Monday, August 31, 2009

Northern Utah Herping

With Devin back from summer employment, and me (Jeff) back from my study abroad, we reunited in Utah to get some end-of-summer herping in before fall sends the herps back into hibernation. With only a few days before school starts for the both of us, Devin and I spent some time along the Wasatch Mountain Range in northern Utah searching for anything that might be found. We saw a few species we had wanted to find, while others we were looking for still remained elusive and will have to wait for another season. Here, though, are some of our finds from northern Utah:

The deserts just west of Utah Lake have good habitats to find several species. Going out there this time didn't prove extremely successful. Side-blotched lizards, like this tiny hatchling, were abundant and by far the most common reptile.

We also discovered several sagebrush lizards which share habitats in the west desert with side-blotched lizards, but canyon bottoms and foothills of the Wasatch Mountains make ideal places, also, to see these. Western whiptails, like the tiny one shown below (with still blue tail), can be found in both areas.

Western fence lizards and Great Basin collared lizards have also been found by Devin and me in the deserts around Utah Lake, but none were documented this time. As far as snakes, we only found two DOR Great Basin gopher snakes (one of them only dead a matter of minutes).
Utah isn't really known for turtles, and in fact, doesn't have any native species. Tortoises, yes, but only in the extreme southwest of the state. Spiny softshell turtles have been introduced into the Virgin River of southern Utah, and snapping turtles have appeared in a pond or two. The most common introduced turtle, though, is the red-eared slider. Several were found basking in a pond in Provo, Utah.

The weather during our time out herping was absolutely ideal, and we decided to make our way up into the mountains in hopes of finding some mountain-dwelling herps. Devin and I spent about one hour in a mountain clearing in the morning and came away with two snake species. First, we found about 4 or 5 Western terrestrial garter snakes (wandering garters) that were patrolling the field and streamsides for prey. After a while we stopped bothering with them and would just watch them speed away across the ground around us. A quick identification was all that was necessary, just in case it happened to be a different specie.
This proved to be wise since a new specie was soon seen trying to quickly and quietly move through the green mountain grass. Devin and I were excited to have found a smooth greensnake.

This first one was the largest, maybe 20 inches, but we would soon find two more hiding under stones.
The second one (pictured above) was a little darker since it was about to shed, and its length was only about 2 inches shorter than the first. The last one was small, only about 10-12 inches, but a brilliant green color.After photographing and releasing them again, we went out in search of tiger salamanders that I had seen before several times in a field up in that area. As it turned out, the water had disappeared too long prior to our visit and no salamanders were found this time. Other than several meadow voles running for cover under our feet, the only creature found was a boreal chorus frog hopping around some boulders. The recent rain two nights before must have encouraged him to come out. We wanted to see a rubber boa before fall and winter would take all the herps out of activity, so the two of us spent a lot of time turning rocks, rolling logs, and walking along stream edges. None were seen out in the open in their habitat, but as we were finished and driving home I braked my car, pulled off to the side of the road, and yelled, "Devin, rubber boa, back up the road, your side!" I didn't know if it was alive or dead, but he hopped out, ran up the road, and saw him bend down and pick up a healthy, large rubber boa. We photographed it and released it back in the same location.The next day we went to even higher elevation. We walked through a field, found a small, trickling creek and found a racer shed around some rocks. A little while further we saw a juvenile racer sitting in the tall grass, but as I prepare to move in for a catch it disappeared among the vegetation. Disappointed, we moved on, but our emotions were buoyed again as we encountered two Great Basin rattlesnakes (one large female, and one small specimen probably only about two years old).
Some fine specimens were found during our searching, but there are still a few species that are on our list and await our discovery another day.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Herps of the Holy Land

Whether you want to call it Israel, Palestine, the Occupied Territories, the Zionist Entity, or whatever description fits your political perspective, the Holy Land is an alluring place with much to see and do. This area stretches from Lebanon in the North to Egypt in the South, with Jordan sharing its eastern border and the Mediterranean lapping at its western shores. Herpetelogically speaking, this land has significant overlap with the species I've been herping during my study abroad in Jordan. There are a few herps in Jordan that the Holy Land lacks, and vice versa, but the bulk of the herps are the same. In spite of that fact, I was still excited to be in a new area with new ground to cover, even if only for just a few days.
The above picture is the view of Nazareth from a hill inside the city. As a tourist in a tour group, it sometimes gets difficult to find places away from the "scene" of tourism. The new rule of needing at least two other people with me wherever I go also makes herping a challenge. Every now and then, though, I step off the bus into a place where I am able to turn over a rock or two to see what I can find. Although herping was not extremely plentiful, there are a couple new species of note.
As already mentioned, many of the herps I documented here were repeats. This Turkish gecko was found under a rock in Nazareth. Turkish geckos were also common at night, along with a few fan-toed geckos, at the Ron Beach Hotel in Tiberias. Additionally, I observed a juniper skink in Jerusalem, a Schneider skink up north by the Golan, a marbled skink in Jerusalem, numerous starred agamas throughout the land, and an increase in numbers of lebanon lizards compared to Jordan (but oddly enough, not a single snake-eyed lizard, which were abundant in Jordan).

In Nazareth, I was surprised to also find a single Syrian agama (Trapelus ruderatus) on the same hillside where the first picture was taken. At first, I imagined that it was simply another starred agama. Since it was early in the morning and I wasn't getting much herp action, I decided to investigate the specimen out of boredom. I heard it rustling, and I looked over and spotted it just as it climbed off a large, flat rock at ground level and clamber under an overhang. When I kneeled down to get a better look, I noticed something was different about it. It seemed to move and act differently, its coloring was a bit unusual, its head was smaller in comparison to its body and more rounded, and its tail lacked the spines typical of a starred agama. This was the only picture I could take, and it doesn't clearly show the lizard, but at least it can be clicked on to enlarge it, and you can see that it was really there. Although these exist in Jordan as well, this was my first time seeing one. Its head is sticking up at the back of the crevice.
Unfortunately, letting a new specimen escape would not happen just once. Our tour group also traveled up to the northern end of the Holy Land to a place called Banias, where the forests are cool and shady, and streams of clear water flow into large pools. I desperately wanted to stay here all day to herp, but the other 40 students weren't as eager to flip rocks over for hours on end to search for reptiles and amphibians. I was only given 15 minutes of free time to look around on my own. I really wanted to find a fire salamander, but the time of day and time of year were not on my side to make this a reality. Instead, I discovered another new lizard (which escaped before I could get out my camera and sneak up on it) called an Emerald green lizard (Lacerta trilineata). It gave a rustling in the bushes like a Lebanon lizard, which I had grown accustomed to seeing, but when I looked through the dense shrub, I found that this lizard was larger, pretty much uniform in color, without any striping, and its head was less flat and more robust. The next day I saw it listed in a book about animals of the Holy Land, it being one of only four lizard species depicted in the book.
With time in Jordan gone, and time on this side of the border quickly drawing to a close, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see a Mediterranean chameleon (Chameleo chameleon). First, I was tiring of having to split my attention between scanning the trees for chameleons and scanning the ground for virtually everything else. But second, it was just mentally exhausting to constanly be thinking about them, wondering if they are in the habitat I'm in, where they could be hiding, etc. I was even beginning to question their very existence. Then, one fateful day at Tel Dan in the northern part of the country, I was lucky enough to chance about a beautiful, fully grown adult clinging to the lower trunk of a eucalyptus tree, partially concealed by a bush growing next to it.
I was absolutely ecstatic. My group was listening attentively to an explanation about a restored ruin, which I quickly grew disinterested in, and I began wandering around to see what I could find. I peered around a large eucalyptus tree and turned back. Then, I quickly looked again, thinking I had seen something that looked scaly and green. It was a tail. I followed the tail to the lizard behind the bush and saw a bright green chameleon clinging to the trunk of the tree. It was staring back at me with its turret-style eyes. I literally ran towards it (as if it could run away) and lifted it off the tree and into my hands. I became the new center of attention for just a moment, as my peers and even instructors were fascinated with my reptile find.

I had to keep staring at it to remind myself that I had indeed just caught the specie that I had dreamt about for so long. They are not particularly rare to find, but my time in the Middle East was so limited, and the days were so hot, that I didn't know if I would actually run across one in my herping during the summer. I was very pleased to finally get the chance!

And this wraps up my summer study abroad and herping adventures in Jordan and the Holy Land. Combining these places (and not including Egypt) I've managed to document a total of 35 herp species, which I think is respectable, considering the circumstances. It boils down to 27 lizard species, 4 snake species, 2 frogs, 1 toad, and 1 tortoise. Of the 27 lizards: 8 species were geckos (3 Ptyodactylus, 1 Hemidactylus, 1 Bunopus, 1 Cyrtopodion, 1 Tropiocolotes, and 1 Pristurus); 6 agamas (3 Trapelus, 1 Laudakia, 1 Pseudotrapelus, and 1 Phrynocephalus); 5 skinks; 2 Lacertids; 1 Chameleon; and 5 other. There is so much still to herp here, and in more favorable conditions these numbers could be improved. I hope to return in some future day and pick up where I left off. Until then, perhaps I can fit in some more herping in the states before winter sets in.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Herps of Jordan, Part 10 (The Northern Highlands)

No area in Jordan has been more frustrating to me for herping than the northern highlands. Beginning around the Amman area and covering the northwestern region of the country (nestled against Israel to the west and Syria to the north) is a place where the elevation is higher, the rains are heavier in the winter months, and the trees are greener. For the amount of time I've spent hiking these northern hills, the amount of interesting herps I've found has been depressingly pitiful. I blame it on my lack of adequate transportation to take me to the best areas, my timetable I'm constantly held to, and the unavoidable heat this time of year. (It certainly can't be my herping!)
I have several species on my wish list for this area of Jordan, but I've come up empty-handed every time. To look at things optimistically, however, I suppose if this had been my first area to blog about, there would have been plenty of decent herps to document from my searches here. But since I only try to post about new stuff each time, the pickings get slimmer and slimmer. Even so, I have a few "old" species to mention, as well as a couple new guys.
Scorpions are certainly not in short supply up here, either. I've come across several species during my incessant rock turning, from ant-sized brown ones, to impressive yellow ones, and even these two black ones under the same rock. The one with the tail up had just shed it, so its body was all soft, and its behavior was more shy than typical.

Lizards still make frequent showings, and the sight of any reptile is at least something to enjoy. I found these yearling starred agamas entertaining, in spite of this specie's dominance over most of western Jordan.
In addition to the abundance of starred agamas, I've been able to witness several other species in the northern highlands. I've seen snake-eyed lizards shuffling in the leaf litter; I unearthed another Eurasian blind snake in a field; I saw a Meditteranean gecko hiding behind an AC unit and one on a bench; a couple more Schneider's skinks have been seen racing across the ground to find a hole or dense bush; and Levantine fan-toed geckos will slide to the opposite side of rocks to avoid being seen. And, as pictured below, (first time actually making the effort to catch one) Lebanon lizards also race around the rocks and trees of these forested hillsides.
It seems, though, that you don't always have to be on some distant hillside to spot a new specie. The other day while walking to school in the morning I glimpsed a lizard sitting next to the sidewalk under a small bush. I've walked this route to school a hundred times, and I figured this was just another snake-eyed lizard like I see every morning. But picking up on a bit of "skink-iness" I took a second look and realized it was a skink specie that I had yet to run across in all my herping in Jordan so far. That day after school, I went herping practically in my front yard to find this new specie.
I patrolled an empty lot near the road by my apartment, which didn't exactly look like pristine habitat. However, after turning over rocks and debris, I finally uncovered a specimen of the same specie beneath a large slab of concrete in the field.
Aparently, this little section of land had been home to a small population of bridled skinks (Trachylepis vittata) that had managed to avoid my watchful eye until now. New species are always so satisfying whether they're at the top of the "wish list" or not.

The northern highlands again gave me a new specie when I visited the old ruins of Um Qais in northern Jordan, near the city of Irbid and close to the Syrian border. After I got my fill of archaeology, I stepped away from my colleagues and decided to do some quick herping while I had some time. The rocks were abundant and strewn about, so I got going flipping as many stones as I could that looked promising. Eventually, I got lucky and my persistence paid off.
Using both arms, I rolled over a large rock and excitedly saw the frantic movements of a smooth, shiny, cylinder trying to quickly bury itself beneath the soft dirt. A Jordan limbless skink, or also called Latast's legless lizard (Ophiomorus latastii), was a specie that didn't enter my consciousness often while flipping stones (and frankly, one that I didn't expect to find), but one that I was, nonetheless, very happy to capture and photograph.
I've caught a respectable number of lizard species in Jordan, but there are still a handful that I would really enjoy coming across in my field searches. I haven't been doing as well on the snake front, unfortunately. I only have about two more weeks left in Jordan, so hopefully I'll come across at least one more new specie before I head out. If not, there will still be a little time in Israel for nearly two weeks to continue my herping before flying back to the states. I think Jordan has been good to me overall, in spite of a few unproductive outings here and there.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Herps of Jordan, Part 9 (The Sandy South)

There is a place in southern Jordan called Wadi Rum that was made famous by the film "Lawrence of Arabia". Tall, time-worn cliffs hover over the windblown sand dunes and desert flats that stretch beneath them. It's the roaming ground of bedouins and camels, and only the toughest can survive here. I came to Wadi Rum with my study abroad group, and although I had less than 24 hours and had to deal with the unforgiving July sun, I still felt an insatiable desire to spend my time investigating the herps of this extreme habitat.
We arrived in mid-day and the temperature must have been 100 degrees F or higher. It wasn't easy trekking across the loose, hot sand with my backpack and water bottle, but it was a lot of fun to see what was out there. I figured not much would be in the open at this time, so I decided to check the shade and rock walls. Here, I found my first herp.
A dwark rock gecko (Pristurus rupestri) was enjoying a shady boulder pile as I walked by.
They don't seem like typical geckos. It's not a terrestrial specie and is usually seen scampering up a rock face, and yet it only has claws (no toepads). In addition, it has round pupils due to its diurnal habits. An odd little gecko, but I enjoyed observing them as I rested in the shade with my water bottle.
Here's a larger specimen of the same specie seeking shelter in crevice. I kept walking, hoping to see some more species but disappointed at the lack of life and movement--just little ticks crawling along the sand after me. If I changed direction, so would they. It was like some creepy scene from "The Mummy". Finally, in late afternoon (around 4pm) I began walking back to our camp since I had to be back for a scheduled program and dinner. My two colleagues I was with basically retraced their steps, staying in the shade, whereas I decided to walk out into the open across the sand. Just as I was thinking that everything was sheltering deep in holes, I saw a new specie.
An Arabian toad-headed agama (Phrynocephalus arabicus) was eyeing me from the other side of a bush. Finally, something out and in view! I was extremely cautious not to let it escape, since this unusual-looking lizard was a specie I very much wanted to see up close. I approached, and it sped off like zebra-tailed lizards in the US do. I ran after it, and it stopped behind another bush. The lizard contemplated its next move, and it finally did exactly what I wanted it to do...dive into the sand. I just walked around the bush, thrust my hand under the surface, and pulled out this amazing desert dweller.
Its comical appearance reminds me of a little bulldog. I'm just lucky it didn't opt for a hole, instead.
I carried it to a barren, hard-pan area for a photoshoot. He was nice enough to show me his defense posture, resting on his elbows with mouth open and tail black and curled.

I desperately wanted to herp at night since I figured many things would be out then, but with neither transportation nor a decent light, my hope was dashed. I did patrol the dunes, though, for a little while at dusk, holding onto the possibility of seeing an early riser. Again, I got lucky.
While slowly walking along the dunes at the edge of an outcrop of rocks, I saw a sand gecko (Tropiocolotes nattereri) gazing at me from beneath a rock that was overhanging the sand. The capture would be simple I thought, and not wanting to injur the delicate lizard I was dainty and gentle. To my dismay, the little guy ran across my arm and under a large, immovable boulder. I was happy to see it, but mad to let it get away so easily. The picture above is the same specie, but not the same individual. (I don't think this Internet photo is copyrighted...ha.)

With the sun down, herping for me this time would have to wait until morning. I awoke at 5:30 and went back out. I could only access nearby areas (no transportation), so I was a little frustrated that I couldn't get out and find some great habitat. I really wanted to find a sandfish or the tracks of a horned viper from the night before that I could track, but there was no luck in that regard. Before having to head out on the bus that morning, I only encountered one more new lizard specie.
I saw a total of three Schmidt's fringe-toed lizards (Acanthodactylus schmidti) catching some early rays. These were actually fairly beefy lizards. This shot was taken from a distance, and you might have to click on the photo to really do it justice...and to see its tracks in the sand. In spite of my attempts to catch them, they were extremely fast, and to my chagrin they resorted to holes rather than sand. Trying to dig them out didn't prove successful, either.

Wadi Rum was beautiful, and I can really appreciate the animals that are able to survive there. One day I'll have to return in order to resume my herping and make a few more catches. Once again, back to the bus and back to Amman.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Herps of Jordan, Part 8 (The Petra Periphery)

Petra reveals a fascinating, fallen civilization that used to once thrive in Jordan, tucked away and hidden by the steep cliff faces and narrow gulleys. It was inhabited anciently by the Nabateans, who erected monumental architecture chiseled into the stone canyons, and they laid out an ingenious hydrological network to provide water year round to the thousands of inhabitants. Now, though, all that remains are the weathered ruins, some curious tourists, and a few hardy reptiles. I came as a tourist with my study abroad group, but I also looked for a few herps along the way.
Starred agamas (sometimes called roughtail rock agamas) seem to exist throughout the country, but the species in the southern deserts of Jordan are recognized as a separate subspecie. This one is basking on the cliff wall beside the trail.
A good variety of small- to medium-sized lizards (including a few Lebanon lizards) scurry around the trails and desert gorges. These speedy ground dwellers remind me of the whiptails (Cnemidophorus sp.) found in the US; and like the whiptails, there are several species that often have overlapping ranges and are difficult to distinguish in the wild without the use of research and fieldguides.
This specie appears distinct from the one shown below, and I've only tentatively identified it as a snake-tailed fringe-toed lizard (Acanthodactylus opheodurus).
The scaling, coloring, and patterning make me think that this one is a Bosk's fringe-toed lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus). Some were a bit larger than these, but these sizes were rather usual.
I enlisted the help of a couple local children (and a donkey), who loved showing me the best places for finding lizards and were always excited after we caught one. (Except the donkey didn't really seem to care too much).
This juvenile (with still blue tail) was the smallest capture of the day. Either a little fringe-toed lizard (Acanthodactylus specie) or a sand racer (Mesalina specie), which also inhabits the area. Unfortunately I'm not as educated as I'd like to be on differentiating all these species, who in my mind look very similar, and for now this is the best I can do.
While clambering over ledges and looking in crevices I glimpsed a female southern fan-footed gecko with her clutch of eggs glued to the ceiling of the rock. The gecko can be seen to the right of her eggs, sitting motionless. The broken shell fragments in the back must be leftovers from previous clutches.

Traveler blogs and tourist pamphlets for Petra love to show blue lizards sitting on red rock. This specie being displayed is the Sinai agama, which I had caught previously, but not with the blue coloration. At Petra, it's easy to see both the blue color form, as well as with normal earth tones. Sorry, the photo isn't the greatest quality but it gets the point across.
Petra is an amazing place to hike around and admire ancient craftsmanship; and if alert, there are also several herps that can be seen in the process. My trip to Petra only lasted a few hours, and I didn't find any new mind-blowing species, but it was still nice to keep my herping skills sharp and keep an eye out for any herps along the way.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Herps of Jordan, Part 7 (The Arid East)

As one drives east from Amman, the rolling Mediterranean hills merge into a monotonous brown wasteland. Dust devils form and patrol the landscape, admiring the hardiness of any trees and shrubs that still stand.
A little further down the road (as if driving toward Iraq) you reach the city of Azraq, which means "blue" in Arabic, since it used to possess a huge, vast wetland with migrating birds, monstrous catfish, and croaking amphibians--a veritable oasis to quench the otherwise parched earth. After over a decade of pumping out the water to feed the growing demand out west, the wetlands slowly disappeared in the early 90s, leaving only remnant evidences of what once was. It was here at this ecological disaster in the city "Blue" where I decided to voyage for a day's herping.
Volcanic rocks crop out of the earth here. The mid-day heat radiates off the dark boulders, and I didn't imagine finding much in the soaring temperatures.
I was both surprised and excited to see a specie that I had seen pictured in many tourist pamphlets, a lone Sinai agama (Pseudotrapelus sinaitus) on guard duty. Often, these spindly, spidery agamas turn a brilliant blue color during breeding. They hold themselves high off the hot rock, keeping a watch for any insect that might fly or crawl by.
My friends were not always the most considerate or cooperative as I attempted to capture the agama in the uncomfortable heat.
Rather than an impressive blue (which would have been a fitting find in the city whose name indicates the same), this healthy Sinai agama specimen was a dark brown to match the igneous wasteland it inhabits.
We trekked down the hillside onto the flat, sandy ground to see what other species existed here. Keeping a close watch on us from a nearby embankment of earth sat a Persian agama (Trapelus persicus). This specie in Jordan is only found in the Azraq region, so I was pleased to find the one specimen to examine and photograph. Its appearance and demeanor struck with a ring of familiarity, making me think that this is the same specie I used to catch as a young boy in Saudi Arabia, and which I called a "scorpion lizard".
The lizard was fast to get away after being released, but surprisingly unwary of my presence when I approached it and pinned it with a stick.
While handling it, the tail began turning orange, and the sides and neck turned blue. The color change was rather fast and unexpected.
The exploration of more barren desert was on my mind, so we went to a different area. While my friends looked inside an old castle, I took the opportunity to see if I could locate a new specie or two.
I turned over many stones, but only found a large scorpion. Finally I spotted an old piece of carpet in the distance, so I jogged on over. Although the habitat isn't much to look at, the advantage that it does have for herping is that there aren't a ton of places for things to hide. Sitting under the carpet was an attractive little Baluch ground gecko (Bunopus tuberculatus), another new specie for me to stick on my list.
No toepads for this guy...just claws. Turning my eyes to the horizon, I saw a small pile of rocks and concrete that I suspected a reptile might enjoy. Sure enough, another agama specie.
A Pale agama, or Desert agama (Trapelus pallidus), found it to be a fine basking spot. Again, the capture wasn't extremely difficult.
Lizards were not super abundant out here; I imagine because little vegetation means little insect life, and hence few predators. Regardless, the few I did find I was also able to catch and photograph. I would love to see some snakes and more lizard species, but the day would have to end with this last individual. With three new agamas and one new gecko, we got back on the road and watched the scenery change back into hills and trees and green.