It's been a while since I've posted my finds on this forum, since my foray into Southern Appalachia in April, in fact.
Since then, I've come home from college in Virginia, and the family took a trip to Yellowstone, the first time any of us had seen the Wyoming Rockies. The trip west took us across Iowa in the dark, where I nearly collided with a wild hog and star-gazed between Fort Dodge and Sioux City in the hinterlands. South Dakota dragged by for hours, but at the Kennebec exit, where we threw away some trash in a dumpster, we bumped into an interesting fellow named "Cookie," based on his last name "Cook" who at first lambasted us for using his dumpster, then apologized for his manners and tried to help us with our wobbly roof rack. He wore sandals and had a tattered baseball cap, stood 5'9", and owned three or four buildings in downtown Kennebec, including the motel and auto repair shop. For reference, the entire town had not but eight non-residential buildings. He asked us where we were headed, we told him "Yellowstone," discussed how we wanted to see a bullsnake. His eyes lit up and he said, "A bullsnake, we've got two of them here; I call them Marge and Mark." He also said that he had a Tiger Salamander living in a manhole cover outside his building. In disbelief, we checked the manhole cover and poked around for bullsnakes with no success, then I played some Johnny Cash for him as payment for his hospitality (he wouldn't take cash).
Later that day, the Badlands came into sight. What a depressing part of the country. Nothing but bare rock, and enough to make an easterner used to trees vomit. The Rockies came into sight three or four hours after we stopped in the Badlands, and the snowy behemoths got closer and closer as we drove into Sheridan. After a good night's sleep in Sheridan, we drove through the Bighorn mountains the next day and into our cabins outside Yellowstone, where a Bison lumbered just down the street by a clear stream and the rocky, snowy, bare mountains towered 10,000 feet above the valley. That night, as circumstance would have it, we caught the Tiger Salamander migration exactly right, as a steady rain came down all day and drizzle continued at twilight. We road cruised a Blotched Tiger Salamander!! My first salamander west of the plains wasn't a walk in the park to photograph, though. Due to the dark and the risk of unseen bison and bears, we decided to picture it in the car.
The next few days didn't have any herps in store, but we did see giant herds of bison and a grizzly bear on hikes on the open sagebrush plains in the park. The grizzly, which came out of a cottonwood stand forty yards away, was one of the scariest experiences of my life! After driving a harrowing US route out of the mountains, we cruised up a DOR bullsnake on the high plains of Montana and started back east. On the way home, we saw Mount Rushmore and took an unsuccessful shot at Central Newts in Wisconsin, and returned home wiser and with plenty of good hiking stories!
A week later, I packed up and headed south to see my girlfriend Bethany, a fellow field herper, and try to nab a few lifers in the mid-south. After a night of driving south through the corn deserts of Western Ohio and the hills of Kentucky, I crashed early in Tennessee and spent much of the day napping and talking politics with Bethany's family. She arrived that night, and the next day, we got down to herping business.
We cruised west to Charley Pride and Hank Williams Jr. into the very corner of Mississippi to try to get a salamander in a new state, or at least a herp, and to meet up with one of my college friends from the Magnolia State. An exhaustive search of a park that looked more like the Kentucky foothills than stereotypical Mississippi didn't yield any salamanders, but it did turn up a few toads and a bulgy Pickerel Frog. From there, we headed to the Bankhead National Forest, where Bethany works, and cruised a Timber Rattler that had just been hit (it was still twitching). What a bummer, but still a beautiful snake. We flipped a long-tailed and a few scorpions at a tin site and gave Green Salamanders a perfunctory try that night, but didn't see any.
After meeting her coworkers, we set out the next day to get a Brown-backed Salamander, a taxonomic conundrum, in central Alabama. We waded through a few muddy natural springs on the outskirts of Birmingham, but came up empty-handed. I got introduced to Chick-fil-A and fell in love and saw a River Cooter on the roadside in Shelby County, AL, but the day was a bust until night fell, when over five hours of scouring cliffs back in Bankhead finally paid off with a beautiful Green Salamander! Earlier in the night, we saw multiple Mississippi Slimy sallies and a beautiful Northern Spring on the rockfaces, but couldn't get any Greens out of their crevices for photographs. All that changed at 1:15 am, when I saw a gravid female Green perched on the edge of a crevice and only had to scare it onto the forest floor to get it out in the open for photographs.
In euphoria, we went home to Tennessee the next day and went to a birthday party for Bethany's niece before hitting a remote spot in Northwest Georgia for a unique Plethodon: Pigeon Mountain Salamander. Upon arriving at the cave where we were to look for the species, we couldn't believe our luck. A herper was already there photographing our target species on a boulder just outside the cave entrance! As we both took pictures and marveled at the specimen before us, tannish-green above and black and white on the sides, Mitch told us he was on vacation from Florida and would be happy to herp with us in Conecuh or the Florida panhandle if we ever came down! We went in the cave just for fun and saw one other Pigeon Mountain, a couple Caves, and a gaggle of Northern Slimies. What a fun drive back that was as we recounted our luck and sang along to older country.
The final day of herping on the Cumberland Plateau for Tennessee Cave Salamanders proved unsuccessful, but playing instruments with Bethany back at her house and hanging out with her family proved to be a blast anyhow. I went to bed with a Georgia specialty and good Green Salamander pictures bagged. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to Bethany the next day, and I drove back across the hills to the Midwest, where a brilliant sunset over Northern Ohio lit my drive home to Detroit. So long to the Southland. Until next time.
The pictures for the southern trip are available on naherp! On a separate note, what the heck happened to the regional chapter pages?
Happy herping all!
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