian or reptile that you find and to call me or send me a text message to report your find (302-593-9622).  

Jim White, author of Reptiles and Amphibians of Delmarva, took this photo of a Queen Snake on May 21, 2013 near Middletown, DE.

Jim White, author of Reptiles and Amphibians of Delmarva, took this photo of a Queen Snake, sunning in a shrub, on May 21, 2013 near Middletown, DE.

By Ian Stewart, Naturalist Certification Series Student

About a dozen of the Delaware Nature Society’s Advanced Naturalist Club and Naturalist Certification Series recently spent an unusual but enjoyable Thursday night standing up to our waists in a swamp in rural Delaware! We were on the Herpetology field trip of the Naturalists’ Certification Series, a popular program run by the Nature Society in which various experts give an indoor lecture on the biology and identification of such diverse organisms as birds, mammals, insects, trees and wildflowers. The lecture is followed by a field trip a few days later to allow us to put into practice what we learned.

Jim White, our Herpetology instructor whetted our appetites with a fascinating lecture about the surprisingly large number of species of amphibians and reptiles likely to be encountered around the Delmarva peninsula, and then one evening in July we found ourselves standing on the edge of a swamp deep in Blackbird State Forest. Luckily we had been blessed with perfect weather. The air was warm and the water was pleasantly cool as one by one we bravely stepped into the swamp and started off our search by dragging a large vertical net slowly through the water. This caught a variety of aquatic arthropods and also a few Green Frog tadpoles which proved quite a challenge to hold!

 

Our group wades into the vernal pool at Blackbird State Forest at night.

Our group wades into the vernal pool at Blackbird State Forest at night.

We then split into smaller groups and plunged into deeper water, sweeping our flashlights and headlights back and forth through the vegetation to spot amphibians hidden among the leaves and reeds. Our first catch of the night was a Cricket Frog, a small, neatly patterned frog which gets its name because its constant, high pitched trilling call sounds like a household cricket.

Cricket Frog

Northern Cricket Frog. Image by Ian Stewart.

 

By now we had started to get the hang of wading through deep water while holding a net in one hand and a flashlight in the other and soon one of our group skillfully netted a Barking Treefrog. This is a striking, lime-green frog whose dog-like croaks could be heard all around us, although finding the source of the croaks proved much more challenging!  This species is a Delaware endangered species, so it was a rare sound indeed.

Barking Treefrog and Northern Cricket Frog.  Image by Ian Stewart.

Barking Treefrog and Northern Cricket Frog. Image by Ian Stewart.

A shout of excitement then went up as someone spotted a large Bullfrog submerged among a raft of grass. Incredibly, Jim was able to creep slowly up to the frog and then in one swift movement grab it with his bare hands! He then showed us the correct way to hold frogs so that they can’t escape but also don’t get hurt. The Bullfrog was a beautiful specimen and everyone got great looks at its huge eyes and webbed feet.

A Bullfrog showing the correct way to hold one.  Image by Ian Stewart.

A Bullfrog showing the correct way to hold one. Image by Ian Stewart.

Just as we were about to leave, Becky Meister and I came across a small snake patterned with light and dark brown bands. We were unable to capture it as it slithered around in some dense vegetation but we were able to get a sufficiently decent photograph of its body that Jim was able to identify it as a Common Water Snake. We then photographed a small, dark green frog covered in large black spots which Jim later identified as a Southern Leopard Frog, a new one for the evening. This frog gets its name from the large black dots on its back and must have been a young one as it still had a tail stub left over from its days as a tadpole.

A close-up look at a Barking Treefrog.  Image by Jim White.

A close-up look at a Barking Treefrog. Image by Jim White.

After posing for a group photograph we paused to savor the experience of standing in a swamp in the middle of nowhere, lit only by the silvery full moon while countless numbers of frogs called incessantly around us. It was the perfect ending to a memorable evening!

Group

Here we are after our night of herping! Image by Jim White.

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

Eastern Phoebes are back and calling loudly from locations along the Red Clay Creek at Ashland.  Photo by Derek Stoner.

Eastern Phoebes are back and calling loudly from locations along the Red Clay Creek at Ashland. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Spring has absolutely burst forth in the past couple weeks, and there are lots of exciting sightings to report upon.  The first Skunk Cabbage in bloom was noted on March 18, while and an Eastern Phoebe arrived on March 20.

The First of Season Garter Snake showed upon March 27, while the first Anglewing butterfly of the season was noted fluttering by on April 4.

Violets burst forth in bloom at Ashland on April 11.  Photo by Derek Stoner.

Violets burst forth in bloom at Ashland on April 11. Photo by Derek Stoner.

With temperatures reaching almost 80 degrees last week, plants burst forth in bloom:  Bloodroot flowers were noted on April 9, Spring Beauty blossoms on April 10, and Violet flowers on April 11.

The warmth also brought along the first sighting of Barn Swallow on April 6, and the American Toads emerged on April 7.  The first Snapping turtle of Spring was noted in the Ashland Marsh on April 10, while the first Water Snake made an appearance on April 11.

At this point in the season (April 15), there are only three remaining official Signs of Spring yet to be observed (or reported) at Ashland Nature Center:  House Wren, Robin building nest, and Trout Lily blooming.

Pleas let us know what Signs of Spring you are seeing in your backyard!