Ah, spring in the Pacific Northwest. This is the first spring I have experienced as a resident of this woodsy region. It is a lovely time. The Sun is unveiled by the clouds for longer intervals, and the days are both warmer and longer. The leaf buds on the deciduous trees are unfurling into brilliant greenness and many of the trees are festooned with little pink or white flowers, the petals of which drift free on the breeze and litter the sidewalks. Of course, the rains will not stop, I am told, for a couple of months yet. I have endured the drenching winter (one of the wetter ones on record, apparently) and still don’t mind the rain. In semi-arid Southern California where I grew up a rainstorm was always an exciting and welcomed event. Despite the soaking I got over the last few months, my childlike enthusiasm for rainfall has not leached out of my brain. I hope it never does.
For those of us with a fondness for observing amphibians and reptiles in their natural habitats, spring is when the fun begins. Most of North America’s herps (short for herptile, a weird word used to describe amphibians and reptiles collectively, not to be confused with herpes) increase their activity at the end of winter in preparation for breeding and continue to be active through the summer and early fall. So, if you lika da herps, grab some gear and head for the hills when the weather turns warm and the flowers begin to bloom.
Herps are generally small, secretive, and wary. Unless you know what you are doing, many species can be a bitch to find. You might go out and spend lots of time searching only to come up empty-handed. One method that has proven to be very effective is night-driving. This method involves driving slowly along a road at night, looking for herps that are crossing or lying in the road. Night-driving is simple, lots of fun, and can be very productive if you are doing it under the right conditions.
Here are some key elements of a successful night-driving excursion:
- Choice of road:
- The road should pass through good habitat. If you are looking for reptiles, roads in many desert regions are crawling with snakes and lizards. Amphibians prefer things moist and can be found on roads which pass through forests or wetlands (or deserts if it has been raining). You should consult herp field guides to determine the locations of good habitat for your species of interest.
- The road should not have too much traffic. Because you will be driving slowly (around 20-40 mph) and walking out into the road, you don’t want to be on a road where other cars might make road pizza out of you. Use common sense and be safe!
- Weather conditions:
- For reptiles, warmer weather is best, especially warm, humid nights. Snakes and lizards crossing the road sometimes stop to lay on the warm pavement when the air temperature drops after dark.
- For amphibians, the ideal temperature depends on the species—some like it warm and some like it cool. But the conditions should be wet, wet, wet.
- A car (duh!)
- Flashlights, headlamps, etc.
- A hand-held spotlight that plugs into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter is super useful.
- A camera to take pictures of the cool critters you discover.
- Pillow cases to put snakes in. This is just if you want to spend more time holding and inspecting a snake. I do not advocate taking wild animals home with you or removing them from their natural habitat for any reason (other than legitimate scientific research).
- Plastic containers to put animals in while you observe or take pictures of them. Don’t steal animals from their homes! Put ‘em back where you found them.
- A notebook to record the species you find and your astute observations.
- A GPS unit to record where you found each individual.
- Bright, reflective clothing so you won’t get hit by a car. Please resist the temptation to dress like a ninja.
My first night-driving excursion in Oregon was a great success. It was March 23rd and I was heading into a movie theater with some friends when I heard the distant din of chorusing treefrogs. I got goosebumps. It was the warmest night since the early autumn and it was raining hard. I knew it would be a good night for amphibians. After getting out of the movie at about 10 PM, I rushed home to grab my gear.
I consulted some maps (including Google Local) and chose a lonely country road that lead out of town. With the windows rolled down and my spotlight at the ready, I rolled slowly along, scanning the road ahead, and listening to the multitude of happy treefrogs calling everywhere. It took awhile before I saw the first amphibian (a tiny treefrog), but in the end I found five different species, including one which I had never seen in the wild, the long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum). Sadly, one of the species I found, the red-legged frog (Rana aurora), was represented only by two road-killed individuals. I scooped up the mangled carcasses and put them in Ziploc bags to be used for research in a colleague’s lab. I got home at 2:30 AM. It was an awesome night and I look forward to many such adventures in the months to come. See PICTURES!