Herp Hike


On the damp, dark and cloudy night of August 18, three carloads of Headwaters Master Naturalists and friends, including guests of the Camerons from Alaska, headed up Shenandoah Mountain to Reddish Knob with James Madison University’s Billy Flint to learn about terrestrial salamanders. We were especially looking for both Cow Knob and Shenandoah Mountain salamanders, two endangered species with a penchant for higher elevations and which are found nowhere else on earth. The rains of earlier that day made for perfect conditions to bring out these cute little carnivores.

CKS.MCWe hit the jackpot and saw both rare species, especially over a dozen Cow Knob salamanders of various ages which had ventured out from beneath rocks and logs on a perfect night for them to feed. Billy Flint explained how they preferred rocky, north-facing slopes and moist conditions to keep them from drying out. Malcolm took the photo of the young Cow Knob salamander at right. It is one of the few of many taken by several of us that is in focus!

Wet weather will bring out up to 10% of the area’s population according to Billy. They take turns emerging from the ground to check out feeding opportunities. Like other terrestrial salamanders, the Cow Knob salamanders lay their eggs in the ground, nurture them there until they hatch and do not have an aquatic stage to their life cycle as do many other salamanders.

Preferring slightly drier conditions, we were fortunate to get to see a single Shenandoah Mountain salamander resting on a trail-side fern as spotted by Rachael Baczynski’s son Nick. These terrestrial salamanders also require selective habitats which are threatened by ongoing development and climate change.

redbackedThe more common and also terrestrial Eastern Red-backed salamanders were in abundance this evening. The photo at left is of one found hanging out trail-side on some cohosh leaves. (Thanks to Shelley Henry for the plant ID!)

Billy suggested we drive slowly on the long road up and down the mountain to watch for snakes and frogs in the road. Sure enough on the way down, we found two copperhead snakes which had unfortunately been run over. One was a fair-sized adult and the other a juvenile with a fading sulfur-colored tail.

Many thanks to Billy for his fearless leadership and expertise; Malcolm for organizing the trip; Ann Murray for generously plying us with homemade cookies; Sandy Greene, Chip Brown and Rachael’s husband Mike for daring to drive the dark, narrow winding road up Reddish; and to all the other participants for making it a rewarding and fun night out!

– Malcolm Cameron, Cohort III with Adrie Voors, Cohort II, August 2017