Spring Salamander Emergence and Herp Hunting Etiquette Tips

Salamander Emergence is Coming Soon, Reptile and Amphibian Hunting Tips

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Spotted salamander (gravid) found during nocturnal survey. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Herp. Hunting Etiquette Tips for Safe Nocturnal Searches This Spring

Spring thaw is just around the corner, and although it's hard to believe the salamanders will be moving soon they will be coming out withing the next few weeks. Conditions have to be just right for salamanders to migrate from their wintering grounds to breeding ponds. Some of the earliest movers for the Eastern US region are the spotted salamanders though marbles and others are close behind.

To view these early emergent visitors you should look for the the perfect conditions (often nocturnal, including at least 45-50 degree temperatures (Fahrenheit), light rain, and lengthening days. Usually these conditions in our region (Maryland) are met around the second or third week of February though this can be variable from year to year. It's not unheard of to see salamanders moving through snow piles to reach their ponds.

There are environmentally friendly ways to look for salamanders and early herps (meaning the study of reptiles and amphibians, short for herpetological), and methods that can cause major harm to an ecosystem. This post is about spring herp hunting etiquette.

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Why do spotted salamanders, and others, move so early in the Spring?

There are some advantages to early migration by salamanders (and other herps), this is especially true if the salamander larvae (young) take longer to develop than other species, there is intense competition for resources, their vernal pools dry up quickly, to avoid predation, and give the young a head start. Knowing the salamanders that move early can give you clues as to where and when to look for them. Nocturnal migration is very common for larger salamanders and many species of herps. This is why male frogs rely on sound cues to call females.

How Can I Find Early Migrating Salamanders?

The best way to view the early salamander migrants is to join local reptile and amphibian surveyors when they go out. In our region we have the Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas folks that survey each county regularly. There are reptile and amphibian monitoring organizations in every state. Some are run by the Department of Natural Resources and some are run privately. Most of them usually have the blessing of some larger coordinating body to ensure legal rules are followed and for the sharing of data and information. Many outdoor education centers also conduct seasonal vernal pool surveys and walks as well. Regional outdoor organizations will also have documentation about the best places and times to watch emergence, which can be very helpful.

When you go out here are a few things to consider for good herp hunting etiquette:

  • Make sure you have permission to access the area that you want to visit and survey.
  • Be sure that the area you're in is not a sensitive wetland or wildlife conservation area, and that your presence won't cause additional harm to the local ecosystem.
  • Be sure to communicate to someone your planned route, and the time you plan to spend there. This way if something happens someone will know where and when to look for you.
  • PLEASE, PLEASE,PLEASE, PLEASE wash all field gear before going out, including bleaching or washing your boots, rain gear, gators, pants, gloves, nets, etc. before you go. There are many cross-contaminating diseases out there affecting amphibian populations. Don't risk spreading disease to these sensitive amphibians and reptiles. THIS SHOULD BE DONE EVERY TIME YOU VISIT A NEW AREA...REPEAT AFTER ME...EVERY TIME.
  • Wear layers of clothing.
  • Check the weather conditions before you go out to be sure it's safe.  I've been caught more than once in high winds and lightening conditions because of quickly deteriorating weather. Play it safe and get out of the woods quickly if weather changes.
  • Take at least 3 lights (always have 2 back-ups) if you're going out at night. At least one should be a head lamp with a red light. Red light is less confusing to reptiles and causes less night blindness and disorientation.
  • Make sure you have at least one additional person, the extra set of eyes is helpful. If you're moving around at night, or in the woods, anything can happen.
  • Take a charged cell phone or means of communication.
  • Take a small first aid kit.
  • Take photos of what you find and record as much data as possible. If you are searching independently you can contribute your data to online organizations such as Project Noah, iNaturalist, the Amphibian Conservation Education Project,  or other local surveys.

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    Leopard Frog found during night time surveys (Photo: Karen McDonald)

  • When searching stay on trails or roads as much as possible to avoid stepping on herptofauna buried under the leaves or that may be migrating.
  • Avoid loud noises, extra bright lights, or unnecessary movement.
  • Carry at least one bottle of water, dechlorinated. If you need to clear dirt off of a salamander to take a picture of key field markings, this may be useful. Do not not to touch the salamander if possible (see reasons below).
  • If you turn over logs or debris always return them to their proper position. When turning over a log always roll it towards yourself and your boots. This way, if a snake pops out it will slither away from you instead of across your feet! If the salamander or herp moves and is in danger of being squashed due to the repositioning of the log, then try to move it safely to the edge of the log before rolling back over. Use a soft piece of grass or moist leaf if you have to, but don't touch if you can avoid it.
  • Do not "over survey" an area. This is something that nature centers can be quite guilty of when running programs for school groups. Surveys can be beneficial in and of themselves, but too much surveying and tromping through habitat can cause habitat denigration and cause major problems with the herp breeding populations.
  • If you're using nets to handle herps then be sure that they are the right size, and that the holes won't allow them to go through. This is especially true for sensitive tadpoles that can get caught and injured in improperly sized nets. Again, minimize handling, and wet your  hands if you have to get animals out of the nets.
  • Avoid driving near or around the areas you're searching, instead walk in. Your car could cause unintended damage by running over the herps!

DSCF1934Do not handle the amphibians or reptiles if possible. This rule is for a variety of reasons:

  1. Some salamanders are "lungless" meaning that they breathe entirely by oxygen absorption through their skin. By touching them you may take off their mucus layer, decreasing their ability to breathe, or you may contaminate their skin.
  2. Most salamanders and herps coming out of hibernation are "skinny" or thin from using their fat/energy resources to hibernate. Handling causes undue stress and use of energy reserves that might otherwise see them through the breeding season and cold nights.
  3. Amphibians and reptiles can carry salmonella on their skin. You could contract salmonella poisoning.
  4. If you do handle the herps (for pictures, to move them to safety, etc) be sure to wash your hands in between and after handling, and make sure that your hands are moist and wet when handling amphibians.

When you go out to search for herps remember to look right around the pond's edges as well as the upland slopes surrounding the ponds. These slopes are where salamanders and frogs often crawl or hop to hunt and find shelter.

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Spotted Salamander in night time herp survey (Photo: Karen McDonald)

If you are surveying night-time migrations, such as spotted salamanders, be sure to find places where they may cross to get from their woodland areas to their breeding ponds. This may include a "warm" road or sidewalk. If you can make visitors and drivers aware of these crossing areas (with signs or regulations) and try to keep people from driving there at night. Night time driving in migration zones is a major cause of mortality for mating reptiles and amphibians. You can buy salamander and reptile crossing signs online, here's one for salamanders on Amazon.

Salamander and herp hunting can be quite fun if it's done safely and with the intention to do as little harm as possible to the environment. Help others by making them aware of these simple tips and idea when you're going out.