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.

Praying Mantises

Praying Mantis July 5

While I am fascinated with all insects, I have a special fondness for praying mantises. It started with Mother, with foggy memories of her passing bewildered mantises into my cupped hands and telling me to release them somewhere safe, somewhere beyond the reach of our hungry chickens.

Praying Mantis Sept 30

It’s possible these memories aren’t real. It’s possible that I began saving praying mantises from the chickens without any prompting from Mother, though it’s the kind of lesson she would have taught.

Praying Mantis July 30

Sadly, our yard is currently without chickens. (Sad for me, at least. The praying mantises probably don’t mind.) With no hungry chickens about, I no longer catch and move mantises when I find them. Instead I crawl after them with my camera — slow motion chases complicated by grass allergies, mosquitoes, and arachnophobia.

Praying Mantis Aug 10

I’m a skeptic when it comes to animal symbolism, but many sources say praying mantises are symbols of patience and stillness, appearing when life has become too busy.

Praying Mantis Aug 10

This summer has seen month after month pass with distractions ranging from minor to major. A series of household repairs. A trio of elderly cats, two in failing health. A new bout of depression and anxiety.

And now the yard is full of praying mantises. More praying mantises than ever before. In every flower bed, on every overhanging branch, even in the hanging baskets.

Praying Mantis Aug 31

Perhaps I’m not such a skeptic after all.

Praying Mantis July 5

Perhaps it’s time to slow down and try a different approach.

Praying Mantis Aug 5

Anaxyrus (formerly Bufo)*

Toad May 2

Early in May I found this little toad while I was mowing. After taking a few photos, I helped it into a flower bed and continued mowing, planning out a blog post as I made circuit after circuit around the yard.

I thought it would be a fun exercise to identify my toad. In the past, I’ve had good luck identifying reptiles and amphibians using the information provided on the Virginia Herpetological Society’s website, so I started there.

Have a look at this page from the website, which outlines the anatomy of a toad’s head, particularly the cranial crests, postorbital ridges, and parotid glands. The next page illustrates how these structures help identify three of the six species of toads found in Virginia.

Based on a visible (but not prominent) cranial crest, I narrowed the list of possibilities to either an Eastern American Toad or a Fowler’s Toad. But the pertinent detail for separating these two species, whether or not the postorbital ridge contacts the parotid gland, was not discernible. Falling back on secondary characteristics, I spent some time counting the number of warts in each of the toad’s spots. One or two warts per spot indicates an Eastern American Toad, while Fowler’s Toads have three or more. My toad had one or two in most of its spots, but three in a few. Since the two species are known to hybridize, was this inconsistency enough to identify my toad as a hybrid?

Two of the other listed characteristics aren’t visible in my photos. I can’t say whether my toad had spots on its chest and abdomen, nor if it had any enlarged warts on its tibia. (No enlarged warts are visible in my photos, but the photos do not show the full length of both tibias.)

Having exhausted my vague knowledge of toad anatomy, but still without a definite identification, I was curious as to whether an expert might have better luck. I sent my photos to the Virginia Herpetological Society’s e-mail identification resource, and their prompt response said my toad was likely a Fowler’s Toad. But they added a note: “Toad ID can be a bit tricky…”

Toad May 2

* In the last decade, genetic findings have shaken up the world of toad nomenclature. One of the changes removed some North American toads from the genus Bufo and shifted them into a new group with an old name, Anaxyrus. This article provides a good overview. So, for most of my Virginia toads, Bufo has been reduced to a parenthetical:  Anaxyrus (formerly Bufo). I feel a bit bereft, as Bufo was one of the few genus names I had bothered to memorize, but I suppose Anaxyrus is easy enough to remember. Except, I’m not quite certain why I would ever need to remember the genus names of North American toads…

House Wrens and Deadly Weather

House Wren April 23

Last summer the yard had its first nest box success. (See posts about the house wrens here, here, here, and here.)

Wren April 30

Now we have a new pair of wrens adding twigs to the nest box.

Wren April 30

Wren April 30

Wren April 30

I’m looking forward to new nestlings in the yard…

Wren May 1

Wren May 1

But I can’t claim happiness, these last few days. On April 28th tornadoes tore through the place where I grew up, Lincoln County Tennessee. Two people died. In the days before and after Lincoln County’s tragedy, the same storm system ravaged other communities, and there were more deaths. I ache for the families who have lost so much.

I would stop there, if aching helped, but I need to do more. So I’m making a few donations to organizations that are helping families recover and rebuild. Maybe you could consider doing the same?

Review: My Beloved Brontosaurus

My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

First, I have to confess that this is not really a review. It’s mostly a chance for me to visit one of my favorite topics. I have been fascinated by dinosaurs for a very, very long time. As I read My Beloved Brontosaurus, my fingers began to itch for the feel of my old plastic toys, the ones that roared through my childhood and paced across my shelves. They are (and were at the time) scientifically inaccurate. However, they were (and still are) great fun.

Dinosaurs April 4

Unlike my battered collection of mismatched toys, My Beloved Brontosaurus is equal parts good science and good fun. Much of it is a journey through paleontology’s growing pains, exploring name changes, skeletal puzzles, and feather mysteries. Chapter by chapter, the book details how Brontosaurus became Apatosaurus, how the upright posture that once defined a dinosaur was discovered in non-dinosaurs from the same time period, and how evidence hints that many dinosaurs had feathers or protofeathers (sometimes referred to as dinofuzz.)

My Beloved Brontosaurus is the most fun I’ve had with dinosaurs in years. Not only is the science interesting, the book strikes resonant chords in each chapter with elements of memoir, personal essay, and travel writing. As I turned the last page, I was filled with a deep yearning to pack a bag and head off on a multi-state museum tour. A few minutes later, coming to my senses and realizing that travel is not my favorite way to spend time, I headed off to the attic in search of a dusty box full of memories.

Dinosaurs April 4

(I don’t know how the woolly mammoth [definitely not a dinosaur] made it into this batch of plastic dinosaurs. Nor the sail-backed Dimetrodon. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I found a blog post, yesterday, explaining how Dimetrodon is #notadinosaur”.)

Dinosaurs April 4

Since I started this post with a confession, it seems appropriate to end with one. I don’t remember some of these dinosaurs. They mysteriously appeared in my collection when Mother mailed off several boxes of old toys as she attempted to de-clutter her house. I can’t say with certainty which of the dinosaurs were mine and which ones became mine as Mother packed the boxes, but I’m happy to claim them all now.

Dinosaurs April 4

(As an aside, it’s somehow logical to me that cats might have had something to do with most of history’s extinction crises.)

Dinosaurs April 4