Cover boards for wildlife (Six on Saturday #61–December 12, 2020)

Six on Saturday today is another garden project. This one adds wildlife habitat to your garden and provides the opportunity to see animals that are usually hidden from view.

1. Cover boards

coverboard

A cover board is exactly what it sounds like: a wooden board or piece of sheet metal that is placed on the ground to provide habitat for small animals. They’re often used by herpetologists to attract reptiles and amphibians, but they also attract insects, spiders, and small mammals.

This past spring, the kids and I placed three cover boards–two wooden boards and one piece of corrugated metal siding–in likely spots around our property. Over the summer and autumn, we have checked the boards once every two weeks, which we think is a decent compromise between checking so often that animals are frightened away, and checking so infrequently that we miss things.

If you live in a place with venomous snakes, it’s a good idea to use a rake or snake hook to lift cover boards. Pull the board towards you, so that you will have the upright board between you and any disturbed snakes. If you find a small animal, take a few pictures and then carefully lower the cover board again. Gently move the little creature to one side first, and let it crawl back underneath after you have lowered the board. You don’t want to find its squashed corpse the next time you lift the board Wait a reasonable amount of time and then repeat. That’s all there is to it

The rest of my photos today are animals that we found under the boards.

2. Eastern narrowmouth toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis)

narrow-mouth

The first time we looked under the boards, we found a pair of eastern narrowmouth toads. These guys spend most of their lives hidden, and I have only seen a handful in the past twenty years. I previously posted about this species here.

3. Wolf spider (Genus? species?)

wolf-spider
Maybe a Hogna species?

4. Eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus)

worm-snake1

I have written about eastern worm snakes here.

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5. Another worm snake ready to shed its skin

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6. Marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum)

marbled-salamander

See this old post for more about marbled salamanders.

As always, the Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.

More frogs

Despite there being no standing water on our property, apart from a couple of trays holding bog plants, a surprising variety of amphibians call the garden home.  Here are a couple of recent sightings that add to my list of resident amphibians.

pickerel_frog
Pickerel frog–Lithobates (Rana) palustris

Pickerel frogs are found throughout North Carolina, with the exception of the Outer Banks and some tidal regions of the coastal plain. This one was out late one evening on our concrete driveway, usually the hunting territory of more terrestrial-adapted toads.  The night was dry, so I was surprised to see any amphibian, let alone a frog.

green_frog
Green frog–Lithobates (Rana) clamitans rescued from a posthole.

I have been digging postholes for a new fence, and an inch or two of rainwater accumulated in the two-foot deep holes.  I’m glad I decided to fish around in the muddy water before dropping posts and concrete in the holes.  The extensive webbing on the feet of this species indicates that its preferred habitat is aquatic, so I’m not sure what inspired this one to leave the creek and cross an acre or two of dry oak-pine woodland to find a muddy little hole.

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Eastern spadefoot (Scaphiophus holbrookii)

In another of the postholes, I found an eastern spadefoot, a terrestrial species that I have shown before but which is uncommon enough and interesting enough to warrant showing again.

Scaphiophus 2
Scaphiophus holbrookii wearing a jaunty hat of mud

Six on Saturday #52 (March 21, 2020)

For this week’s Six on Saturday, we are out of the garden and visiting the Eno River Confluence Natural Area.  The Eno River is one of the gems of this part of North Carolina.  A small river, little more than a large stream for much of its 40-mile course through Orange and Durham counties, it flows through the town of Hillsborough and city of Durham before merging with the Flat and Little Rivers to form the Neuse River.  The Eno is home to several rare species that are endemic to the Neuse River basin, and it has been aggressively protected since the late 1960s by the Eno River Association.  The Confluence Natural Area is a piece of protected land in Orange County that includes the spot where the East and West forks of the Eno flow together to form the Eno River proper.  It was opened to the public relatively recently, and this was our first visit.

When my family and I visited, we were the only people on the 200-acre preserve, so I guess that covered social distancing requirements.

1.  The Confluence

Confluence

This is the point at which east fork (left) and west fork (right) merge to form the Eno (center).

2.  Plethodon cylindraceus (white-spotted slimy salamander)

Plethodon

The kids couldn’t resist lifting a cover board that had probably been laid down for some herpetology classes.  They found a handsome pair of slimy salamanders.  To avoid crushing the salamanders, we gently moved them, laid the board back down, and then allowed the salamanders to climb underneath again.

3. Claytonia virginica (Virginia springbeauty)

Claytonia

A variety of spring ephemeral wildflowers were in bloom on the wooded slopes and rich bottomland along the riverbanks.  In North Carolina, C. virginica is a true piedmont native.  It is absent from most of the coastal plain and from the mountains, where it is replaced by Claytonia caroliniana.

4. Cardamine concatenata (cutleaf toothwort; crow’s toes)

Cardamine

I just love the name “crow’s toes.”

5. Stellaria pubera (star chickweed)

Stellaria

In addition to these three wildflowers, we also saw Hepatica americana (round-lobed Hepatica), Anemonella thalictroides (rue anemone), Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot), and Lindera benzoin (spicebush)  in bloom.  Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) leaves were up, but the buds aren’t yet open.

6. Tree “footprint”

tree footprint

The heavy piedmont clay holds together so well, that the imprint of a large tree, including tunnels left by its roots, is still clearly visible after all the wood has rotted away.  The “footprint” is slowly being covered by invasive Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).

The propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Salamanders

“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)

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an eft’s eye view of the driveway

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 [1].

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)

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Crossing the driveway on a rainy night

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.

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a pair of marbled salamanders that I found together under a rotten log

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)

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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.

spotted
Spotted salamanders can reach an impressive size.  This one was 7.5 inches (19 cm) long, nose to tail tip.

Southern two-lined salamander (Eurycea cirrigera)

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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.

Reference

1.  Mitchell, J., and Gibbons, W. (2010).  Salamanders of the Southeast.  University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA.