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 Post subject: Trip Report: Virginia Appalachians
PostPosted: May 24th, 2017, 5:03 pm 
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Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Posts: 522
Location: Springfield, VA
This trip report is two weeks overdue now, but after an excellent week of herping out in the mountains of Virginia, I've stayed busy between work and some more excellent herping outings back in the D.C. area.

From May 1st - 7th, my wife and I took a trip out to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, starting in the Luray area and making our way down to the Peaks of Otter, then back up. The weather started out warm, but cooled off on Day 3, got wet on Day 4, then stayed fairly cool throughout. As such, we did not see many reptiles, but as expected, the salamanders were found in abundance. I never realized how much cooler it is at elevation (3K+ ft) in these mountains, but we came prepared. Temps were often a good ten degrees colder at elevation than down in the valley.

We started our trip with a paddle down the Shenandoah River near Luray. That was the warmest day of our trip, with temps in the low 80s. On the river, we saw many Northern Red-bellied Cooters and a few Eastern Painted Turtles. Thankfully we scheduled this paddle early on, as four days later, it became a muddy, swollen torrent following several inches of rain across the region. The river curves gently as it moves north through the valley, with portions of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and west. Many large bluffs tower over the river, while in other spots, farmland creeps up to the river's edge.

Bald Eagle

ImageDSCN3420 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Cooters

ImageDSCN3426 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3428 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3439 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Painteds and Cooters mixed together in the following pics:

ImageDSCN3446 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3452 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3462 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3469 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Scenery

ImageDSCN3431 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Back at the hotel, I got my lifer Gray Treefrog as they were calling from the winterized pool, where rainwater had collected.

ImageDSCN0798 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

The next day, we took on the challenge of summiting Old Rag, one of the most difficult hikes in the state. We spent close to eight hours on the mountain, and were absolutely exhausted after scrambling over rock faces and making the long trek downhill. Along the way, I squeeze in a little bit of herping.

Lots of butterflies (Tiger Swallowtails, Spicebrush Swallowtails, Black Swallowtails, and Red Purples) were congregating along the road up to the trail

ImageDSCN3514 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3518 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3528 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Tree Swallow

ImageDSCN3517 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Five-lined Skink

ImageDSCN3523 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Scenery

ImageDSCN3547 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3549 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3576 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Skink at about 2600 ft of elevation

ImageDSCN3563 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

A seepage high up the mountain revealed my lifer Seal Salamanders

ImageDSCN0821 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0822 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

More Seals and some Northern Duskies were seen in the creeks on the way down, at much lower elevations

Northern Dusky Salamander

ImageDSCN0863 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Seal Salamander

ImageDSCN0868 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0874 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0877 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

After an exhausting 9-mile roundtrip hike, we spent the next day making our way south down Skyline Drive, taking two easier hikes along the way to give our legs a break while keeping our muscles loose.

Our first hike was adjacent to Shenandoah Salamander (Plethodon shenandoah) habit, which we looked for after reaching the summit of the tallest peak in Shenandoah National Park.

Lots of birds greeted us at the trailhead. This was my first Redstart.

ImageDSCN3600 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

ImageDSCN3604 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Montane Forest

ImageDSCN3612 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

View from the summit

ImageDSCN3619 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3622 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3626 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Some Red-backed Salamanders were found on the way up to the summit. I found one of them at about 3900 ft of elevation. Their home range extends right up to the range of Shenandoah Salamanders, where the rocky terrain gives the latter the edge. The Redbacks prefer to stay in the forest.

ImageDSCN0879 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0887 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0889 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0890 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Talus slope that is synonymous with Shenandoah Salamander habitat. These rare, endemic salamanders are only found on three mountains, all within the park.

ImageDSCN3638 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

It did not take long to turn one up. I wasn't sure that my lifer Shenandoah Salamander was actually one at first, but I later confirmed it.

ImageDSCN0899 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

I found another one about 15 minutes later, under a rock on the path.

ImageDSCN0900 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0902 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0912 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Having found two individuals of one of my big target species for the trip, I decided that I was satisfied. The habitat of the Shenandoah Salamander is small and sensitive, and I thought it best to minimize my intrusion into their territory. All in all, it only took 30 minutes between hiking to the spot and finding these two and then returning to our vehicle. I hope that this species will stick around for a long while - there are concerns that climate change will affect their chances of future survival.

After lunch, we stopped to hike a trail down to a waterfall within the park. It was a steep hike in places, but the trail was paved and it was less than a mile to the falls. Along the way, I did some flipping in the nearby creek, of course!

Dusky Salamanders were common, of course

ImageDSCN0918 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0946 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0952 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

A bright red Dusky - a first for me

ImageDSCN0919 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0926 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Along this creek, I got my second lifer of the day - a Northern Spring Salamander larvae!

ImageDSCN0928 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0930 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr


The falls

ImageDSCN0938 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

For the third day, we spent it in Charlottesville, with minimal herping conducted. Nothing worth sharing here, other than that I found a large group of toad tadpoles thriving in Thomas Jefferson's old fish pond at Monticello. On the fifth day, we left the comfort of our Bed and Breakfast in Charlottesville behind and headed for the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we would camp for the next two nights. Unfortunately, during our stay in Charlottesville, heavy rain showers pushed through the region and flooded many of the creeks and rivers. That made our hike at Apple Orchard mountain that day a wet one, and we were eventually forced to turn back due to a raging torrent coming down the side of the mountain. Later that day, a planned short hike at Natural Bridge was cancelled after we found out they were closed for the day due to the river cresting at flood stage. Still, we made the most of our opportunities despite the trail conditions.

On our way to Apple Orchard Mountain, we cruised this male Eastern Box Turtle crossing the road after the last of the rain pushed through.

ImageDSCN0967 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0971 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0973 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

At Apple Orchard Mountain, we hiked to see some waterfalls, and also another of Virginia's endemic salamanders - the Peaks of Otter Salamander (Plethodon hubrichti). The site did not disappoint, as they were by far the most commonly encountered salamander on the mountain. We found our first one five minutes into the hike.

ImageDSCN0976 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0983 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1062 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN0991 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1002 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Some were more brilliantly patterned than others

ImageDSCN1006 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1021 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1032 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1093 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

A few White-spotted Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon cylindraceus) of verious sizes were found as well

ImageDSCN1028 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1053 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Seal Salamanders were very abundant in the creeks flowing down the side of the mountain. At one portion where the creek washed over the trail, I flipped a dozen of them. A few Duskies were found as well.

ImageDSCN1035 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1036 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1041 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1046 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1057 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1067 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1070 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1079 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1083 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Trail scenery:

ImageDSCN3707 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

The trail was washed out in many portions from all the rain.

ImageDSCN3719 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3730 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3715 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN3727 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

The next day, we met up with Nathan (username: Jefferson), who graciously offered to take us to a spot for Shenandoah Mountain Salamanders (Plethodon virginia) and Cow Knob Salamanders (Plethodon punctatus), both of which were would-be-lifers for me. The habitat we went to was the highest elevation of any on the trip, clocking in at above 4200 feet. Despite feeling like I was on top of the world, it didn't take us long to turn up both species, along with a few Redbacks. Howeve, it was a chilly 40F up there, and there was even some sleet when we first got out of our cars. The wind was strong as well, so we quickly set upon our target area in order to keep moving and stay warm.

Vista

ImageDSCN1103 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

ImageDSCN1104 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Nathan, correct me if I'm wrong, as my memory from that day is jumbled, but I believe the rest of these are Shenandoah Mountain Salamanders. Either way, they are fairly difficult to distinguish, but Shenandoah Mountain Salamanders have mottling on their undersides compared to the speckling seen on Redbacks.

ImageDSCN1111 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1112 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

On this specimen, you can see that the red on its back is not as wide or boldly colored as it would be on an Eastern Red-backed

ImageDSCN1122 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Next up is the Cow Knob Salamander, which we only found one of. It took a fair bit of searching, and after we found it, we decided to call it a day and head back down the mountain.

ImageDSCN1128 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

They resemble Slimy Salamanders, but they aren't quite as boldly spotted. Nor are they as slimy, obviously.

ImageDSCN1130 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1131 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1132 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

The next day was our designated day to travel back home and unpack, but our campsite was so close to Big Levels Salamander (Plethodon sherando) territory that I couldn't turn down an opportunity to go looking for them. Thankfully it was just a short hike to the spot, and it did not delay us too much in getting home on time. My wife was the first to flip one, and we ended up seeing about five of them in a 20 minute span. This was the third endemic salamander of the trip, leaving only one VA endemic undiscovered. But that species (Flat-headed Salamander) is well south of where we were.

Big Levels Salmander (Lifer)

ImageDSCN1136 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

They have mottling similar to Shenandoah Mountain Salamanders

ImageDSCN1138 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1139 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1141 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1142 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

Looks like a dark Redback, doesn't it?

ImageDSCN1145 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1147 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1148 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

I love the frosted look of these salamanders!

ImageDSCN1151 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1154 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1157 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr

ImageDSCN1160 by Matthew Ratcliffe, on Flickr


All in all, it was a great trip, and I owe a great deal of thanks to Nathan for helping me find some of my target species. Your advice was invaluable!

Species observed:
Northern Red-bellied Cooter
Eastern Painted Turtle
Eastern Box Turtle
Five-lined Skink
Eastern Wormsnake (not vouchered)
Gray Treefrog (lifer)
Spring Peeper
American Toad
Eastern Red-backed Salamander
Seal Salamander (lifer)
Northern Dusky Salamander
Shenandoah Salamander (lifer)
Northern Spring Salamander (lifer)
Peaks of Otter Salamander (lifer)
White-spotted Slimy Salamander
Shenandoah Mountain Salamander (lifer)
Cow Knob Salamander (lifer)
Big Levels Salamander (lifer)

Eight lifers in seven days - not bad! Especially given the rarity of some of the species.


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 Post subject: Re: Trip Report: Virginia Appalachians
PostPosted: May 27th, 2017, 8:09 pm 
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Joined: January 18th, 2015, 3:04 pm
Posts: 94
I love this post man! I hope you can pick up your planiceps lifer soon. They're a dime a dozen when I looked for them and shouldn't be hard. Cow Knob is my only VA endemic left and I hope to fix that by next week. :beer:


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 Post subject: Re: Trip Report: Virginia Appalachians
PostPosted: May 28th, 2017, 1:41 pm 
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Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Posts: 522
Location: Springfield, VA
kevin h wrote:
I love this post man! I hope you can pick up your planiceps lifer soon. They're a dime a dozen when I looked for them and shouldn't be hard. Cow Knob is my only VA endemic left and I hope to fix that by next week. :beer:


Thanks Kevin! Planiceps are quite a ways from me though, and I'm not even sure how to distinguish them from D. fuscus. Do you know?

Good luck with the Cow Knob hunt. They aren't part of the VA endemics as they are found in West Virginia as well, but they still have a very limited range. I found mine just a few hundred feet from the state line.


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 Post subject: Re: Trip Report: Virginia Appalachians
PostPosted: May 28th, 2017, 3:15 pm 
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Joined: June 7th, 2010, 8:23 am
Posts: 2162
Location: Unicoi, TN
Excellent!!!

Quote:
Eight lifers in seven days - not bad!

:thumb: :thumb: :thumb:


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 Post subject: Re: Trip Report: Virginia Appalachians
PostPosted: May 28th, 2017, 6:02 pm 
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Joined: January 18th, 2015, 3:04 pm
Posts: 94
mtratcliffe wrote:
kevin h wrote:
I love this post man! I hope you can pick up your planiceps lifer soon. They're a dime a dozen when I looked for them and shouldn't be hard. Cow Knob is my only VA endemic left and I hope to fix that by next week. :beer:


Thanks Kevin! Planiceps are quite a ways from me though, and I'm not even sure how to distinguish them from D. fuscus. Do you know?


I'm almost certain that neither species associate with each other and aren't sympatric so once you're in planiceps range you're golden!


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 Post subject: Re: Trip Report: Virginia Appalachians
PostPosted: May 30th, 2017, 5:03 pm 

Joined: June 7th, 2010, 6:25 pm
Posts: 240
Location: South Jersey
Great job and a great post! Every time i go through VA I try to photo a VA salamander. I was going up 81 few weeks ago and I made a little side trip to get my lifer Peaks of Otter, The pic I took of the trail looks almost exactly like yours! But you did it all in one trip, that's amazing! I will be back that way again in Sept. and I am thinking maybe Big Levels. Thanks for your post, it gave me renewed motivation!

Image


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 Post subject: Re: Trip Report: Virginia Appalachians
PostPosted: May 30th, 2017, 6:47 pm 

Joined: March 2nd, 2014, 6:50 am
Posts: 118
Location: Western Virginia
Beautiful pics and post, Matt! Those shots of the Peaks of Otter are stunning! On the Shenandoah Mountain/Redback dichotomy, I don't recall whether all the rest of those pics are Shenandoah Mountain, but they look like it. I know we found some more Redbacks interspersed with the P. Virginia, but I don't think we took any more pictures of any of those P. cinereus. Hope to do it again sometime!


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 Post subject: Re: Trip Report: Virginia Appalachians
PostPosted: May 31st, 2017, 5:07 am 
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Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Posts: 522
Location: Springfield, VA
[quote="herper1"]Great job and a great post! Every time i go through VA I try to photo a VA salamander. I was going up 81 few weeks ago and I made a little side trip to get my lifer Peaks of Otter, The pic I took of the trail looks almost exactly like yours! But you did it all in one trip, that's amazing! I will be back that way again in Sept. and I am thinking maybe Big Levels. Thanks for your post, it gave me renewed motivation!

quote]

That's probably the same trail! And I bet there are 20 Peaks of Otter Salamanders within the frame of that photo. They were ridiculously abundant in that location.

Good luck with the Big Levels search. If you are in the right spot, they should be the only Plethodon species at that locale (save for Plethodon cylindraceus, perhaps). But no Redbacks to confuse them with.


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