Saturday, July 5, 2008

North Shore Salamander Search

I met up with old friend Les, he of grad-school commiserations and the Quest for the Giant Salamander fame. We had decided to go herping along the North Shore Mountains, the smallish yet rugged mountains that are Vancouver’s northern backdrop. Herping is like birding, except instead of walking along listening and looking up, you are bent over, flipping rocks and other debris, or wading through muck, yelling back and forth at each other. Why go herping? To see what’s there, of course.

Rice Lake
We started at Rice Lake, which is a pretty little lake in the Seymour drainage system. It is stocked with trout for the delight of anglers, and is known for its large population of Rough-skinned Newts. It is perhaps because of the latter that although we found a few egg-containing salamander egg masses (Northwestern Salamander) in the shallows, we saw many more tattered masses devoid of eggs. Rough-skinned newts will eat the eggs of salamanders.

Northwestern Salamander eggs, Rice Lake.

It doesn’t take much time to circumnavigate Rice Lake, and soon we were on the road, heading west. We were on our way to Hollyburn Mountain, where Les had a vague idea of the location of several ponds that contained Northwestern Salamander larvae. He had seen them there, years before, as a student.

But first we stopped at the Swiss Chalet on Marine Drive in North Vancouver. How could we not? There was a Swiss Chalet across the road from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where we were lab-mates. We often ate there. So many reminiscences. We also noted that the composition of the rolls had changed. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

We drove the Upper Levels Highway to the Cypress turn-off, then the hairpin turn to Hollyburn. It was a hot day, and the parking lot was baking. The ponds Les remembered were off a broad hydro right-of-way that seemed to go almost straight up. Up we went. It was 36 degrees C, but there was snow in the shadows, which created a cooling reverse sauna around our ankles. The Labrador tea and blueberries were about six weeks behind their sea-level relatives.

We got to the first pond, perhaps a little surprised to actually find it. It was the size of a tennis court, with soft banks that dropped into deep water. We saw salamander larvae almost immediately: they darted from the vegetation at the pond’s edge when your shadow fell across it. They disappeared into the dark brown deep. They resemble tadpoles, but with feathery external gills at the corners of their heads.

Northwestern Salamander egg mass.

We continued on to two or three more ponds. Eventually one was shallow enough to wade in. And was it cold! There were several grapefruit-sized Northwestern Salamander egg masses attached to submerged sticks.

Les is a very gifted herper and soon managed to catch a small larval salamander with his hands.

Northwestern Salamander larva.

Shortly after that he caught a later stage larvae, looking more like a salamander but still with conspicuous gills. One or both , the second most likely, were larvae that had hatched the previous spring. Many complete metamorphosis to become terrestrial, burrowing salamanders in their second summer.

After that, we stumbled across the largest Red-sided Garter Snake I had ever seen. I was happy just to marvel at it, but Les could not contain himself, and grabbed it. Because he is a gifted herper, he was not bitten. There is no way to avoid the musk, however.

As with all successful expeditions, we ended up in a pub, this time at Lonsdale Quay, across the inlet from Vancouver. A fine way to end a hot, sunny day of herping -- sitting on the patio, cold beer in hand, smelling of snake musk -- as always.

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