Hellbender Salamanders

I spent countless hours, when I was young, exploring the creek that ran through our woods. I found crawdads and snails, snakes and minnows, darters and stream lamprey. I also found an amazing variety of small, slippery salamanders, the kind that lived in every creek in the county. But I never found a hellbender.


I didn’t know hellbenders existed until one of my classmates brought one to school. I was fascinated, but I was also jealous. So jealous that I didn’t want to look too closely at the giant salamander, which I remember as a vague, slimy shadow, curled up and completely covering the bottom of a five-gallon bucket. Instead of participating in the general excitement over the hellbender, I hung near the back of the crowd, wishing the bell would ring so that I could go home and catch one of my own.

(As with all of my memories, it’s possible this story isn’t true. The past is treacherously malleable, changing as I change, fading as I age. It’s possible that I stared at the hellbender for hours. I might have reached in and touched it. There might have been some other creature in the bucket, or there might not have been a bucket at all.)

I never did find a hellbender of my own. Not in my creek (I realized later it had always been too small and shallow for hellbenders) and not in any of the other creeks I visited. But I never quit looking.

Abrams Falls

I now live in eastern Virginia, where there are no hellbenders. My childhood creek belongs to someone else, and hellbenders are increasingly rare, even in suitable creeks. At this point, my chances of finding a hellbender are roughly equal to my chances of finding a dragon. But the story isn’t over. There is hope for the future, for hellbenders and for me. Conservation efforts are making progress, so perhaps hellbenders won’t disappear altogether. And the next time someone shows up with a bucket full of wonder, I won’t be too jealous to look.

A Mammal Mystery (and a Dilemma)

This week I spent two afternoons at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The first visit was cold and windy with heavy, low-hanging clouds. My photos from that day are grainy and blurred, including several photos of a rather large mammal crossing one of the many open areas of water.


At first I thought the creature was an otter. It was too big to be a muskrat, and the habitat was wrong for beaver.

But, what about the shape of its head? Doesn’t look like an otter’s head…


Which leaves me with nutria. (Please comment if you can correct or confirm my guess!)


I returned the next day, lured by warmer temperatures, clearing skies, and continuing curiosity. The animal wasn’t there when I arrived, so I walked the other trails for a few hours and circled back at sunset for one more try. By then the light was even worse than the previous day, so I almost missed the familiar form. Forms, because there were two.

Nutria Nov 5

I took a few photos, though I knew it was too dark for my camera’s lens, and I was on the point of leaving (the refuge closes at dusk) when smaller versions of my mystery mammals appeared.

Nutria Nov 5

The waning light defeated my camera, so all I have to share are shadows and silhouettes. My photos don’t show how the young animals played in the water, how they chased each other in widening ripples. How they ventured into open water, then hurried back to the safety of their parents.

I watched, enthralled, until the sun’s light disappeared completely. The scene was charming. Baby animals are always charming.

Except, in the case of nutria, charm quickly fades.

I have mixed feelings about eradication programs aimed at invasive species. Nutria undoubtedly wreak havoc on marsh ecosystems, but what are the chances they can be eradicated permanently? And what is the cost? The bottom line is that all ecosystems change. Coastal ecosystems, in particular, are under immense pressure. Can we hold back the tide? Should we? I’m not proposing that we do nothing, but I suspect eradication is not a sustainable goal.