Last month, Bethany and I headed down to the North Carolina Sandhills, some of the most biologically diverse country in the American southeast. Here, the Piedmont and Coastal Plain collide in a series of dry, piney ridges and lowland swamps and seeps that flow over sand substrate and into the slow rivers that drain into the ocean, like the Lumber. The Friday afternoon drive down from Virginia was uneventful, except for great conversation and some traffic in Lynchburg that delayed us long enough to spoil a twilight road cruising plan. Upon arriving in the heart of the Sandhills, we set minnow traps in hopes of catching sirens, waterdogs, and amphiumas in some swampy stream floodplains.
Those blackwater swamps (swamps adjacent to murky streams) are creepy to wade in. I’m glad I thought to test water depth before each step with my dipnet, because there were several times I was on the precipice of the main stream channel without knowing it. In one instance, I was in water about a foot deep tying a trap to a cypress tree and was about to take another step when I tested the black water in front of me with the net. The 8 FOOT NET didn’t touch the bottom!! After setting our traps, we drove to the campground where we were staying, set a few more traps on the owner’s land with her permission, and turned in. The next morning, our herping luck started slow but steady. At a small muddy seep on the campground property, where we ran across some salamanders this February, we got an Atlantic Coast Slimy Salamander under a large cover board. Like all their other slimy salamander cousins (there are about a dozen species of slimies), these guys are all black with white spots on the sides and back. *
Then we went to the swamp where we set traps the night before and found nothing in our traps, just as we came up empty by dip-netting the stream that fed the swamp. From there, we went into the Sandhills Gameland to a small pond known to harbor the Broken-striped newt, a specialty of the NC Sandhills and adjacent South Carolina. Eastern Newts are common across much of eastern and central North America, but the Broken-striped newt, a beautiful variant, lives only in the small pocosin ponds, Carolina bays, and small woodland pools of coastal NC and northeastern SC. After a very short hike, we came to the longleaf-ringed pond, replete with various marsh grasses and pine needles throughout. A few passes of the net through the water by Bethany and me yielded not one, not two, but seven Broken-striped newts! What a treat!*
After photographing our newts and wondering if the noises we heard in distant forest were marines doing maneuvers or a group of wild boars, we made our way back to the car and headed to a pond reputed to be a breeding spot for Tiger Salamanders and Oak Toads, the latter of which is becoming increasingly rare except in select undisturbed areas, like the Sandhills. However, we found the pond bone dry this fall. Hopefully it fills up over the winter with cool rains. The longleaf forest around the pond had a recent fire, albeit probably a controlled one, since most of the mature trees are still standing. Empty-handed on tigers, we moved on to a small lake just up the road through the beautiful terrain, the spillway of which is reputed to have some interesting aquatic salamanders.
But despite the supposed salamander diversity of its spillway, our dip-netting only turned up some fish, including a small catfish and one that looks to me like a mackerel or stickleback, though I’m not certain of its identity. A picture of the mystery fish, found in a swampy outflow a few feet deep, is below.
The best find of the day, and of the trip, came less than half an hour later on a complete whim. I saw a few cover boards at the side of the road and pulled the car onto the side of the gravel road to flip them, whereupon I noticed a small seepage area flowing down the hillside, only a few inches deep and blanketed by a carpet of sphagnum moss in the shallow margins. Here, Bethany found a bright orange-red “Sandhills Eurycea” by sifting through the moss. At first, she excitedly said, “Nathan,” and then her voice trailed off, as if she lost it, and said, “I think I found a newt.” But she was able to re-locate it before I even reached her, and it was indeed our most coveted lifer of the trip. Sandhills Eurycea are closely related to two-lined salamanders, but have much different coloration and patterns (dots on the back as opposed to lines) and they are under consideration for full species status.
Euphoric, we headed west to a stream reputed to have abundant Dwarf Waterdogs, another one of our top targets. However, several attempts at dip-netting one of these aquatic creatures proved fruitless. At our last stop along a large stream crossing to try to find waterdogs, we saw a heartbreaker on the road: a DOR Pigmy rattler, Bethany’s #1 target species. It still counts, I suppose......
That night, I introduced Bethany to Jimmy John’s subs, a Midwestern staple that seems to be making a slow expansion into the south, and we watched “Glory,” one of my favorite Civil War movies, before an unsuccessful road cruise. The rain, heavy at camp, eased up as we approached our road cruising locations! It always stops raining once you get to where you want to be!
The next day, we bummed around in the coastal plain looking for Eurycea and southern dusky salamanders, seeing some historical sites where Sherman’s army marched along the way (inadvertently an ironically considering we had just watched a Civil War movie). In some beautiful cypress swamp habitat, we turned up only a brownsnake, some assorted frogs, and southern toads (technically a lifer for me but not all that exhilarating). We did also spot one of the most beautiful and intimidating spiders I’ve ever seen–so large (probably about two inches in body length) we could see its fangs. I believe it’s a Golden Silk Spider.
So ended the trip, and we headed back north to Virginia discussing college financing, global geo-politics, trade policy, theories of historical development, and China’s ascendancy clear through Lynchburg. It was a great trip, and I hope all of you enjoy this post. Pictures on caudate.org and naherp! Have a happy Thanksgiving all! Happy herping!
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