Joint Herping Post: Michigan

Dedicated exclusively to field herping.

Moderator: Scott Waters

Post Reply
User avatar
Rich in Reptiles
Posts: 492
Joined: November 30th, 2012, 7:45 am
Location: Missouri

Joint Herping Post: Michigan

Post by Rich in Reptiles »

Hey everyone! Bethany here. I just got back from a whirlwind trip touring Michigan and all its wonders- more specifically its herps and landscapes! My man Nathan (Jefferson on here) and I are doing a joint blog post, where Nathan provides the narration and I provide the photos. While the reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and landscapes that I saw were incredible, my favorite part of the trip were the lovely faces I saw and Northern voices I heard (I literally went into a gas station and bought a pack of gum just to hear the cashier lady's accent). I spent a bit of time catching up with my sister and her family in Kalmazoo, then headed East to spend time with Nathan and his family. The North Woods is SO gorgeous, not to mention the lakes out there! The vegetation has a very vibrant, lush color, and the bright white of the paper birch and aspen gives a stunning contrast to the forest. If it didn't snow so much up there it's a place I wouldn't mind living. I now know what "up north" really means, and what a lake IS and what a pond ISN'T. Anyway, onto the actual post!

ImageMarsh by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

In the dog days of summer, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than Northern Michigan, or as we Michiganders call it, “up north,” a region that I roughly define as everything north of a line that runs through Standish and Mecosta. Compared to metropolitan Detroit and the rest of downstate, the north country is a different world entirely. The population density in most of “up north” is lower than the population density of Appalachia, and the landscape changes from deep loamy soils that support farming aplenty and deciduous forests to sandy, bad farming soil that supports only jack and white pines, snow-white-trunked birches and grayish-tan aspens fluttering vibrantly in the breeze. The noises of the city are replaced with the calls of Kirtland’s Warblers and the sloshing of waves against the sandy shores of Lake Huron and Michigan. National Rifle Association stickers adorn the back windows of nearly every truck and aged SUV on the two-lanes that cut through the piney hills, and the temperature during the peak heat of summer stays consistently below eighty degrees with a slight breeze off the lakes.

So, when my girlfriend from Tennessee said she wanted to come visit me in Michigan this summer, I couldn’t bear the thought of her only seeing the I-94 corridor and metro Detroit in our state. We had to go up north, I told her, and that we did, loading up the fishing poles, cameras, and guitars for a four-day trip to the land of sand dunes and fishing. On the way up, we stopped in Lapeer County to get a blue-spotted salamander, seeing a spotted salamander and some red-backs (including a nesting female) and newts in the process. From there, we ventured up interstate 75 through the hollowed-out manufacturing country of Saginaw and Flint toward the north woods, passing one of my favorite landmarks, the Standish A & W restaurant, in the process (Standish is home to a state prison that was briefly considered for housing Guantanamo Bay inmates). Standish is where interstate 75 and US route 23 split of from one another, with US 23 following the shore of Lake Huron and interstate 75 tracking through the middle of the mitten to the Mackinac Bridge (which is pronounced “Mack-eh-NAW”). We took US 23 amid a drizzle, which broke by the time the shoreline of Lake Huron came into sight in Alabaster Township, where the forest turned to birch and aspen with swampy sections. A quick post-dinner road cruise that night turned up nothing, and a driving rain made any snake cruising after twilight impracticable anyhow. But the next day, our herping luck turned around rapidly.

Imagenesting redback salamander by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Imageblue-spotted salamander by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Wood frogs peppered the forest floor! Nathan gave me "the look" when I told him I'd only ever seen one before! :lol:
Imagewood frog by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageEastern red-spotted newt by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageEastern red-spotted newt by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Imagespotted salamander by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Early in the morning, we left for points further north along the lakeshore and rapidly turned up a DOR (dead on road) garter snake and wood frog in Alcona county, possibly the most beautiful county in our state. A forest further north reputed to have Massasauga Rattlers didn’t turn up anything, and I’ll be the first to admit that I felt trepidation hiking there. The underbrush was so lush and thick, the aspen leaves rustling so loudly, that we wouldn’t have heard or seen a bear or cougar until it was right on top of us, so we stuck to road cruising through the verdant forest of bright green leaves and reddish shrubbery, stopping at the lakeshore to look for water and green snakes. No such luck. Back in Alpena County, a burned-out section of pine forest with charred logs downed everywhere in waist-high grass yielded a leopard frog and a couple of garter snakes. We headed back along sandy roads for lunch at our motel, and hit a spot right along the beach for salamanders, finding only a few red-backs under birch bark. That’s where I realized that I had left my camera back on a stump in Alpena, fully forty-five miles north. This was the low point of the trip: a bad day of herping so far, and I feared that my camera would have been taken in the last three or four hours, possibly by the bears, possibly by an intrigued passer-by. But it wasn’t. It was still on the stump, and as soon as we picked the camera up, our luck improved.

ImageAlcona Co. MI habitat by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Imagecool habitat by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageNorthern leopard frog by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

At the very next bend in the road, and I mean the very next bend, a black bear cub ran off the side of the road as it saw us approaching. Then, in Montmorency county to the west, we drove though some of the most isolated terrain in Michigan, endless swampy forests that harbor some of our largest deer herds, getting only green frogs on the herp front but some beautiful terrain. On our way back down into Iosco County, we saw ten or twelve sticks on the roadside, and I turned around for every one, thinking it was a snake. Finally, one of the sticks turned out to be a snake, and as we exited the car to photograph it, we couldn’t believe our eyes: it was a pristine Hognose snake! Bethany’s most-coveted lifer of the trip. Except that it had been killed by a passing car……but it still looked pristine, which led to a sort of “glass half-full/half-empty” debate between Bethany and I at the roadside. We stopped in Glennie, a quaint little town nestled in the Huron National Forest, to refuel and prepare to continue road cruising, and shortly thereafter, wrapped the night up not with another snake, but with a live porcupine!!!! I couldn’t believe it! Being from Tennessee, Bethany really wanted to see a porcupine, but I told her the chances were nearly nothing. My parents and I lived up north for four whole years, and we never saw one, but only a day after Bethany came up north, there sat a plump porcupine at roadside just posing for pictures before ambling into the fern-covered understory! Unbelievable.

ImageShould I be happy or sad at this lifer DOR hognose? by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Imagegreen frog by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Imagelifer porcupine! by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Imagelifer porcupine! by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

The next day saw us finally nab a painted turtle in a pond near Mio, hike Iargo Springs (one of the only hemlock ravines in Michigan), wade shallow, frigid branch of the Au Sable, and cruise up a juvenile Hognose snake before heading further west to watch the sunset over Sleeping Bear Dunes, which overlook Lake Michigan by some 400 feet, where we found a couple of frogs. From there, we road cruised unsuccessfully to a campground along the Betsie River, a stream rumored to have Wood Turtles. The next day of herping proved uneventful and rainy, but we did get a gorgeous spotted salamander at our first stop and do some fishing, where I got my line stuck in a tree and nearly got stuck in the mud trying to retrieve it, a sequence of events that left Bethany nearly in tears with laughter. After playing guitar and dobro at the campground that night, we hit a lighthouse in the morning to high surf on Lake Michigan and headed downstate.

ImageMidland painted turtle, escorting bullfrog by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageDOR hognose neonate by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageSpotted salamander by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Imagelighthouse on Lake Michigan by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Back downstate near Lansing, and in the islands of Ohio, we got a Ribbon Snake, some unique hybrid salamanders. My younger brother, Nolan, joined Bethany and me to ferry accross Lake Erie to Kelly's Island in order to snag a couple more lifers before Bethany headed back to Tennessee. Our first finds were the common Redback salamanders, American toad, and Eastern gartersnake. Eventually we uncovered a total three Kelly's Island salamanders! We also found several Lake Erie Water Snakes, a federally-listed species that lives only on a few islands in Lake Erie, like Kelley’s and Catawba Islands. The trip ended with seven new species for Bethany and two for me, but the most valuable thing about the trip was our jaunt into Northern Michigan, which Bethany absolutely loved. If anyone reading this blog finds themselves passing through Michigan and wondering what there is to do in our state, take a little jaunt up north and smell the hog-noses (and the roses if you can find any). You won’t be sorry.

Imageblue-spotted salamander by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageTremblay's salamander by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageRibbon snake by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageKelly's Island salamander by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageSearching for foxsnakes on Kelly's Island by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageLake Erie watersnake by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

ImageLake Erie watersnake by Bethany Avilla, on Flickr

Video footage:

User avatar
Kelly Mc
Posts: 4371
Joined: October 18th, 2011, 12:03 pm

Re: Joint Herping Post: Michigan

Post by Kelly Mc »

Great post Bethany & Jefferson

That Red-backed Salamander w/ brood image is a prize.

The one neo turned so perfectly right with its tiny red back showing, its a portrait so beautifully, naturally composed.


User avatar
Posts: 138
Joined: April 2nd, 2015, 7:30 am
Location: Utah

Re: Joint Herping Post: Michigan

Post by the_cw1 »

Great finds! As a native Michigander, I love seeing this variety. Up north is a magical place.

And finding DOR hogs still counts--maybe, lol. :p

User avatar
Posts: 297
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 3:44 pm
Location: Camden County, Missouri

Re: Joint Herping Post: Michigan

Post by Gary2sons »

Great post! Awesome first pic of the salamander with eggs! :thumb:

User avatar
Posts: 534
Joined: June 11th, 2010, 5:01 am
Location: Louisiana

Re: Joint Herping Post: Michigan

Post by Jeff »


Good see an old young face back on the Forum. This is a great tour of a place that I've never been, and I am always interested in posts from the non-usual places. It is intriguing to see animals at the margins of their geographic/climatic tolerance. What does a hog-nosed snake do during a summer with only 40 days that reach 80, interspersed with cold, rainy days, only to be forced back into hibernation after a five-month frolic?


Post Reply