(Originally posted on our 2012 Field Blog — posted by Renee, content by Sean)
by Sean Graham, continued from “Blue Creek Death March – Parts I and II”
We rejoin our intrepid herpetologists on the banks of the Conecuh River at 1:00 p.m. (EST).
We [Sean and George] ate our lunches–such as they were–quickly, and rested by wading in the shallows and walking slowly, scanning the shallow water of the river, looking for Smooth Softshells and other undocumented species. We had another good find here as well. The shallows near the river contained a swarm of black tadpoles, which I assumed were those of Fowler’s Toads, since this species often breeds along the slack margins of big rivers, despite the legion of dangers involved in doing so. This is another species found commonly to the north in Alabama but which becomes much rarer in south Alabama. It was noted by Mount in his 1980 report but was not located by the 2006-2007 survey of Guyer and colleagues, and is not represented by a vouchered specimen, so it was one of the ones I was looking for.
For all we knew, Mount could have misidentified some of the much more abundant Southern Toads (left) hopping about in this area, and perhaps there were never Fowler’s Toads here. The species is demonstrably more common just to the north of the forest in Crenshaw County, where they can be heard calling from nearly any wetland, and I had already tried getting them within the Conecuh and failed. I expected to find them breeding in Rome Pond–a perfectly suitable breeding site for them which had a population of another northern species, the Northern Cricket Frog. But so far, no Fowler’s Toads.
So, I started hatching schemes of collecting tadpoles and raising them to metamorphosis before I remembered a better way to find them. Often, Fowler’s Toads can be found during the day, hiding under rocks and logs in sandbars near these same slack sections. After lifting a few jagged slabs of limestone, we’d found three male Fowler’s Toads. We got good photos of them, and made sure to get illustrative photos of their heads, so that one could see they did not have the bulbous cranial knobs typical of the Southern Toad.
As we headed back I realized we were in for a very long, arduous walk. The current of Blue Creek at the confluence is pretty strong, such that I almost immediately took to the bank to make better progress. But the bank had its own difficulties, primarily the thick scrub that formed impenetrable thickets of jungly briars. So it was very slow going, since we were marching back upstream. The current essentially made it feel like we were wearing shoes that weighed ten pounds. We made our way back, getting out of the creek occasionally to cut across meanders by land. It was much hotter out of the creek, and we were sweating profusely, losing water and salts. I started to feel nauseous and dehydrated only about a mile into the return hike. We stopped by a little spring with a slick of green slime to refill our water bottles, and I greedily drank it up, fighting to stay hydrated. After an hour or so of this return trek I began craving a cold beer. After two more hours, I had forgotten all about the beer and just thought about eating salty corn chips. After three hours I just thought about getting the hell out of the creek and indoors.
By the time we got back to the waterfall, we were stopping every 15 minutes or so to rest. Every branch we had dodged on the way down became a major obstruction that our weary arms had trouble brushing away. Every log we had to climb over became a very slow, painstaking barrier. Crossing through dense, shrubby thickets became a major operation. I had intended on photographing the swamp honeysuckle on the way back, but never even noticed it on the return trip. My muscles began to cramp, a sign that I’d already blown through any of the salts I’d consumed in my puny lunch. By the time we got to the boggy area that I’d admired early that morning, I had not one thought of stopping to look for salamanders. The thick peaty mud of the bog was now a relentless obstacle, grabbing at my legs. I called out for George briefly, hoping he was still behind me but secretly not caring one bit. I called again and got no response. I called once more, and heard George scream. Ah, yes, at least that meant he was at that moment alive. I thought briefly about going back for him, but instead turned and continued to plod along.
By the time I got back to the upper reaches of Blue Creek, where it descends in seeps from Rome Pond’s impoundment, I was really starting to be amazed at how slow my progress was, and I was in all seriousness in survival mode. That last stretch up to the open trail behind the lake, and the trail over to Rome House, must have taken me a half hour to walk. By then George had caught back up, and he appeared to be slightly alive. The last 50 meters to the house was a zombie shuffle for both of us. The cool of the air conditioned house felt like Antarctica.
We undressed and began wolfing down food and water like jackals, hoping but not really caring that Jill–the other, female intern–would not come down and find us, half naked, muddy, and smelly, ravenously gulping down water and food. After a tortured shower (the hot water felt like being bullwhipped), I collapsed on a bed. I didn’t sleep, I just let my body recover. After an hour of this, and after my body became osmotically balanced, I was able to walk again. An hour after that, our sense of humor came back, and we celebrated our survival, George’s demonstrated toughness, and our discoveries with some beers. We’d been walking in the creek for some nine hours.
As soon as I was physically able, I downloaded the photos to my laptop, chose the best, most representative photos of the Queen Snake and Fowler’s Toad and sent them via email to the current curator of the Auburn Museum with locality data. With these new finds, the official species list of Conecuh National Forest now stands at 105, a massive total for such a small area. Consider that the entire state of Pennsylvania has 26 fewer species than this national park. Consider that Alabama has only 51 species of herpetofauna that are not found within the boundary of Conecuh National Forest. The Concecuh National Forest list includes three species that are no longer expected to occur in the area, and are therefore presumed to be extirpated. The Southern Hognose Snake (which by anybody’s best guess has been eliminated by fire ants), the Southern Dusky Salamander, and the Flatwoods Salamander. One of these species – the Eastern Indigo Snake – has been reintroduced. And one is a newcomer; an exotic species we also documented this year for the first time: the Mediterranean Gecko. We have formally established the presence of 17 species that had not been vouchered or verified yet for the Conecuh National Forest – ranging from no-brainers like Corn Snakes to fortuitous grabs like our Queen Snake on Blue Creek – and in the past two years we have added three entirely new species to the list. How high the total goes is anybody’s guess, but due to its proximity to the continent’s most diverse region for herps (reportedly the Florida Panhandle) and to the interesting intermingling of northern and southern herpetofaunal elements, the herpetofaunal species richness of Conecuh National Forest can be expected to be as high or higher than just about any other place in the United States.