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.