There may be little on Earth that I enjoy more than sharing a campfire with friends and retiring to my tent once all the stories have been told and the beer supply depleted, leaving the rain cover off so that I fall asleep only after tiring of watching the stars. On the other hand, there are few things more miserable than having it rain on my face the next morning. The fond memories of the night before quickly fade as I try to find a corner of my tent that isn’t being bombarded by water.
Yet, this was my Sunday morning last week, camping within the Talladega National Forest in central Alabama for this spring’s Bioblitz. I had learned my lesson of the year before during the 2008 Bioblitz, I was ready for the cold and had brought my winter sleeping bag, capable of keeping me warm during the frigid nights. I had used this bag for March camping trips in Newfoundland and Maine, surely it was equipped for central Alabama. Unfortunately, it wasn’t waterproof and I hadn’t checked the weather for the weekend.
It would’ve made little difference had I known of the torrential downpours that were expected for Sunday morning. I was representing Auburn University during the annual spring Bioblitz, the biannual competition between Auburn, the University of Georgia, and this year, the University of Alabama. Our goal, as always, was to survey the amphibians and reptiles in a little-studied area, and I couldn’t be kept away.
I’ve previously noted that we often lack the most basic information about amphibians and reptiles, in many cases our knowledge of a particular species is based on sporadic observations. Many species, for example small salamanders, are extremely secretive, hidden under clumps of moss or leaves for nearly their entire lives. It’s no surprise that we often have a poor understanding of the geographic distribution of these animals. Field guides often insert numerous question marks onto range maps; we simply do not know for sure where many species can be found.
But this is essential information. Although amphibians and reptile populations are declining across the country, how can we say if a species has disappeared in a region if we didn’t know if it occurred there in the first place? This is why it’s so important to compile this information, referred to as baseline data; Baseline data represent something to compare our future observations to.
At the request of state and federal agencies, we were conducting this spring’s Bioblitz within and surrounding the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, in Bibb County, Alabama. This refuge is one of the youngest in the country, formed in 2002, and has a history of abuse. The land was once primarily used for coal mining and there remain many reminders of this past use, in particular a giant strip mine running through the center of the refuge. In addition, the longleaf pine uplands were extensively logged and gradually replaced with loblolly pine, a species that grows faster than longleaf and therefore can be harvested sooner.
But nature has clung on in this small area, the Cahaba River continues to flow through the property, harboring 135 different species of fish and if you look hard enough, you may find one of the several federally listed species that reside on the property.
Federal and state biologists have begun attempts to restore the land, and are returning longleaf pine seedlings to the uplands in the hopes of once again viewing the historic forest and all the animals that should naturally occur there. One of our goals for this weekend was to find some of those longleaf-pine associated animals that may be hanging on in the property in isolated pockets. If they were still there, it would be that much easier for the populations to rebound to their previous abundance once their normal habitat was present. One of these species was the six-lined racerunner, a small black lizard with six lines alongside its body. These lizards are fast and often reveal themselves only as a dark blur streaming through the grass and out of sight. This species is highly associated with the longleaf pine forest and may be found in grassy areas with lots of light streaming in through the trees.
Our goal was to find this and other species before any of the other teams, compiling points for animals found on the refuge as well as species never before documented in the county. We thought that the contest would be close this time, but as we all emerged soaking wet and miserable from our tents, we all made the decision that we’d cut the competition short rather than try to make a day out of finding more critters. The Auburn team huddled together and reflected back on the weekend, hoping that we had amassed enough species to beat the other teams.
This was actually weekend two of the competition, the first weekend, of which I was not a part, included a canoe trip down the Cahaba River to nab some elusive turtles. This mission was a great success and included the capture of two Alabama map turtles. The first map turtle was caught after it was seen basking on a log hanging over the water. With great speed and stealth, Sean Graham and Katie Gray sped towards the log and managed to grab the turtle out of the air as it attempted to plunge into the water to escape. Their ecstasy and jubilation at such a dramatic capture of a rare species was muted somewhat, however, when a hatchling map turtle decided to just wander out of the water onto the beach beside them where they were later eating lunch.
Additional finds from that previous weekend include a worm snake residing under rocks and leaves in a hardwood forest along the river and a cottonmouth that had been decapitated by some careless individual. Both of these species had never been documented before in the refuge or even the entire county.
So, when I awoke the next weekend on Saturday, we knew we had a fairly strong foundation; my job was to accompany Matt Connell, an Auburn undergraduate, and try to pick up some of the species that had been missed the first time around. One of the first tasks was to retrieve some crayfish traps that had been set the day before in the hopes of capturing some large aquatic salamanders, like sirens and amphiumas. After our initial disappointment at seeing the empty traps, we headed towards the refuge.
Conservation organizations, like The Nature Conservancy, often have limited funds that they can use to purchase and conserve land. To make the most of their money, the often focus on lands that are adjacent to property that they know will be protected forever, like federally owned wildlife refuges. In this way, large areas of connected land can be conserved, rather than little isolated pockets that can contain less species. It is for this reason that The Nature Conservancy had purchased a few tracts of land around Cahaba River NWR, and one of these was our first stop.
Near the road, some thoughtless people had dumped a load of used carpet. Matt and I eagerly searched the rolls for any animals hiding within and produced the first find of our day. When a small lizard with a bright blue tail suddenly appeared and ran for cover, we pounced upon and immediately identified the animal as a skink. There are three different species that live in the area that look almost identical and only after observing the scale patterns on its tail and face did we recognize it as a small broadhead skink, a species that hadn’t yet been identified in the county. And just like that, we were on the board.
Shortly after finding the skink, I spied a ringneck snake sunning itself on the path. This species, typically about six inches long, is particularly easy to find this time of year, apparently the University of Georgia team had found a dozen the previous weekend. After taking a photograph, I moved the snake off the path where no unsuspecting visitors might step on it.
Our next step was a rocky cliff overlooking the Cahaba River. The many leaf-covered rock piles and outcrops seemed excellent habitat for rat snakes, black racers, or timber rattlesnakes, and I eagerly searched the crevices for their distinctive shapes or patterns, but no snakes were to be found. We did record green anoles and eastern fence lizards scurrying around the tree stumps and under the rocks.
The refuge is relatively small, and we repeatedly bumped into some of the University of Georgia team as they set turtle traps, searched the woods, or waded through creeks after the same animals we were looking for. We found that it was often hard to visit spots we were optimistic about without revealing their location to our rivals. When we passed each other we sized each other up, trying to get a feel for we each may have found.
As soon as we could be certain that the UGA team was not close by, we visited a grassy site alongside a vast wooded canyon that was once a coal mine, a prime area for restoration. As I looked down into the depths I noticed a brown blur disappear into the grass by my feet. At that speed, it had to be a racerunner. I yelled to Matt that this was the place where we’d catch one of these elusive speedsters and I thought to myself that we wouldn’t leave until we did. Our day had been fairly slow, and I felt we needed a good catch like a six-lined racerunner, a potential new county record, to keep pace with our competition. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Matt pounced on one and came up with it in his hand. A couple photographs later, the lizard was released, we had the proof we needed to officially document the species.
Afterwards, we found a beaver pond hidden between two hills and though we spent over an hour precariously balancing on the shoreline as we walked its perimeter, we could not catch anything, despite hearing a bullfrog and spotting a basking slider and stinkpot turtle.
As we drove out of this corner of the refuge, we spotted one of UGA’s vehicles near where we had found the racerunner. All we could do was hope they didn’t find one as well.
The day was well advanced at this point, and Matt and I discussed some strategy. We decided to make our way to town to get something to eat and drive back slowly to return to the beaver pond at nightfall. We’d hope to record some frogs calling for mates. Each species has a distinctive and unique call, if we could get a good recording of a singing frog; that would be sufficient for official documentation.
As we drove we occasionally pulled over to examine piles of rocks, wood, or garbage that looked promising. This tactic paid off quickly, as we found a beautiful black kingsnake hiding under some litter. After a few quick pics, we headed back to the pond.
We arrived at the wetland at dark, the temperature plummeted along with the sun. We spent about forty minutes on the shore, but I could only get a recording of spring peepers, a species that had been already been found.
Matt and I returned to our campsite and started a fire, unsure of how we fared in relation to the other teams. Over the course of the next couple hours, people started straggling in, sharing some stories and drinks as we enjoyed the warmth of the flames. We were oblivious of the rain that was a few hours away.
On Sunday morning we collected the traps we had set the previous day and quickly cruised by some potentially productive areas in the hopes that we could record some last minute species.
We met UGA at the designated time and place, not entirely confident that our efforts were sufficient to defeat them (The University of Alabama team didn’t make it). We had recorded numerous new county records, including the cottonmouth, worm snake, and six lined racerunner. But Georgia also had some significant finds, including three corn snakes.
As to who came out on top, was there ever any doubt?