Note: the video companion to this post can be viewed on youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=se_TMt-s9mA&t=34s
As the featured picture above shows, snow covered the mountains of Western Virginia about two feet deep as Bethany and I left for Michigan to visit my family over Christmas break. Curiously enough, while the Old Dominion’s hills were covered in beautiful, glistening snow that revealed the land’s contours, the fluffy stuff disappeared as we drove through West Virginia’s rugged hills and on into Eastern Kentucky, where we made our first stop.
The forty-degree weather couldn’t deter us from pursuing our target species in the frigid stream below and we hiked into a beautiful hardwood stream ravine bounded by caves and rock faces, the crystal-clear stream, rocks tinted teal by minerals, below. We first happened upon some two-lined and dusky salamanders after flipping dozens of rocks near a cave entrance, but our luck improved markedly when we began searching a small tributary to the stream, perhaps two or three feet wide and barely two inches deep in the center. Within five minutes, we’d turned up some larvae of our target species, the Kentucky Spring Salamander, Gyrinophilus porphyriticus duryi. Despite the biting cold, we also flipped a lethargic Green frog beneath a small submerged rock. Perhaps because the water flows directly from the caves and rockfaces, the frogs overwinter under rocks so as not to freeze (cave water doesn’t freeze except in extreme cold snaps). Around the twists and turns in the winding stream we turned rocks, our hands turning icy as we climbed the hillside with every small cascade. At a spot where a small seepage came out of the hillside and merged with the tributary, Bethany overturned a large rock, and beneath it, a fluorescent orange-red salamander! An adult Kentucky Spring! The beast had the classic look of all the pictures I’d seen of them before–the orange-red eyes, the lack of spots on the back, the chunky body, much fatter than the Northern subspecies. We were ecstatic!!
With pictures aplenty, we climbed back out of the ravine and continued herping the picturesque cave streams for fun, sighting several more larvae of the Kentucky Spring and several Two-lined salamanders, including the one pictured below.
From Kentucky, we cruised into Ohio through the bustling hamlet of Portsmouth, at the mouth of the mighty Scioto River. A perfunctory check of a small stream in the Southern Ohio foothills at sunset yielded another few two-lined salamanders. Nightfall saw us at a campground cabin along the Ohio River as the coal barges thundered by, along the sliver of flat land a half-mile wide before the imposing hills on either side of the river rise above the valley. In the morning, as the sun rose above the river and the eastern sky toward West Virginia lit up orange and pink, Bethany and I held a bluegrass jam session on the cabin porch before heading north to see Serpent Mound, a Native American earthwork constructed in what is today Adams County, Ohio, on the edge of the Appalachian Plateau, long before European settlement that most paleontologists believe was meant to help the early societies keep track of agricultural harvesting schedules.
In the biting cold that morning, we only stayed about forty-five minutes, hiking some of the woods around the mound and climbing an observation tower to take the picture of the impressive structure above. The amount of labor necessary to construct this mound with only rudimentary tools is truly astonishing, especially for those of us who have ever tried to move dirt within the confines of a 20’x20′ garden!
Upon returning home to Michigan, there was no snow on the ground, but temperatures were much too cold for herping. Visits with extended, time lounging with family, copious amounts of Chess, and planning for the now-imminent California trip kept us busy. Then we turned south before New Year’s to visit with Bethany’s family, stopping in Southwestern Ohio along the way both to see Streamside Salamanders, a lifer for Bethany, and meet up with a friend who graduated college early and lives in Cincinnati. Stopping at a small reserve outside the city, we were accompanied by a young park employee who knew nearly everything about the park’s birds, herps, and natural history, pointing out different types of rock due to glacial movement, and identifying birds by flight pattern. After striking out in the first wetland, the edge of a small pond, where a tiny seepage flowed in, yielded a couple of our target species, the Streamside Salamander, while a board in the adjacent woods had a third, larger adult hiding under it.
After a double-date with my friend from Cincinnati, we continued our southward journey to visit with Bethany’s family in Tennessee. During the course of our visit, we also took a trip to a nearby secret herping spot with one of Bethany’s friends, and despite the cold weather, we turned up an early-season (New Year’s is about as early as it gets) Spring Peeper and one Four-toed Salamander with most of its tail missing, the first Four-toed I’d seen since 2011. We also planned to hit another larger wetland, but the presence of multiple duck hunters dissuaded us, as we didn’t want to spoil their hunting.
We continued our visit thereafter, but that Four-toed wrapped up our wintertime herping stint, which saw us hit spots in three states and nab two lifers between us. We returned to Virginia after the New Year with some great memories of winter break 2018/19!
I hope you enjoyed the post, and happy herping! Keep an eye out for additional posts related to our upcoming trip to California in two weeks!