The high contrast makes it difficult to see, but the lizard in the foreground is a mature male in his blue-bellied breeding colors. I’m not sure if the other is a female or an immature male, so this could be an amorous encounter or an aggressive one. Either way, they were too intent on each other to pay any attention to the giant human pointing an iphone camera at them.
“Newts, Jeeves. Mr. Fink-Nottle has a strong newt complex. You must have heard of newts. Those little sort of lizard things that charge about in ponds.” –P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves.
So far, I have written posts on garden snakes, turtles, frogs, and toads, so I still need to do lizards and salamanders for full herpetological coverage. One Forest Fragment just wrote about salamanders, inspiring me to do the same.
The southeastern United States harbors more salamander species than anywhere else in the world, but most of that diversity is found in the southern Appalachians. The piedmont area, where I live, is relatively depauperate, and of the roughly fifty salamander species native to North Carolina, I have found only four on our property.
Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)
Eastern newts have a fairly complex life cycle. They begin as aquatic larvae with external gills, but after growing legs they leave the water and typically spend several years as a non-breeding terrestrial “red eft” (see photo above). Eventually, an eft’s orange or red color fades to olive green (though still with bright red spots), and it returns to the water as a breeding adult newt. To add to this complexity, some adults return to the land when the breeding season is finished, while others stay in the water. Adopting the opposite strategy, newts in some southeastern localities skip the eft stage and remain in the water their entire lives .
I see red efts in the garden with some regularity, usually after rain, but I have not found any adult newts in the nearby creek or woodland pools. Presumably there must be a breeding pond somewhere nearby, but red efts can wander a considerable distance (miles?) during their years as a terrestrial salamander.
Marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum)
I suspect that marbled salamanders are the most common salamander species in the garden and surrounding woods. In common with other mole salamander species, marbled salamanders spend most of their time underground, but I have seen more individuals of this species than all the other salamanders combined.
Across the lane from our property, the local creek forms a muddy oxbow that holds water even when the creek stops flowing in late summer. This pond is full of dead leaves and live Ambystoma larvae. Most are probably larval marbled salamanders, but some may be offspring of the next species.
Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)
I have only found one spotted salamander since we moved to this location eleven years ago. It was under a rotten log in the woods adjacent to the garden proper–the same log, in fact, that previously harbored the two marbled salamanders shown above. Since spotted salamanders, like their marbled cousins, spend most of their lives underground, they may be more common than it would appear.
Southern two-lined salamander (Eurycea cirrigera)
Two-lined salamanders and the related three-lined salamanders (Eurycea guttolineata) are common under rocks in the creek bed, but for some reason, this one relocated to my compost bin. I suppose that the bin provides a moist, dark habitat full of small invertebrate prey, but to reach it the salamander had to navigate several hundred feet of dry pine woods–an impressive journey for a lungless salamander that relies on keeping its skin moist to breathe.
1. Mitchell, J., and Gibbons, W. (2010). Salamanders of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA.
I saw the first toad of the year last week, so this seems like a good time for a post about these garden residents who are some of my favorite amphibians. In addition to the true toads, we also have a couple of “toads”–species that are not in the toad family, Bufonidae, but share the common name because of their terrestrial habits.
1. American toads and/or Fowler’s toads
In the NC piedmont, the true toads are represented by the American toad (Anaxyrus americanus, formerly Bufo americanus) and Fowler’s toad (Anaxyrus fowleri, formerly Bufo fowleri). I’m not entirely sure which species we have in the garden. Fowler’s toads are here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if American toads are too. I haven’t paid enough attention to be certain. Although they are the most common amphibians in my garden, I find that I don’t have many photographs of them. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, exactly; I love having them around and think they have much more character than their froggy cousins, but I don’t go rushing off for a camera whenever I find one hopping across the garden path.
True toads exude bufotoxins, a witches’ brew of chemicals, including cardiac glycosides and neurotransmitter analogs, from their skin and especially from the bean-shaped parotid glands behind their eyes. When I was a teenager, we had a dog who loved to lick toads. They always made her wrinkle her lips and foam at the mouth, but she never learned to avoid them. I’m not sure if she was getting a buzz off the bufotoxin, or if she lived in eternal hope that the next toad would be the one that tasted good. In any case, it’s probably a good idea to wash your hands after you pick up a toad.
Around the same time that we had the toad-licking dog, I kept a recently metamorphosed toadlet as a pet for a summer. It soon became quite tame and would get very excited whenever I opened the top of the terrarium. The way to a toad’s heart is definitely through its stomach. If you have never fed a toad, do yourself a favor and give the next one you find a large earthworm. The way a toad uses its hands to shovel the wriggly spaghetti into its mouth is both fascinating and hilarious.
2. Eastern spadefoot
The eastern spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii) is a beautiful little amphibian, and I was thrilled to discover that they live in my garden. It’s rather surprising that they are here. S. holbrookii is primarily a species of the sandy coastal plain, and we’re at the very edge of its recorded range. Their presence in the garden might even be a minor range extension, as the NC Museum of Natural Sciences doesn’t seem to have any specimens collected in Orange County. But despite our dense piedmont clay not being their preferred habitat, I stumble across a spadefoot every year or two, suggesting that there is a small breeding population in the vicinity. About half of them have been accidentally unearthed while I was gardening, and the other half were hopping around on the surface, usually at night or early in the morning during warm, wet weather.
Spadefoots can be distinguished at a glance from true toads by their vertical pupils; other toads have horizontal pupils. If you gently pick one up and turn it over, you will see the hard, brownish spades on its hind feet which allow it to burrow out of sight.
3. Eastern narrowmouth toad
Like the eastern spadefoot, the eastern narrowmouth toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis) is another species that you are much more likely to hear than see. If you have ever heard the desperate bleating of a tormented lamb emanating from the leaf litter after rain, you have heard an eastern narrowmouth toad. They seem to be even less likely than the spadefoots to wander around on the surface, and in twenty years I have only found three. Two of them I accidentally uncovered, but the one photographed here came to my attention because it was out during the day and had been found by a chipmunk. I noticed the chipmunk repeatedly run up to a small object and then dance backwards when it hopped. I’m not sure if the chipmunk was attacking (they sometimes prey on insects and other small animals) or playing, but when I rescued the narrowmouth toad, it didn’t seem to have suffered any damage. Perhaps it was protected by its noxious skin secretions, just like a true toad.
Down at the creek, the upland chorus frogs, accompanied by a few spring peepers, have started their mating songs. The chorus frogs sound like hundreds of people rapidly running their thumbnails along the teeth of hundreds of plastic combs, while the peepers produce a bell-like chiming, impressively loud for such a small frog.
We don’t have any permanent water in the garden (a pond is definitely on the “to do” list but never seems to arrive at “start now”), but both species spend time here when they aren’t busy calling for a mate. A third visitor to the garden, the northern cricket frog, will start calling later in the spring and continue into early summer. Its call sounds like someone clicking little pebbles together.
As I was edging a flowerbed on Saturday afternoon, a flash of movement caught my eye. It almost looked like a small grasshopper or cricket, but I thought it was a bit early and cold for those insects. When I got down on my hands and knees to peer at the mulch, I discovered a tiny cricket frog, so small that it could sit comfortably on my thumbnail.
Adults of all three species are about an inch (~2.5 cm) long. I usually find chorus frogs and cricket frogs on the ground, but peepers often climb in taller plants. Occasionally they get into the greenhouse, and I always remove them when I can. They’d be little more than a light snack for the Nepenthes pitcher plants, and I have seen tree frogs injure themselves jumping onto spiny Pachypodium.
If you garden in the piedmont, you can encourage these little frogs by not using insecticides and fungicides that could be absorbed through their skin or contaminate the water that they need for breeding. Undisturbed leaf litter and, perhaps, a small area of unmown grass make will make good hunting grounds for the frogs, and a small pond (without fish) or trough is always appreciated.
Here are a few more pictures of these frogs that I have taken over the past few years:
And here is a relevant passage from a novel I read recently. Clearly the author has spent some time considering the peeper:
Spring peepers, the noisiest frog per half inch that Dag knew of, had taken up their earsplitting chorus in the farm’s woodlot and pond when he rounded the corner of the barn to make his bedtime patrol. He stopped short when Whit called unexpectedly over the racket “Wait up, Dag!”
His tent-brother, a lantern swinging from his hand, fell in beside him. Whit cocked his head, listening to the peepers. “Maybe I could stuff cotton in my ears tonight. I’m sure glad I didn’t have to court Berry by squatting with my naked tail in a puddle and screaming for hours till she took pity on me.”
Dag choked on a laugh. “You just had to put that picture in my head, didn’t you? Maybe that’s why the lady peepers pick their mates. To shut them up.”
–Lois McMaster Bujold, Horizon (The Sharing Knife, Vol. 4)
This isn’t a very good photo, but it serves as a record of the first snake of 2018 in the garden. As I was pruning the roses on January 28, I disturbed this eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) in the leaf litter. I was surprised to find it at the surface so early in the year, particularly when there had been a foot of snow on the ground just ten days earlier.
Judging by the frequency with which I uncover them while digging, worm snakes are probably the most common snake species in the garden. More details here.