Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Searching for Pepperwood's Reptiles and Amphibians

By Jay Scherf

Western Skink (Plestiodon skiltonianus)
Our laughter echoed up the hillside.  I mean, how often do clueless little animals bury themselves in your hair? The skink we’d caught, still young with an electric blue tail, had been brave enough to crawl out of my hand and up my shoulder. When my co-volunteer Jenny was able to fish it out of the burrow it’d made on the back of my head, it squirmed through her fingers, fell on my lap, and decided to nestle in my fly instead.

That’s what the herp survey’s about, though: looking for something to surprise us. Now, in the dry season when reptile and amphibian activity is low, Jenny and I find less animals hiding under our 18 plywood cover boards than in the spring. What does turn up, then, is often unexpected.

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) 
Like the racer we found last month at double ponds; a clever diurnal snake, it locked its gaze with mine like it knew what I was the moment I lifted it close to me. Or the nesting mouse near the observatory, huddling in its ball of moss. And the Ensatina salamander, a delicate little fingerling, hiding in an abandoned rodent burrow among the parched live oaks on Grouse Hill. Only the fence lizards skittering through the leaves, the dozens of tiny chorus frogs at the ponds, and the resident scorpion of Redwood Canyon #1 make our list without fail; whatever else we find is left to chance. 

But we always find something. That’s the thing about herps: they’re accessible, they’re easy to catch, and they make an impression on you quickly. Sure, bobcats and falcons are more impressive than bluebellys, but don’t expect to handle any soon. Herps, unlike the other vertebrates at Pepperwood, offer hands-on and intimate experience with sentient creatures of our hills. Hold scaly nature in your hand; see what this ecosystem’s made of. I can watch them breathe, feel their tongues flick me and their muscles weave, see them look me in the eye—no binoculars involved. Science gets real beyond the data sheets.

That’s the real story here, the most meaningful part of all this. Though as citizen scientists less is expected of us than in academia, the data we collect is solid, and looking at trends in our statistics tells us loads about our herps that can’t be learned by simply picking them up. That said, hard numbers lack feeling, and wouldn’t be relevant without the connections we make with animals in the field. If I’ve taken anything from the herp survey, it’s that the scientific process includes more than what’s on our clipboards. That the numbers are just a big, organized extension of the same curiosity I felt catching lizards as a kid.  Jay Scherf

Northwestern Gartersnake (Thamnophis ordinoides )
being held by blog post author Jay Scherf
Jay Scherf is a Pepperwood volunteer who worked on our "Herp Survey" this summer. This project records counts of reptile and amphibian species present at  specific locations throughout the preserve for the  purpose of monitoring  distribution and population  over time. Jay has written for North Bay Bohemian and is currently a student at UC Berkeley.

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