Finding Herps on Spence Ridge Trail

Although I’m no longer a student, back-to-school commercials and sales still are the harbingers of the end of summer. We can feel the days getting shorter, cooler, and less humid here in North Carolina, and my friends and I are doing what we can to take advantage of the days while they are still quite long. This August, we spent a whirlwind weekend enjoying the sweeping views at Table Rock, and the streams and forest along Spence Ridge Trail.

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A delightful surprise on this particular trip was the abundance of herps. Similar to birders who enjoy searching for birds, people go “herping” to search for reptiles and amphibians, and a herpetologist is one who studies them.

After a day of hiking and bouldering, slow and tired, I moved about camp organizing my things, when the slightest bit of movement caught my eye — a two-inch long, smooth-skinned salamander climbed slowly up the tree trunk next to my tent. Upon returning home, I looked in a field guide and some online resources. My best guess of this species is Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus), but I would love to know an expert’s opinion.

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Luckily this close encounter at dusk was an innocuous one. Earlier on Saturday on the boulders along Linville River, I was busy photographing some Eastern Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) that swam in a puddle. My friend yelled, and pointed out the snake that lie coiled under a bush right in the middle of where we were all hanging out for the afternoon. A venomous but stunningly beautifully patterned pit viper called a Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix). It stayed motionless, and we made sure to give it plenty of space during the rest of our stay until we headed back to camp. A couple feet away is as close to a brush with danger as I ever care to be!

We did end up seeing a few more copperheads, and we hiked along much more carefully. Our final visitors were quite pleasant, and even comical. At night we were visited separately by two toads, whose hopping locomotion really excited the dogs. We simply scooped up the toads and moved them away from camp to prevent one of the dogs ingesting one out of curiosity. Danger thwarted again! Thankfully all dogs and humans made it through the weekend safely.

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