BioBlitz turns up life

Redback salamander. (photo by Violet Snow)

Redback salamander. (photo by Violet Snow)

Jason Tesauro sloshes out to the edge of the swamp holding a stick, from which hangs a jelly-like mass containing many black spots, each within its own clear membrane. “Spotted salamander eggs,” he says, “freshly laid.” Woodstock resident Liz Simonson checks her GPS and notes the find on a chart. The other eight of us admire the wobbly egg mass, then go back to turning over rocks and logs in search of salamanders.

We’re at the 60-acre Thorn Preserve, former farmland recently acquired by the Catskill Center for Conversation and Development, headquartered in Arkville. Since the preserve is in Woodstock, near Zena Road, the Woodstock Land Conservancy (WLC) is managing the property, organizing such activities as the April 24-26 BioBlitz, a weekend that combined public education with identification of species living in Thorn’s meadow, forest, and swamp. The data will be incorporated into a stewardship plan for the preserve.

WLC is a non-profit land trust that owns and manages undeveloped land and works with landowners to permanently protect their property through conservation easements. WLC also acquires land through donation or sale. The small staff and all-volunteer board of directors provide nature education and outdoor activities to the community.

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BioBlitz surveys began in the 1990s and have become a major tool for engaging the public in preservation efforts worldwide. The conservancy invited local scientists to lead walks at the BioBlitz, scheduling sessions on birds, mammals, soil, insects, butterflies, fungi, trees, plants, mosses. I joined the reptiles and amphibians walk, led by Tesauro, an expert in the field of herpetology and a consultant for Hudsonia, the Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation, and other ecological organizations.

Although the weather on BioBlitz weekend was in the low forties, not hospitable to snakes and frogs, our group did come up with eight amphibian species. The overall total of flora and fauna species found was over 200. “If we do it again, we’ll schedule it for later in the year,” said WLC’s Outreach and Education Coordinator, Virginia Luppino. “We were hoping to get schools to come, and we didn’t want to interfere with preparation for finals in May.” Despite the chill, over 80 people ventured out, including several families, 18 students from the biology club at Saugerties High School, and a Kingston High School student who spent all of Saturday at the preserve.

 

Four-toed salamander…

Tesauro began our walk at a pond near the main entrance to the Thorn Preserve, on John Joy Road, just around the corner from the Zena Elementary School. One sharp-eyed participant pointed out an egg mass in the pond, and Tesauro plunged into the frigid, knee-deep water in his sneakers, explaining that the day before, water had overtopped his boots, forcing him to walk around in heavy, wet boots. He brought the mound of jelly to the grass by the pond. “It’s attached to vegetation, like wood frog eggs,” he said, “but it’s too small for wood frog. I’ll have to look this one up.”

A pair of Canada geese waddled on the opposite bank, and I asked if geese ate salamaders. “Not generally,” Tesauro replied, “they’re herbivorous. But wild turkeys will eat salamanders, and so will turtles.”

The field had been mowed late in the previous fall, on the advice of bird and butterfly expert Steve Chorvas, who surveyed the meadow and found a butterfly called the Baltimore checkerspot. “Steve inspired us to look at the fields as butterfly habitat and not mow until after the frost,” said Luppino. “That gives caterpillars time to go into the ground.”

We marched across the greening stubble to a rusted farm vehicle that was once used to insert plugs of young plants into the soil. Alongside it lay boards and big strips of metal that Tesauro said would be ideal hiding places for reptiles and amphibians, since they heat up in the sun. “When biologists do surveys,” he told us, “sometimes they lay out strips of metal and then count the species they find underneath. But today it’s pretty cool and cloudy.” We did not find any creatures lurking, so we headed off to the swamp at the end of field.

Tesauro had set twelve plastic traps in the water the day before. He waded out to check all of them but found no salamanders within. However, he did come up with three spotted salamander egg masses. One was cloudy, the result of a milky protein that is sometimes produced, and another was due to hatch in about two weeks, said Tesauro, judging by the size of the embryos.

A woman who seemed to know her way around the swamp turned over a slab of bark and came up with a redback salamander, about three inches long, with a dark body and a brick-red stripe down its back. Tesauro rummaged through the tussocks of grass sticking out of the water and found a leadback (the solid grey-black version of the redback) and a four-toed salamander, with a speckled, pearlescent belly. In the woods uphill from the swamp, he uncovered three other salamander species: a spotted, a northern slimy, (both of them black with white spots) and a red eft. I have found efts many times — those orange newts that often appear along paths in the woods — but this juvenile was the tiniest one I’d ever seen, no longer than a thumbnail.

I had picked Tesauro’s walk specifically because I knew so little about amphibians. I will definitely be turning over rocks and logs next time I go near a swamp.

 

For more information on the Woodstock Land Conservancy and its activities in the Woodstock area, including nature walks, follow-up BioBlitz surveys, and the May 9 Vernal Fling fundraiser, see https://ulsterpub.staging.wpenginelandconservancy.org.

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